After almost 13 years on Britain’s TV screens, Dragons’ Den has become the definitive place to watch wannabe tycoons pitch their business ideas to investors. But have you ever wondered what the cameras don’t show? Business Advice peers behind the curtain and speaks to entrepreneurs about their experiences inside Dragons’ Den.
Alex Miles and Ini Weston, co-founders of sock brand Quiet Rebellion, appeared on series 14 of the BBC Two staple, seeking a £75,000 investment for a ten per cent stake in their company.
A few months previously, Miles and Weston had taken their business onto Money Pit, a more boisterous Dave TV version of Dragons’ Den. The concept of secretive, colourful designs influenced by rebellious historical figures impressed and the duo reached their investment target in just 90 seconds. To replicate the PR success of their appearance, they felt compelled to apply for Dragons’ Den.
After a successful application, they undertook a lengthy due diligence process, passed an audition pitch at BBC’s White City studios and were invited up to Manchester for the real thing.
Ahead of their day inside Dragons’ Den, the entrepreneurs had already lined up a deal with investors privately, giving them a bit of breathing space and a chance to make the most of the likely PR boost generated by the show.
“As you see on TV, they can quickly slash the valuation of the people pitching. We went in and pitched at a valuation for which we already had commitment, and therefore thought that if we were to get an offer, it’d probably be at an aggressively low valuation which we could not accept,” Miles explained.
“So, there was a slight ‘nothing to lose’ mindset – we’d spoken to people who had received offers on the show before but things had flopped after a year, and felt disgruntled that they’d given away 40 per cent of their company. We were cautious to not do that.”
A late taxi, pouring rain and an arrival at the wrong BBC studios conspired to give the co-founders a chaotic start to the day. Once settled backstage, soaking wet and two hours late, they began an eight hour wait “cooped up in a holding-pen”. At 5pm, they were summoned into the Den. They were, however, warned there was less than a 50 per cent chance of actually appearing on the broadcast.
Quiet Rebellion featured in the most recent series, the final of the Sarah Willingham and Nick Jenkins era. With Jenkins’ ecommerce expertise – or perhaps Touker Suleyman’s retail nous – did the business partners enter the Den with a potential suitor in mind?
“Nick Jenkins – on TV and in real life – comes across really well. He definitely seems like he would have been the most enjoyable to work with and he has strong ecommerce expertise too, so it’d been have great to get an offer from him,” Miles said. “But we didn’t strategically target one investor.”
In terms of the pitching itself, the ten-minute programme slot inevitably reduces the two-hour grilling received by entrepreneurs. The Money Pit experience had dampened their nerves somewhat, and as Miles pointed out, if you arrive sufficiently prepared, there is little chance the Dragons can catch you out on your own figures – in reality, the clashes can just come down to differences in opinion.
“There’s no stopping for re-recording – in that sense its very honest,” Miles noted. “The Dragons don’t even know the name of the business – for them it’s totally blind. Only after your stall is revealed and you walk through the doors are they aware of who you are. The only thing that is fake is the lift.”
In the eyes of the co-founders, Jones and Suleyman seemed more pre-occupied with boasting about their own business success than discussing the proposition in front of them. Risks were identified, concepts were scrutinised, and eventually, remaining Dragon Deborah Meaden dropped out. When the broadcast aired, however, this was rearranged in the editing room.
“It could have been more favourable,” Miles said, “but you know the free PR is part of the bargain, and the editors have license to do what they want. Overall we can’t complain too much!”
One of the moments tellingly removed from the TV edit was a momentary lifting of Jones’ poker face. On the broadcast, he quickly takes it upon himself to ask: “What is the point?”, consistently questioning the marketing value of the brand’s hidden designs.
“We had Peter Jones wind us up a little, insisting he didn’t understand the brand. Suddenly he admitted: ‘Guys – we’re all having a bit of a laugh, aren’t we? Of course I get it. I think it’ll do really well but it’s not for me.’”
Jones has a passion for stripy socks, selling his own line, and wasn’t prepared to invest in a rival brand. The exchange was left out of the final broadcast, as editors opted to show a panel of investors all struggling to buy into the concept behind the brand.
“If we had got an offer, it certainly would have been better PR for ourselves,” Miles conceded. Although the business benefitted from a spike in traffic and sales from Dragons’ Den, the episode aired just days after Christmas, having been filmed in April. A slightly earlier broadcast could have been even better exposure for a brand strongly tied to the gifting market.
With all the investors out, perhaps some entrepreneurial advice from the panel could have made the effort worthwhile. Compared to the one-on-one meetings they’d had with investors beforehand, spending two hours going over a business plan, it didn’t feel as constructive.
“If you have five smart people in a room all competing to speak, it’s sometimes hard to get a sound consensus on what the advice is. It was certainly useful to hear their thoughts, although I found the advice we received from other potential investors in calmer and more informal settings to be more useful,” Miles admitted.
Miles and Weston left the Den more determined than ever and set about expanding their offering. The co-founders are currently plotting their pivot into a fully-fledged menswear brand.
Find out how Quiet Rebellion turned Peter Jones’ marketing nightmare into a successful brand
Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest from Business Advice.