Life after No: Shattered, not shaken

Written by Rick Spence

Appearing on Dragons' Den taught these entrepreneurs many hard lessons in fundraising. The most valuable? Rejection can be a blessing in disguise. Rick Silas, Silastial Glass Works, Sidney, B.C. Product: Patented flexible glass for decorative applications Rick Silas is a Vancouver Island sculptor turned reluctant entrepreneur. He applied last year to Dragons' Den in order to promote his proprietary, patent-protected material: a "shattered" type of tempered glass that, without being heated, bends like plastic. Even as a student of sculpture in Montreal, Silas wanted to create his own medium; today, his "Silastial" glass is also a commercial building product that creates glittering architectural accessories such as walls, backsplashes, tables and countertops. "I call it €˜plywood glass'," says Silas. "There's nothing in the market to compete with it." Strangely enough, one of Silas's earliest fans and best customers is Arlene Dickinson, owner of Calgary-based Venture Communications and the latest addition to the cast of Dragons. Dickinson has bought $20,000 worth of Silastial glass to decorate her offices, including a 20-metre ribbon of glass that winds around a set of stair railings. With designers and builders across North America showing growing interest in his product, Silas, 56, appeared on the Den in 2006 to raise funds to upgrade his production facility and "get some mentoring." He wanted help licensing his techniques to manufacturers, thereby turning his $100,000-a-year business into a money machine and giving him more time to pursue his art. His trip was a smashing success. The glass sheets he had packed into a suitcase were shattered to bits en route. Staying at a friend's home in Toronto, Silas stayed up all night replicating his glass techniques with plate glass and "lots and lots of silicone." Still, Dragons Jim Treliving and Laurence Lewin loved Silas's vision, offering him $200,000 and a 5% royalty stream in return for his patents. Silas pushed back, finally accepting $300,000 plus a 7.5% royalty stream. But he soon learned that agreement on price marks just the beginning of a deal, not the end. Although he sent his new partners samples of his work and referred them to architects who understand Silastial's potential, they seemed to lose interest. By September, the deal was dead. "They didn't understand how to turn it into money," says Silas. "I think I confused them with too much information." If he could do it over, he says, he would focus on pictures of products he has made rather than fretting over samples and the production process. Although Silas was disappointed, he had an ace up his sleeve. Six months earlier, a retired Edmonton entrepreneur walked into Silas's studio. Jim Alexander had recently sold a chain of optical stores and was now bored with hanging out on his yacht in Victoria. Impressed with Silas's work, he offered to help turn the studio into a global business. Silas liked the idea of having a knowledgeable business partner but didn't know Alexander, so he proposed a counter-offer: Alexander could work in the business for free, learn the techniques and see how things work out. By October, Alexander's offer was looking a lot better. He was working hard and had arranged for Silastial to move into a 2,000-square-foot production space. The artist and the entrepreneur struck a deal: they would each get 50% of a new company formed to market Silas's process. The new company would pay a royalty to Silas's company, and he would hang on to his patents. Today, Silastial is working on a major U.S. distribution deal and hoping to win a $50,000 sculpture commission. It's also fielding numerous inquiries stemming from Dragons' Den and a subsequent profile on Discovery Channel. "It's very time-consuming," says Silas, but he's confident the new deal will help him return to full-time sculpting within five years. While he's bullish on the partnership, he notes that he and his new partner are very different. "I'm very liberal; he's very corporate," says Silas. "I don't think we even like each other very much. But we respect each other, we trust each other, and that's most important."

Originally appeared on PROFITguide.com