With a little more age and experience, Manjit Minhas might never have started her business. “At the age of 19, you think the world is fair because, really, up until that point it is—to you,” she muses. Youthful naiveté and a keen eye for market gaps led Minhas and her brother to start making a private-label line of spirits for bars and restaurants, and then to move into budget beer; today their Calgary-based conglomerate includes one of the country’s largest independent alcohol businesses, plus ventures in construction and media.
More than once in the intervening years, Minhas has faced challenges she describes as anything but fair: regulatory hurdles slowing her products’ spread, retail monopolies denying access to their store shelves and larger competitors muscling in on her turf. But all that “nonsense,” as she describes it, hasn’t dimmed her enthusiasm for the work. “If success was that easy, then everybody would be doing it,” she points out.
Plenty of entrepreneurs have heard that message from Minhas of late, thanks to her role on the CBC hit Dragons’ Den. In her first season on the show, Minhas emerged as the fieriest of the investors, unafraid to clash with her fellow Dragons or give the pitchers exceptionally forthright feedback. (“It’s a very silly idea, it’s badly made [and] the valuation is out of this world,” she told one particularly hapless inventor.) She also didn’t hesitate to dole out her money when a worthy venture presented itself and claims to have the highest close rate in the decade the show has been on the air. Minhas says she thinks of these investments the same way she does stocks—as a gamble. “I think of that as money that hopefully will come back, but maybe not,” she says.
One way Minhas reduces the risk of her investments is to focus on markets or models she knows well, particularly consumer packaged goods, and manufacturing and distribution operations. While she has tendered the odd offer to a tech business, Minhas has largely steered clear of the sector due to her lack of expertise. She says too many of today’s young aspiring entrepreneurs are fixated on founding unicorn startups, focusing on the handful of fabulously successful examples rather than the many, many more that don’t make it. “It’s a get-rich-quick thing, and tech can absolutely do that for you,” says Minhas. “Whereas with beer, it doesn’t happen overnight. But once you build it, it doesn’t disappear overnight, either.”