Saturday, November 28, 2009

How a freelance writer is asked to appear on CBC's Dragons Den (answer: I wasn't a freelance writer back then)

So, I was asked to appear on CBC’s Dragons Den.  I actually wrote a little article about it for the local paper a few years back, and I will post that excerpt here.  Looking back, it wasn’t a very good article, but I wasn’t much of a writer back then. I was into WEBSITES! (As this is from 2007, I will inject future Shelly in brackets wherever I feel necessary)

Within 1 month I had a request from CBC to appear in the den itself.  Seized by fear, I asked myself the question every small business owner asks at one point or another, “Is any publicity better than no publicity?”  I decided that having Kidswap’s name flogged across the country wasn’t such a bad thing, and made myself get on that plane to Toronto. (I didn’t mention in this article but while on that plane to Toronto, they had to pull out the oxygen mask because we hit a bad patch of turbulence over the great lakes and I had a full scale panic attack. The flight attendant actually grabbed the sleeping idiot beside me and almost tossed him into the aisle. Then she helped me breath while I calmed down. As people were obviously concerned, she said “Don’t worry everyone, she is fine. She’s going to be on reality television.”  No one asked for my autograph, but I could tell they were intrigued!)

(And now, back to the den) As is stands, there was good reason to be afraid of the Dragon’s Den.

I stood at the top of a long flight of stairs.  A strong yeasty aroma  surrounded me in the fermentation room of Toronto’s Distillery District.   Despite pep talks from the producers, I was shaking in my shoes.  Descending the dark staircase, I found my mark and opened my mouth to start my pitch. 30 seconds later, my 2 minutes of ‘uninterrupted speaking’ was over as I was peppered with questions (I’ll go with the word “attacked” here instead. Yes, attacked works much better than “peppered” in this case).   Immediately I realized why they called them ‘Dragons’.  I was being attacked (see?) with queries and condemnations about my business model, my lack of market knowledge, and the competitive target audience I was striving for.  In the space of 3 minutes it was being decided that what I really had was nothing more than a hobby that couldn’t go anywhere.

Then an interesting thing happened; I started arguing.

I thought about all of the people who sold on the site, all of the parents who eschew large corporate sites for buying and selling, the small businesses whom needed places to advertise and gain exposure.  They were attacking my baby, and I was irate.  My shining moment came when poised a question by dotcom millionaire Robert Herjavec, “Come on, why would a mother in Newmarket, Ontario sell on Kidswap?”  To that I grabbed a sweater from a pile of props (namely sweaters that they asked me to bring in as display) I had brought and stated very firmly, “I purchased THIS from a mom in Newmarket, Ontario.  She makes a killing on Kidswap.”  He and I looked at each other for a moment of silence, after which he uttered the dreaded words “I’m out.”

Each Dragon agreed with Robert, and decided against the investment quickly.  My eyes rested on Kevin O’Leary, creator of the Learning Company and investment guru for the television program ‘Squeeze Play’, who had yet to give a final decision.  “I like you.  I think you may have something here.”  Long pause.  I attempt to remain upright and continue breathing, but at this point I am sweating to the roots of my hair.  He continued, “If I hadn’t lost so much money in dotcom’s, I really think I’d be into this.”  Pause again as he taps his pencil on the pile of money sitting beside him. “Ok, well, I’m going to have to say no I think.  I’m out.”

I felt a mixture of disappointment and relief that the moment I anticipated for a month was over, but as I was walking away my only thought was “I almost had one of them!”

I felt euphoric.

I was a mom of three children, running a business from my kitchen that, although extremely popular, barely generated any income.  I had forced myself to go in front of 5 millionaires and pitch an idea that I had already made a reality. (Yes I did, and I am still proud of myself for that) If I never did anything again, at least I can say that I took that risk and showed a passion and belief in my own ideas.
Lessons from the Den?  The greatest gift entrepreneurs can give themselves is to listen to those with experience.   Although they are millionaires who own companies that provide pizza that I regularly eat and underwear that I admire from the mall windows, they are smart and down to earth.  Their assessment of my business may just have been correct, but it was the spunk I took into the den that keeps me dreaming and working toward my goal of profitable ecommerce.

So there you have it in a nutshell.  I no longer work toward a goal of profitable ecommerce, but I do still have fond memories of what Kidswap was at one point.  Unfortunately for me, Dragons Den was the tip of the slippery slope I went down that year. I needed a new look to the web site before I was going to be broadcast on the show, so I hired a few idiots along the way.  Not a good move on my part, but one I can finally forgive me for. 

Although this doesn’t directly have anything to do with my writing, it does show you how I went from being a complete ecommerce addict to not really caring at all, and eventually finding what I’m really good at: Writing.  I look back almost grateful.  (I am, however, still vindictive to those who scammed me! Watch out!)

Thursday, November 19, 2009

My biggest screw up - The CBC Dragon's Den that wasn't

I saw a Tweet today from Anderson Cooper at CNN about someone's 'Biggest Screw Up'.  Yes, I know that everyone has their moments in life where they mess up big time, so it was nice to see someone else talking about their biggest screw ups in their career. It also made me think about my biggest screw up, which I have to say was CBC's Dragons Den.  I didn't specifically screw up on Dragons' Den, but everything else I screwed up after was because of that show. 

Have you ever known anyone asked to be on this program? No? Well now you can say you do. In August of 2006, I received an email from a friend saying "Hey, apply for this."  It was an open casting call for Dragons Den, which had just come to Canada after being successful in the UK.

At the time, I owned a business called Kidswap.  Technically, I still own the trademarked name "Kidswap" and the web site (with a friend who is a partner), but it sits lonely and only occasionally used.  I'd have to delve into that one later, but for the purpose of this blog post imagine a bustling web site, with thousands of users and hundreds of ads being posted daily. It was a very large community, very busy, and really cool.  I loved it.  It was my passion.  The site is why I used that name as my twitter signature @kidswap .  The ties that bind I suppose.

At any rate, I submitted an email to the producers and forgot about it.  About a month later I received an email back asking me to audition. Of course I was knocked out of my chair by this. I had just been featured in the Province newspaper about a month before, so as far as the site being busy, etc. it was good timing.   I had three little kids at the time, and a decidedly busy husband, but I wanted to go for it.  I went down on audition day, stood in front of the camera, and smiled a lot.  I was so nervous I was shaking.  The producer commented on my peidcure (Thank you Spa Utopia) and I was out of there.  I left knowing that I had made a good impression.  Then, as any busy mom does, I forgot about it again.

3 weeks later, I ran into the library to return some book.  My phone rang while I was in there and my husband answered it.  When I got back to the car, he said that there was a message for me.  Reading from it almost made me pass out.  Dragon's Den wanted me to call them, they wanted me on the show!!  I cannot remember specifically what I said or did, but I was so scared and excited at that point. It was really incredible, that this little web site I put up in my spare time was getting national attention from a bunch of investors in Toronto.

I called them back when I got home, and I was told that I was their top choice in Western Canada to come out and do the show.  They had to have me there.  Imagine the shock. Imagine the awe. Imagine the complete panic!!  They would send me my airfare, and I was set to go in two weeks.

I will be back to finish up. As is the life of a mom, children who are hungry/dirty/waking up come before writing.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Peek a boo - Write a page - Wipe a nose - Write 4 words

You've all read/experienced the challenges of working from home when you have your kids with you.  It's almost impossible, and some days you can take the almost out of that sentence and realize that yes, it is impossible to work from home.  Boredom, rain, cooking, cleaning, or teething all contribute to children being unable or unwilling to sit/stand/or entertain themselves. It's gotten so that I think the back of my closet is a good place to be, and I have hidden several small chocolate bars and a couple bottles of water if I have to hit the deck unexpectedly.
How do you combat this eternal struggle, the constant battle between your desire to write productively and be with your children? The obvious answer is daycare.  Some of us have that, some of us do not.  I for one, do not.  My littlest is 4 months old, and I have strong views about leaving him with anyone. 

Just for fun, let's run through a few scenarios that may or may not help you with your current child attending dilemma:
  • Leave them with your husband/boyfriend/SO - Ok, if this is an option for you, take it by all means.   This is the path of least resistance as far as writing, and if you know he/she/whomever is going to be home at the end of the day, you will look forward to that small piece of heaven/time and it will get you through.  This is not an option for me, as my husband works evenings/travels/ and has an erratic schedule. So good for you, not so good for me.
  • Crayons - There is a reason that Crayola is still profitable. Thousands of desperate mothers slap some paper and crayons on the table with the wishful thinking that perhaps they (your children) will color for a period of time.  Crayola has not planned for crayon fights, markers on walls and doorways, and those children who would rather peel off the paper than color on the page. If it works, go with it. If not, on to another idea.
  • Video games - My house is a haven for XBox (husbands), Wii (kids and husbands), Nintendo DS (kids, often stolen by husband), PS2 (bought for husband's birthday one year) and PSP (rarely used, desired by husband then thrown in a drawer. Do you see a trend here?) It's a rainy, wet day in Vancouver.  Typical weather for this time of year.  What to do after your school snack and homework? Find a video game and leave mama in the corner for 1/2 hour. With this buffet of options, you would think that's an easy choice? Not so! Much arguing ensues and my 1/2 hour has gone to breaking up the fight.  When they are all happily playing, baby has woke up and I'm back to peek a boo.
  • Begging - Now I don't condone begging because it makes your children respect you less, but I have been known to say "Please, please Mommy has to finish this. Can I give you a snack and a book for 10 minutes?" Then, I take my computer and go sit in the bathroom.  No, not on the toilet. Get your mind out of the gutter people.
Although these options will not work for everyone, this is what I encounter the most during my day. I frantically write, write, write whenever I can.  I overcome the obstacles because I truly love to write, it makes me happy, and some days it's really difficult to find one thing to make you happy.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Conflict Resolution - Mom style!

As I drove my kids home from school the other day, I listened with half an ear as my six year old recounted his experience with show and tell that day. He had struggled that morning with what to bring, and came to the door armed with two teddy bears that he’s loved since he was a baby. Thinking more along the lines of him not having room in his bag and not what bringing bears to school could do to a boy in Grade One, I steered him in the direction of a family photo recently taken in front of the Mickey Pumpkin during our last trip to Disney. Of course I am distracted as we get his bag into the car, and it wasn’t until after school that I realized he did sneak his coveted ‘Buzz Bear’ to school that day. Showing the bear off to his friends, he was quite surprised to see his friend ‘Joe’ cover his mouth with his hands and laugh. I looked in the review mirror as he showed me what the kid did to mock him, and was instantly irate.

“Joe is a tool”, said I, before thinking it through and realizing what came out of my mouth.

“He’s a WHAT??” asked my son. Helpfully, my 8-year-old daughter explained, “Mom thinks he’s an idiot.”

Oh my. This is when it hit me. I have not done a very good job hiding myself from my kids.

I understand that, in the grand scheme of things, my children live with me in my house and are therefore going to be exposed to the unavoidable verbal onslaught that often comes with my day-to-day life. I have four children, life is stressful, and I don’t generally hide that.

It made me start wondering how much of our real personality we hide from our children, and which is better? Full disclosure with slight modifications, which is generally the way I go or the attitude that we can protect our kids from the world just by the way we react. Never is this more important than when dealing with life’s little issues, which have the effect of a massive roof caving in snowball when left unattended.

Let’s take an example. You are fighting with your husband and it’s about money. Things start to get very heated. Do you take it behind closed doors, knowing that your older children are probably eaves dropping and leaving them out there to fend for themselves or do you argue in front of them, committing yourself not to raise your voice but clearly expressing your anger? 1950’s style Mom would not say a word, continue to clean up from dinner, and if needed, would discuss the matter after the children are in bed. From experience, I don’t know many women who would be willing to wait to have that discussion, especially as everything in our lives is currently so busy and urgent that if you wait, your little chat may never happen.

Should children see us arguing or dealing with conflict? I say yes, but I temper that with moderation.

If you shield them from these types of situations, they will grow up and be shocked as they see other people outside of your home deal with conflict. You will then have missed your opportunity to teach them the correct way of solving a problem. Not only that, I really believe that because it would be so overwhelming to be suddenly thrown into dealing with big issues, they will avoid conflict like the plague. I call this the “head in sand” approach to conflict, and I’ve seen it in my husband and other family members. I don’t like it, and I don’t want my kids to grow up like that.

When they see us dealing with problems, they will soon realize that there is almost always a solution. You can have an argument in front of your kids, deal with it by talking it out in a heated manner, then show them that the problem is solved and move on.

The key here? The problem was solved.

Life is full of problems both big and small, you can’t keep them in a bubble. Children, from a very early age, need to know how to deal with that.

I tend to say what I think in front of my children. If a teacher sends home a rude note about not practicing sight cards enough, I have a hard time biting my tongue and not discussing this with my husband immediately upon reading it. Being the happy little eavesdroppers that they are, they listen in and then ask me questions as to why I am unhappy about the note. What do you say to that? Should I lie? As I have a very strict ‘No Lie Policy”, it’s not something that I would consider. I simply explain that not everyone does nice things, that my opinion is clearly different from the teachers, and that I am going to deal with the situation. What do they learn from this? Once again, Mom has a problem but she’s taking are of it.

I am the way I am as a parent because I’ve been exposed to the extreme opposite of conflict resolution. I grew up in a family where an argument would last for hours and occasionally punches would be exchanged between family members. Yes, that was scary for a little kid growing up. I had real worries as a five year old, including if that argument between dad and my uncle never stopped, someone was going to get a black eye. Yelling was second nature to me; it was how people expressed themselves. What I never, ever saw was a solution to a problem. I grew up thinking that maybe it wasn’t possible to deal with stuff, that huge black clouds hung over our heads for years and years, never to let up.

In contrast, my husband’s family does not fight and argue. They may have had heated arguments or disagreements, but once they did the blinders would go on and everyone would pretend it never happened. For me, it’s like being stuck in a vortex. Not keeping talking about it? Not acceptable! We have to beat this issue to death.

For my children, I have taken what I experienced and armed with my Psychology degree, have come to a middle ground. I will not shield them, but I will not pretend it never happened either. If they are occasionally exposed to my true beliefs about their friends, teachers, or what have you, I will temper that by sitting them down and explaining why I feel that way and that my feelings do not represent everyone. I encourage my kids to talk about what they are feeling, and if they think that their friend Joe is a tool, I let them say that as well. Just as long as they don’t say that in class!

I know there are a lot of moms out there like me, who need to find the middle ground between how they were raised and what they know is right. As far as I am concerned, it starts with how you express yourself to your children. I don’t hide myself or my feelings from my kids. When trying to figure out a problem, I ask myself what I would be teaching them by avoiding the problem altogether.


Then I ask myself what I would teach them by screaming about it for hours and hours.

Once again, nothing.

Remember: Sand is for building sandcastles, not for hiding from the world. Keep your eye on the prize and find the happy middle ground that is your children’s future.