#DMUworks Enterprise Project Manager Simon Baines had an opportunity to speak to Deborah Meaden to find out her views on entrepreneurship and being part of BBC Two's long-running series, Dragon's Den.
We are interested in ‘younger Deborah’ – when you look back on yourself when you were younger, did you show then any personality traits that you now can see clearly formed the person you are today?
Oooh, it’s hard to look back and think about yourself when you were younger! You may be better asking my mother, but yes, wilful, independent minded… I always knew I was going to have my own business. It never entered my head that I would work for anybody but myself. When I was seven, I was selling flowers at the side of the road, it was just always in me. I did have one job when I was eight looking after ponies and aside from that, the only actual job I ever had, I was a fashion showroom model. Don’t laugh! The only condition was I had to be five foot eight, but I still got it! So yes, I’ve always been incredibly independent and I don’t take instruction very well.
What was your first proper foray into entrepreneurship then, aside from selling flowers?
I ran an Italian import agency. I had no cash, so it wasn’t like I could buy a load of stock, so I went over to Italy and I convinced four designers that I could import their stock to the UK, which I did. So that was my first business. We got these designs into this high end exhibition called Top Drawer and we got into Harvey Nicholls and places like that and what happened is the designers cottoned on that they could go to the retailers direct, which is what they later did. I learned a lesson very early on, had I had an agreement in place I could have sued them, but I just thought lesson learned, go and do something else. I made £10,000 out of that business and it was a small fortune at the time!
Dragon’s Den is more popular than ever, last Autumn it was trending higher than X Factor on twitter each week. What do you make of that?
It’s fantastic, I know. When I think, when I was thinking of going into business it was kind of a boring thing to do. People thought going into business was dull, just people in suits and it was of no interest really to anybody. Now, going into business is cool! It’s fun, creative, it’s full of energy and vibrancy, in particular the entrepreneurship side of it. Dragon’s Den has peeled back the lid and showed people that it is cool and interesting, so I’m really proud of that.
The lineup changes every now and again, which Dragon’s would you have back?
Well, I don’t feel like you can come back! I think you do it, you go and then it’s done. That’s not to say I don’t miss people, Theo and I were… well I don’t miss him because we still have investments together, but Nick and Sarah are great friends, they come to my house and I see Sarah socially. We have fun together! Our two newest dragons are great though! If we do go out, we get away from our everyday lives, we’ll just go and have dinner or something. Actually, I spend more time with Peter Jones than I do with my own husband!
Are you reluctant to go into business with new dragons because you don’t have the history that you have with Peter for example?
I am actually, yes. You have to know who you’re working with. Sometimes I say to people ‘you do not want four dragons!’ because we’d spend too much time arguing. What’s great, is working with Peter, we just know each other and how each other work and what one another will be thinking during the pitches. I have invested with Tej, really on a product he knows really well but I could see the bit that I could contribute.
You have this reputation literally for being a dragon, how do you deal with that, is it just pantomime?
No it’s not pantomime! When I was asked to do dragon’s den, I did wonder if I should get television training. They said, absolutely not! What you do see, is me. I am 100% myself. What you don’t see, is that each pitch can take hours to film and there is a lot of discussion going on that you won’t see on television. That means you see me go from naught to furious in about thirty seconds, when it’s actually taken about an hour! I say it doesn’t bother me, I hope most people understand there is more to me than that. I can’t change the people who like to send negative comments on Twitter every week and that’s fine with me.
You’ve made many interesting and diverse investments, one of our favourite's being Dock and Bay towels. At one point in that pitch for example, did you know you were going to make an offer?
Ah well you can always tell with me, because I go quiet. New dragon’s often take signals off the others and if I want something, I intentionally don’t look interesting. With that pitch, I thought ‘towels? Really?’ but the guys there are authentic, they live the life of the Dock & Bay beach towel but also it’s just a product that is better. Jenny went out quite early and I was thinking “yes!”. Peter absolutely knew I was interested and I knew he was.
I try and feel an idea, I mean literally. When you see me rubbing my finger and thumb together, this is me trying to feel the idea. Do I really feel it? So there you go, you know the secrets now!
Speaking of secrets, viewers often ask the same questions don’t they? Such as do the dragon’s take direction from advisors, do you wear ear-pieces, do you get prior information?
Oh no it is all completely authentic. We don’t know anything about the pitches until the people walk in and a black cloth unveils whatever product it is. I would never ever wear an earpiece because how am I supposed to listen to a pitch with somebody talking in my ear? I won’t go on any tv show if they wanted me to wear one, I can’t do it. And there are certainly no other advisors. I think this is the secret to the show’s success, what you see is absolutely real. Yes there are cameras but it is true as you could possibly get to real business. It’s what I do on an everyday basis, it just happens to be filmed. I remember in the early days a producer tried to speed Theo up, and he said “when it’s your money, you can do what you like, but when it’s my money, I’ll take my time”. A pitch can easily last three hours, we don’t let anybody rush us.
Can you teach entrepreneurship or does it have to be installed in you?
You can teach people business and you can hone up those skills. You can teach good judgement. But, there are personality traits which I see in entrepreneurs. They’re risk takers, you know you’ve got to have high levels of emotional intelligence because as I say, you have to feel what’s going on. I can walk into a room and feel tension, or the mood, or positivity. You can learn aspects of it, but there’s a huge difference between somebody who can do business and an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur might have ideas, get bored, move on to the next thing, build a team around them. That’s very different to a successful business person who would never move on!
When should entrepreneurs know when to quit?
I learned very early on that you have to be able to take a step out and look at what’s going on. I tell people, imagine you are sat across the table and ask yourself what you are going to do to change this and put this right. If you can’t answer it, you’re not an entrepreneur. You cannot rely on luck.
Where should entrepreneurs or potential entrepreneurs go to get support?
You see, that’s a really interesting question. I think entrepreneurs go and find it. I think that is part of their strength. Obviously I spend my life helping businesses grow, but they have to have something within themselves which has led them to come and find it. I’m wary of entrepreneurs who spend all their time asking ‘how are you going to help me grow?’, I just think hold on a moment, you tell me! You’re the entrepreneur, you tell me where the opportunity is. I’m not going to do somebody’s business for them. I like a product, I like the person, but they have to do it, I’m not doing it for them.
I like mentors, I think finding someone in your industry is really important. Again though, an entrepreneur will work with a mentor and take on board what’s being said but they’ll call the shots. Some people will be led by a mentor entirely and think they should take instructions from them and no they shouldn’t, that’s wrong! You know your business more than I do! All I can do is press buttons and fire you up, mentoring is right so long as the mentor spends most of the time asking “what do you think?” and just guiding, not giving answers. That’s not entrepreneurship.
Would you ever invest in somebody who has no clue how to run a business but a great product?
Yes. You might remember the business on Dragon’s Den that was a marker pen, to use if you’re putting up shelves. I loved them because they said “we haven’t got a clue!”. You know what, that’s brilliant. That’s great, because we knew what we were doing. What’s dangerous is people who think they want your involvement but won’t listen to a word you tell them. I can deal with people who genuinely have a great idea and don’t know what to do, so long as they’re honest.
You’re very passionate about your charity work, what are your thoughts on social enterprise?
Well I love social enterprise. I don’t particularly see the difference between it and business. What I would rather see is people running a business, making money, and then doing something good with that money. I don’t really like the division. We should ALL be doing our bit. Businesses should all have good ethics and support people internally within the business because we all look out there with charity, but organisations don’t always look out for their staff. All businesses should be social enterprises.
What impact will Brexit have on startups?
Oh don’t get me started. My biggest worry with Brexit is the confusion. You know, if somebody could stand up and tell us what on earth is going on and what the impact is going to be then I could probably deal with it in some capacity, but to date, nobody has. If I was a startup now, I would just feel lost. I mean even good ideas, is it still a good idea post-Brexit? How would you even know that? The country has lost confidence. The trouble is though, you can’t wait to find out. We are in a constant state of flux and it will never change. Brexit makes it worse, but anybody sitting and waiting to see what happens is not an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur would find a way into that market and they would deal with it. They would understand it is a tough time but they would work out their price point and how to take advantage of that market, they would not be sat still.
Finally Deborah, you must get asked all the time by people considering starting a business, when is the right time. What do you say to those people?
Yes, I get asked all the time “when should I leave my job and start my own business?”. Well sorry, no, if you don’t know that you are ready to do it then you shouldn’t be doing it! If you believe in yourself and you are ready to go for it, then absolutely go for it!
Catch previous episodes of 'Dragon's Den' via BBC iPlayer.
For more details on Deborah, her investments and her charity work please visit http://www.deborahmeaden.com.
Posted on Wednesday 24th January 2018