Our story with Dragons’ Den started back in January 2012 when Desmond joined as our first full-time employee. He had heard about MappedIn two months prior at a pitch competition where my co-founder Mitchell was speaking. After the competition, Desmond introduced himself: he had already launched successful businesses in web design, clothing, and non-profit. He thought he could help develop the Hong Kong market where he still had many connections. We jumped on the offer and invited him to start full-time whenever he was ready.
Two months later, Desmond showed up for work without a job description or contract. Later that week, he had his first great idea – to audition for Dragons’ Den. The day of the audition, I was in Toronto for meetings and the others were busy building the product. So Desmond, armed with a week’s worth of experience at MappedIn, went out alone to win over the Dragons’ Den producers that day. We still have no idea what exactly he told them. But their response was something like, “Desmond, MappedIn is amazing. You have to be on the show . . . Fine, Hongwei the CEO can come too. We’ll see you in April!”
Desmond always recounts that those two hours sitting at the picnic table, hidden away behind the studio, staring down two lawyers – that was the real Dragons’ Den. What people saw on TV was just TV.
There was much rejoicing.
Then we got back to work. We had just launched for our first major client, Conestoga Mall, and were busy interviewing users, patching bugs, and working on improvements. Our sales pipeline was filling up and we just had an angel investor come on board. It wasn’t until late March that we started preparing for our day in the Den. Since we’d pitched at competitions and in front of investors countless times, I knew our story was a good one. Though even I didn’t expect the reaction we got – all five Dragons wanted in on the deal. The producers had never seen it either. There was more rejoicing.
One thing most people don’t know about the Den is what happens immediately after. As Desmond and I were leaving the studio, we were greeted by two men at the door. They congratulated us on the verbal deal we just struck and introduced themselves – they worked for two of the Dragons in the deal and needed us to sign some papers. Things were getting real. Luckily I was familiar with term sheets, having just gone through the process with a private investor. There were a few clauses that seemed unusual to me. I politely explained that we would need our legal counsel to review before signing. Two hours later, we finally got up, shook their hands, and agreed on next steps for closing.
Desmond always recounts that those two hours sitting at the picnic table, hidden away behind the studio, staring down two lawyers – that was the real Dragons’ Den. What people saw on TV was just TV. And despite our excitement at the pending deal and what we knew would be a good episode, we quickly got back to work. It would be a long summer: new customers to support, problems to solve, deals to close. The money wasn’t in the bank yet.
One thing I mentioned during the taping that didn’t make the final cut was that we were talking to another potential investor and partner at the time, Esri Canada. Esri is the largest mapping software company in the world. They invented GIS (Geographical Information Systems) and their product suite, ArcGIS, is the gold standard in geomatics. We really wanted them involved too; comgining the technological and business experience of Esri Canada with the network and acumen of the Dragons.
In the end, after months of negotiation, we closed a deal with just Esri Canada. There wasn’t enough room for everyone (the pie only goes to 100%) and Esri was most active in pursuing the deal and getting involved with our business. To be fair, we were their first investment, whereas the Dragons have done hundreds of deals.
Of course, none of us regret going in. It was way cool to meet the five Dragons. They were all incredibly nice, even Mr. O’Leary, and I still do my best to stay in touch. And when the episode aired, people from all over the world called to congratulate us, ask about the product, and offer to do business together. It was unbelievable how many people watched the show.
Our story is very different now. We’re up to 18 staff, have launched across Canada with amazing clients and just signed deals with partners overseas. We’ve raised over $2M in funding and grown our revenues six-fold. We’re much more certain of what we’re doing now. As brick and mortar businesses around the world go digital, we are digitizing the last piece of paper they still rely on – their floor plan – the first thing people see when they walk in the door and the tool they use to plan their operations, allocate for tenants, and assess their metrics. We are building the digital floor plan as the foundation for customer service, venue management, and countless other applications. It’s incredibly exciting and each week is new.
People occasionally still come up to us and say, “Hey, you were the guy on Dragons’ Den!” I always laugh and share the story. It was a wild ride. And luckily, it was just the beginning.
Bio: Hongwei Liu
Hongwei Liu is a co-founder at MappedIn. He has led the companys growth from the three-person founding team out of the VeloCity residence to the 18-person operation based out of their downtown Kitchener office. He was born in China, grew up in Ottawa, and came to Kitchener-Waterloo to study Electrical Engineering at the University of Waterloo. Today, Hongwei focuses on dreaming big, talking to customers, and finding amazing people to help make the dream a reality.