The Affable Entrepreneur
Evan Davis brands me the Affable Entrepreneur. So I guess my poker face approach never really happened.
So what really happened that day at Dragon’s Den? What did the final edit reveal and hide? And what does it feel like to be in front of the Dragons? Was I hard done by, or was it a fair cop?
The “green room” was home to the make-up ladies and chaps. I was attacked regularly by a heavily made-up lady armed with an orange skin-tone colorant doped brush. I had to look out for her approach and firmly close my eyes as she came in for the dab. Literally everybody at the BBC from Directors and Editors to handlers, guides and make-up artists, were all completely charming, engaging, interested, encouraging and switched-on.
The early morning round-up of entrepreneurs (we were all instructed to turn up for a 7am prop meeting) meant we got to know each other reasonably well. 4 entrepreneurs were lined up; a dog food manufacturer, someone who made lubricants in bright green bottles and an inventor of a dance mat. I was the only solo entrepreneur there with the rest bringing an entourage of dancing girls, performing dogs, handlers, co-directors and relatives. This gave the green-room a real sense of show-biz as dancers compared techniques and dog handlers competed over which high profile TV programme their dogs had been in . We had an Alsatian with a barking role in Game of Thrones for example which seems to trump the half-breed collie with regular trot-on part in East Enders.
Enter the Dragon
Before you enter the Den there is a lot of pre-filming of you going in and out of their lift and waiting in a dank corridor. You’re held for an unnaturally long time waiting for a green light to be lit. All the while about 10 Go-Pro style cameras are strategically placed to film you looking at portraits of the Dragons, picking your nose, adjusting your attire, flattening your eyebrows or picking your bum. I had the feeling of isolation until a very small man turned up with some sticky-backed plastic to tame the Brecon Beacons Map I had tied around my neck.
My piece starts at 30 mins.
When I did enter the Den it was with a genuine feeling of “Wow!”. And overall I think I had lost the bit of my preparation where I had to think of these guys as “ordinary people”. I was a little star-struck.
I can track my emotional state during the pitch as this; “Wow! This is real?”, then a good deal of positive engagement as they got their maps and seemed to like them; then an out-of-body experience as some pretty obvious questions came from angles I didn’t expect. This left me less than able to fight back on the objections that were tabled and unable to use the set-pieces I’d prepared. Genuinely a feeling like going into an exam over prepared for the specifics.
The 3 minute uninterrupted pitch is a key feature of the Dragon’s Den process. Mine gave a little background on me, the history of escape and evasion maps and how SplashMaps had modernised with the best digital print and tech. We wanted Dragon assistance to improve our higher margin propositions for the UK and USA markets (namely personalisation and more apparel products like interactive scarves and neck warmers). On the day the pitch went reasonably well, though little of the pitch was actually broadcast.
A slight flaw was when I dropped the recently snipped paper map I was using. My BBC handler, Nigel, insisted on taking the front cover off and at least 1/8th of the paper also as the features were “characteristic of the Michellin brand” and could breach branding rules at the Beeb. The reduced size possibly reduced the “cumbersomeness-of-it-all” point I was trying to make, so it may have been helpful that I dropped the paper map to underline the point (though this really was due to nerves).
The pitch ran well and I felt that the whole product idea was clear, our reason for wanting investment had been laid out and the forward plans would have sounded sensible.
After providing the most beguiling smile as the first Dragon I could see when drawing back the blinds on my product display, Sarah was the first to ask questions after my pitch.
“I know about the gift market, and I even buy jigsaws of Ordnance Survey maps for friends” she began. She had such a strong belief that OS made these gift items themselves that she returned to the same arguments even after I took the time to describe OS’s partner programme and the way that products are made by partners. “I don’t get it” she concluded about the product later. To her we were just licensing maps and selling them on. To make it as a gift supplier we needed a larger portfolio of gifts (thankfully she never mentioned my pet-hate tea towels!). She felt that Ordnance Survey, if they saw potential in it, would simply copy our idea and use their immense market presence to take the whole market (really, she didn’t get it). Naturally this was a great opportunity for me to big-up our partnership with OS, after-all we’ve carried their branding on our leaflets and stands at shows where they would have had no other presence for the past year. In return they had helped with some capital items we’d needed and provided a great salesman for one of our events. None of this was broadcast!
She was, however, noticeably delighted with her map, though slightly off-balanced that my background research led me to her precise address! She played with it throughout the 45 minutes of my time in the Den. Perhaps she became a map convert? Playfully she said she’d be nice as I “knew where she lived” But with that she was out.
Touker was possibly the worst response. He claimed that his house would have been on the A to Z map I gave him but wasn’t marked on (note to myself: giving someone 2 maps may make them more pleased, but also doubles the chances they’ll find fault… particularly when their ego is not satisfied). The personalised map I made of his place of birth (Cyprus) was roundly rejected “it feels like cardboard” with no reference at all to the carefully selected location. He asked about price and showed complete surprise that we were selling at £28.99 – approximately twice the price of the OS’s established weatherproof personalised maps.
Overall I was getting the impression that my focus on the gift market during the 3 minute pitch had moved the Dragons away from key benefits and they were ‘picking’ at the basis of the idea as a viable product. Touker made his £50M fortune supplying the high street stores with low priced garments from Turkey and was keen to share his knowledge of digital print. He had to ask if the A to Z was silk (it was a satin) and wanted to know what it cost. I gave him £4 as the price for the A to Z size satin map. He felt it should be 1-£2 if manufactured in Turkey.
When he bowed out (I think he was the third to back-out) I took the opportunity to state that I thought we could manufacture together. This caused him to pause and after thought he decided to re-iterate his decision not to invest.
Deborah looked pretty sour the whole time, though she did look happy with the map as a product when she received it. I did my best to engage with them all. And there were moments of laughter. She started with an unexpected attack on my valuation. Now the valuation was something I’d changed just a couple of hours before the filming. Darrel, the editor, had approached me to propose we go for £60k as the product was very “start-up”. I adjusted the percentage to 15% to make a valuation of £400k. The crew at the BBC were all in agreement that from their experience 60k tended not to get questioned, but anything higher would lead to a harsh set of questions.
So I was surprised when Deborah started with fury that I could value the business at that number. “How can you value the business at £700k?”. In the edit they covered this up very neatly, but still covered her misguided anger. Peter Jones and I had to help her with the maths. She later apologised and accepted this valuation as fair (did we see this in the edit?).
In explaining our brand ambassadors she lit-up when I mentioned John Blashford-Snell as she is a great friend of his daughter. Clearly his is a name that carries, though this came out a bit late in the process.
Now my cock-up. After having explained the valuation was based on year 2 Gross profit, she wanted to know the net. For some reason I said -£6k (actually the year 1 net profit), my later explanation of the previous years’ net profits led her to the conclusion that we are a loss making business and that we needed a lot of marketing help from her. She was not up for that sort of relationship and was the first to declare herself out.
I knew right then that I had given the wrong number and indicated two years of loss. However I didn’t feel I could correct this. And thus the out-of-body experience began.
Nick was always my preferred Dragon given his background in personalised gift cards as founder of MoonPig.com. As a lover of maps and a cyclist he declared he should be my target market. He found that the map was too floppy for how he uses one on his bike. He was highly interested in Ordnance Survey. On learning what we paid in license to the OS he really got agitated. We’ve hit a sweet spot in their pricing structure, so the royalty payments were no where near his expectations. I won’t repeat what he said about OS then, but I’m pleased they edited in his love of the OS and my agreement with that ;-).
Nick moved onto the plans for America and felt that the building of a brand in the USA from his own experience would be fabulously expensive. He felt that we didn’t have a “brand” at all, just a company name. Building a brand would take too much effort and for that reason he was out. This was “awful”. He was the guy I targeted, he was a self confessed map fan and cyclist and yet I don’t recall being able to get a word in as he seemed to want to talk his way to a “no” as quickly as possible.
There was a point in the process where he became interested in the neck warmers as a potential and Peter Jones tried to persuade him to put one on. Of course this may have made good telly, so I turned to the display table. No neck warmers apart from the one on the dummy! Then I remembered I was not allowed to touch anything on the display. With no prop table I froze there for a second. What do I do? I turned back to face the Dragons and pointed out the popularity of the neck warmer format, particularly for cyclists.
Between a Dragon and its dinner?
Now the other Dragons were getting twitchy. Perhaps a bad bit of timing as they’d tried to squeeze me in before lunch and it was now heading for 2pm (we’d been going 45 minutes). Do you ever want to get between a Dragon and its dinner?
Someone asked about how much we’d draw from the company, how much we drew last year, what I needed to live on and how many people relied upon this drawing. I thought my answer showed the right level of commitment.
As is often the case, Peter came in as the last of the Dragons to state his case. He was confused by the product “how would I use it?”, “Isn’t it a bit of a generous gift for most house-guests?”, “Would I wear it to the pub?”. Whilst I had answers to all these and he recalled that the maps were for real outdoor use, he would not be swayed even when I covered our recent agreement with the Duke of Edinburgh award, as I knew his daughter was doing the DofE.
He understood we had a potentially profitable niche to address but stated “You’ll sell a few, but it’s not exciting enough for me”. He said something about being disappointed that there was not more innovation whereupon I drew-upon the interactive map as an indication of our geo-tech direction and the higher margin “apparel” options. (None of this made the cut)
Despite me re-iterating that there was a technical pedigree behind the services, none of the Dragons seemed to value this believing “it had all been done before”.
And so I left the Den! As I turned to face the sliding doors Peter called out “you have to press the button on the left”. I’d even forgotten I had to pretend the set was real!
I was still pretty numb when this interview came around and concluded that I’d do better to make a clear differentiation between the gift market and the target market of outdoor types. Whilst all the BBC staff said I did really well under the pressure, I was left with the sense that the pressure really should not have mattered.
The Affable Entrepreneur
I’m actually happy that I came across as affable. It’s had a great effect on the people who’ve contacted me since. And I was really myself; a slightly nervous version of myself attempting to do some kind of camp Prince Charles impersonation, but really, just wanting to learn and progress. Too often we find ourselves fighting for things we don’t really want. Yes, it felt awful that Nick Jenkins didn’t want to get involved. I had built this opportunity up as anyone would under those studio lights, but, with each of the Dragons, there was a clear message that they didn’t get it and, without that enthusiasm, I don’t want to work with people that don’t share the idea that became a dream and is now a passion for me. Others can see that. Others get it instantly. These are the people I have worked with since and continue to grow along-side.