What I Learned From Being in the Dragons’ Den
I have been watching the popular BBC TV show, Dragons’ Den, for many years. When it’s on, it’s one of the highlights of my week. Even if you don’t watch it, I’m sure you have heard of it – the show looks for fantastic business ideas or products that are investment-ready. Start-ups pitch to a panel of successful businessmen and women, aka the Dragons, who decide whether they want to invest in the business. Dragons’ Den has seen a number of successful start-up businesses and entrepreneurs pass through it doors, with many going on to become household names – Trunki, Levi Roots and Tangle Teezer to name a few.
I think I’m drawn to the show because I enjoy being in business and I like watching fellow business people who are passionate about their products and willing to take risks. I also think the Dragons are sometimes comical, especially when they play up to the cameras and start picking on each other. In my view, it’s good TV.
In all the years I have been watching the show, it never once entered my head that I might be asked to audition for it one day.
When a BBC researcher first contacted me back in March 2016, I genuinely thought a mistake had been made and that they had emailed the wrong person, especially since they referred to me as an ‘entrepreneur’. I was asked if I wanted to audition for the show, but I had only just launched Just For Tummies and I simply didn’t feel ready for it. When I was contacted again at the beginning of 2017, however, I found myself giving it serious consideration. I didn’t tell many people – just family and a few close friends, but the news was met with mixed feelings. There were words of encouragement and words of warning; ultimately it had to be my decision, and it wasn’t a hard one to make. I remember reading an interview with the editor of Red magazine who said the best advice she had ever been given was to ‘always go to the meeting’ – to always say yes to connecting with people as it can set you on paths you may not have known about. So I decided to do just that.
Into the Den I stepped, not knowing what to expect. It was an incredible experience, and I have lost count of the lessons I learned. I had a hard time choosing which ones to share with you, which is why this post is on the lengthy side, so you might want to grab a cuppa before you read on.
Lesson 1: Dragons’ Den offers a steep learning curve – but it’s fun!
Nothing prepares you for the amount of work required before appearing on the show. To sum up a very intense process, it comprised a 45-minute telephone interview, a trip to BBC Media City in Salford to do a 2-minute pitch in front of a couple of the Dragons’ Den production team, which was filmed and shown to the senior production team. This was followed by the gruelling process of due diligence where every ‘i’ had to be dotted and every ‘t’ had to be crossed. They wanted to know the ins and outs of my Just For Tummies business, as well as lots of personal information. Suffice it to say that Alexander Graham Bell was not wrong when he said, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”
Anyone who knows me knows how much I love learning; I believe that it is a constant process. If you stop learning, you stop living. It’s not always conscious, and I think this was the case for me while I was in the thick of the preparation stage for the show. Looking back now, I know I was learning with the experience on a subliminal level. It was incredibly valuable for me to be able to step out of my comfort zone and shake things up a bit.
Lesson 2: I am ready to pitch to anyone, anytime, anywhere!
I knew that my pitch was the single thing that could get the investment I wanted for the business, and equally importantly, to highlight the health epidemic we are faced with when it comes to digestive and bowel disorders/diseases – these things mattered (and continue to matter), and so I practised and practised and practised. Whenever I had the opportunity, I would recite my pitch – in front of my husband Kevin (who never tired of hearing it, as I think he was just as excited about everything as I was), in front of the mirror, at the clinic, in the car, pretty much anywhere!
I wanted to show how passionate I am about my products and my mission, I wanted my body language and tone of voice to communicate enthusiasm and confidence, and I wanted to look good in the process, so I dressed to kill in a beautiful navy blue 1950s style Ghost dress and a pair of powder blue heels.
When I pitched in front of the production team at Media City, the first take was seven minutes long. It took another five takes to get it down to two minutes. The two girls from the production team were great. They made me feel very
comfortable and gave me tips to make those two minutes really count.
Lesson 3: How blissfully naïve I can be!
Due diligence sounds impressive, but I had no idea at the beginning of the process exactly what it entailed, or the time it would take to complete it. It took weeks of work, and I felt as though I had gone into hiding at times, but doing it made me realise that I have a sound business. When I worked at Yorkshire Bank, I remember how in the early 90s, the base rate went up to 15%; I also worked through at least two recessions, so I know what high interest rates and ‘boom and bust’ economies do to businesses, and I was determined that would not happen to Just For Tummies.
I allocated a certain amount of time each day for the due diligence. I couldn’t have done any of it without the support of my ‘Tummy Team’, mainly Colin, my son and co-director of the business. He put together the oodles of financial information needed – cash flow forecasts, profit and loss figures…and lots more besides (you can tell this is not my domain, right?!) It was a happy moment when this stage of the journey was over.
Lesson 4: My gut instincts are usually right
The preparation paid off – I got through and was offered a filming slot in the Den. I knew deep down that I had succeeded; they approached me to audition for the show twice after all, which gave me the confidence to take them up on the offer. Knowing that they had an interest in my business was incredibly motivating and I was determined to show Just For Tummies in the best light possible. I was one of 65 entrepreneurs selected from a staggering 10,000 applicants so I think I did pretty well, and it filled me with a great sense of personal achievement. I’m glad I followed my inner compass – it was the right thing to do.
Lesson 5: Appearances can be deceptive
Filming took place in Manchester, not too far from Media City, and because I lived more than 40 miles away from the film studios, the BBC paid for my travelling expenses and an overnight stay in a hotel near the studio. I was with six other entrepreneurs ready to showcase their product/s. We each had our own BBC researcher, mine was Lauren. She’d been with me from the very beginning, guiding me through the due diligence process. Lauren met me at the studio on the day of filming and helped me set up my Just For Tummies products on a table, with fresh vegetables and herbs to add a little flair (although I think they can stand alone because they are so beautiful!) I rehearsed my pitch and the walk-through to the infamous lift. Then I had my hair and make up done, and waited to be called up in front of the Dragons. It was all very exciting!
I had prepared well, and I was looking forward to presenting in front of the Dragons. There was a lot of waiting around; I was actually ready to face the Dragons at 9am but it was 4.30pm by the time my turn came. When I saw how nervous the other entrepreneurs were in the green room, I realised that I wasn’t as rattled as they were – or so it seemed! I can look calm on the outside but a nervous wreck on the inside. On this particular day, I was focused on delivering the best pitch I could, and enjoying the experience. I felt prepared, I had my pitch off to a ‘t’, I had all my figures, so I strode into the Den calm, cool and composed. At first I was surprised by how small and ordinary the Dragons looked, compared to their larger than life images on the TV. Looks can be deceiving though and it wasn’t too long before I found myself pitching my wits in front of the Dragons.
Lesson 6: I can voice my opinion in front of some of the most successful business people in the UK
When I delivered my pitch to the Dragons, I made sure that I looked at each one of them directly. They didn’t faze me at all. I was energised and their comments did not put me off my stride. I knew, investment or no investment, I would remain as resolute as ever in my plans and ambitions to make Just For Tummies the UK’s leading digestive health company.
I went into the Den with an open mind and open to any feedback, including constructive criticism on my Just For Tummies products. The Dragons, Peter Jones, Deborah Meaden, Touker Suleyman, Jenny Campbell and Tej Lalvani certainly kept me on my toes, especially Tej Lalvani, MD of Vitabiotics, and a new Dragon this series. We had a discussion about what claims can and cannot be made for certain food supplements. I am perfectly aware of the claims around food supplements. Some food supplements have claims allowed by the Medicines Health Regulatory Agency and some do not. Those that do not have allowable claims have years of traditional and anecdotal evidence supporting their efficacy and I should know, having been a natural health therapist for over 27 years, and having carried out over 80,000 consultations and treatments. I have treated thousands of people with common digestive and bowel disorders whose symptoms have dramatically reduced and quality of life improved from the use supplements, including my own.
I had encouraging comments from Touker Suleyman and Peter Jones, who made lovely remarks about the designs and branding, and although I didn’t get investment, they wished me good luck and told me not to give up.
It wasn’t all serious stuff in the Den – we had a bit of a laugh too, as I did mention that I was a colon hydrotherapist, which caused a bit of a titter. I’m well and truly used to this kind of reaction when I tell people what my profession is. It’s either one of mirth, embarrassment or distaste, but it doesn’t bother me. I know how effective colon hydrotherapy is in successfully treating such conditions as IBS, chronic painful bloating and constipation, to name a few, so I’m always very comfortable talking about it.
Lesson 7: I am as good and as capable as the best of ‘em!
Going into the Den certainly showed me that there’s no need to be afraid because we are all the same, whether rich or poor, a multi-millionaire Dragon or someone like me just starting out in the world of food supplements and retail. Just because I come from a working class background, brought up on a council estate, a school leaver at the age of 16 with two O-Levels to my name, I shouldn’t have to feel inferior to anyone. And this experience reinforced that belief.
Lesson 8: I can handle the pressure
I stood in front of five influential and extremely wealthy Dragons, and I didn’t feel intimidated. In fact, it was very empowering. I stood my ground when the questioning got more intense, stuck up for my Just For Tummies brand and for colon hydrotherapy, and felt proud for doing it.
Lesson 9: I am still learning – and always will be
Being in the Den highlighted my naïveté in retail business, but in a good way. Learning is an ongoing, lifelong process after all. After appearing in the Den, I realised I have to think much smarter and play my cards closer to my chest. It’s time to start thinking less like a therapist and more like an entrepreneur. I was reminded of the importance of taking risks, feeling the fear, but not letting that fear cripple me. In Jo Malone’s autobiography, she writes about the crippling fear felt by many fledgling entrepreneurs. The fact that Jo felt this early in her business made me feel better, knowing that it wasn’t just me feeling it. The experience served as a timely reminder of why I set out on this journey, and how the journey has already provided so much lovely feedback from people whose health and wellbeing have been transformed after taking my products.
I am all the more determined to keep learning and grow the business so that I can reach more and more people who can benefit from the Just For Tummies range. Going into the Den reminded me that I am building a digestive and gut health community for the greater good, and I can do that whether I have investment from a Dragon or not.
I thank the BBC for the wonderful opportunity to appear in the Den and I thank the Dragons for, well, being the Dragons. I walked into the Den a therapist; I walked out an entrepreneur, all the more determined to make Just For Tummies the UK’s number one digestive health company.
Dragons image: courtesy of BBC