From the top · 18 November 2015

Dragons’ Den star Sarah Willingham: My investments are like children to me

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One of Willingham’s proudest investment was the London Cocktail Club in 2010, which has gone from strength to strength

The high-flying businesswoman spoke to Business Advice about the importance of collaboration within the startup community, her best investments to date and being the newest face on Dragons’ Den.

Entrepreneur Sarah Willingham made her name with restaurant chain Bombay Bicycle Club – turning a loss making chain of six restaurants into Britain’s largest Indian restaurant chain – and joined BBC’s Dragons’ Den this year.

Her passion for helping new businesses has also led to the recent launch of the Dot London Small Business Awards, to celebrate London’s thriving small business sector. Voting closes on January 8, with the winners announced on January 21. She discussed her participation with the awards and her ongoing aim to inspire more people to take the entrepreneurial plunge.

What advice would you give to any early-stage business?

Research, research research. It’s so important to know your market, your customer, your growth opportunities, your potential pitfalls and your competition inside out. Don’t commit to any business idea until you know it back to front and can talk about it in your sleep. If it’s a new idea, ask for as many opinions as you can and get lots of feedback. Talk to people, ask for help – business today, especially in the startup community, is great because it’s so collaborative and there is so much support available for small businesses. You just need to go out there and find it.

Get out there and meet people. Don’t hide behind your screen. Don’t email if you can phone and don’t phone if you can meet face to face.

What’s something you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your business career?

I can’t do everything! It’s ok to reach out and to get help when you need it. Now I strive to know the least in the room – I want to be surrounded by brilliant people who have been there and done it.

Think big. When I first started out on my own it seemed like such a mountain to climb – I thought I was thinking big but there were people around me who pushed me to think bigger and they were right!

What has been the most important piece of advice you’ve received on your journey to success?

Make sure you know why you’re setting out on this journey. It’s so important to understand what your drivers are – it’s during the tough times that this will really matter. It’s these drivers that will keep you focused and driven and self-propelled when it seems like the universe is conspiring to make you stop.

My driver has always been freedom – freedom to control my diary, my destiny and my time! So that I could have a family and manage to be a mum without being consumed by work. This was such a powerful motivator, as I saw no other way, that it has, and will, keep me going forever.

What led to you becoming head judge for the Dot London Awards and what do you hope to achieve with it?

London at the moment is literally bursting with opportunities – it’s a great place for small businesses to thrive right now. There are so many exciting and diverse new businesses starting in the capital, it’s something that London deserves to be really proud of.

Being a Dot London Awards judge means I get to hear about all the great new business ideas buzzing around London at the moment and meet all those fabulous entrepreneurs making a name for themselves in many different industries. I hope that as a judge, I can give support and encouragement to those existing firms and also inspire anyone thinking about starting their own venture to just go for it and take the plunge.

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What do you think are the main obstacles for a new business in the capital?

Cost! Without a doubt it’s cost. London isn’t cheap whether we’re talking about rent or people… it’s expensive.

In your own career, what led to you taking the plunge back in 2004 and buying your own business?

If I’m being honest I really didn’t have a choice. I was in my late 20s and I was living out of a suitcase. I loved my job and it was brilliant during that period of my life but I knew that if I wanted a family and I wanted to not delegate being a mum then I would have to change the way that I worked. I love business and didn’t ever want to stop what I do (I had my first job when I was 11 and haven’t stopped since) but I had to find a way of controlling my life and controlling my work rather than it controlling me. I had to become an entrepreneur.

Which of your investments have you been most proud of to date?

That’s such a hard question because I’m honestly really proud of all the investments I’ve made over the years. Some have been more challenging than others, and have required more blood, sweat and tears, but my investments are all a bit like children to me – with a lot of nurturing (and sometimes a firm hand!), they’re all thriving. What’s great is that they’re in such diverse industries so not only keeps me interested doing something different every day, but keeps me learning about new innovations, trends and business ideas in all sorts of industries.

I’m particularly proud of The London Cocktail Club, a business I invested in with the two winners of the BBC Two series, The Restaurant. A lot of people had their doubts about JJ and James but my instinct told me there was something really special about them and I was right. There is real magic in The London Cocktail Club and the business model is phenomenal. It just goes from strength to strength.

Has anything surprised you about the Dragons’ Den experience so far?   

I’ve loved every minute of being a Dragon and I can’t wait to get back in the Den in the new year. Taking my seat in the Den was a bit of a daunting prospect, as I knew I had big shoes to fill, but it’s been an amazing experience and a privilege to be able to invest in some incredible business opportunities. I guess the biggest surprise (apart from how nice all the other “scary” Dragons are underneath!), was just how many great people we saw.

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ABOUT THE EXPERT

Rebecca is a reporter for Business Advice. Prior to this, she worked with a range of tech, advertising, media and digital clients at Propeller PR and did freelance work for The Telegraph.

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