From The Top

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

Rebecca Smith | 18 November 2015 | 9 years ago

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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 andbeing the newest face ondragons’ 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 meetpeople. 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 sucha 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 soimportant 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 firmsand 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 isnt cheap whether were 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 Im being honest I really didnt have a choice. I was in my late 20s and I was living out of a suitcase. I lovedmy 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 lovebusiness and didnt ever want to stop what I do (I had my first job when I was 11 and havent stopped since) but I had to find a way of controlling my life and controlling my work rather than it controlling me.I hadto become an entrepreneur.

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

That’s such a hard question because Im honestly really proud of all the investments Ive 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.

Im 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?

Ive 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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