As the Dragons return to their Den for a new series, Deborah Meaden talks tough!
What makes you come back to Dragons’ Den?
“I’m as surprised as anybody because I thought I’d do it for a few years, have a bit of fun and then off I’d go, but actually I really enjoy it. It’s what I do. I’m not an actor, I’m not a TV personality, I’m a business person and this is as close as you’re going to get to business on television. So every year, I think ‘oh, is this going to be my last year,’ and then I think ‘why wouldn’t I do this?’ I sit there and people come in and it doesn’t matter if they’re crazy, they’re bad, they’re fantastic, they come up with ideas. I think surely we’ve covered everything and then somebody comes up the stairs and says, ‘I’ve got this idea’. So yeah, it’s what I do and what I love.”
Have you made any exciting investments this time?
“Every year I do that. I never go into it thinking I’m going to look for this or that. I go into it looking for a good idea and a good person that I think could deliver that idea. The minute I complete on a deal and go ‘yes!’ I know I’ve made the right one. So I get very excited. I’m the love-the-one-I’m-with girl, so I can’t say what my favourite one is. Whichever one I’m talking about or in the room with, that’s the one I love.”
What’s the quality of ideas like this year?
“I think it’s definitely a vintage year. I think that’s partly because it’s matured a bit and people know what they’re doing when they come in. Mainly, the good business people are better prepared and so I think the stakes go up every series.”
What’s the strangest pitch this year?
“I’m not allowed to tell you. I’ve been banned. I can’t talk about the investments. We do get some very strange ones come on…”
What’s your biggest piece of advice for the entrepreneurs?
“Don’t pull the wool over our eyes. You’ve got five business people with a lot of experience between them and if there’s one thing we don’t like, it’s people making stuff up. You know when you get those tense moments in the den where you think it’s all gone horribly wrong? Usually, it’s because one of us has gone ‘that’s not quite right, is it?’ So don’t try to pull the wool over our eyes, you’ll never get away with it. Be yourselves, be honest, just present your business, warts and all. Tell us the truth about it.”
Sometimes the dragons are quite torn between head and heart… have you ever taken a gamble?
“The last thing I think is, ‘what do I feel about this?’ because life’s too short to be involved in a business that you don’t actually care about. And I care about the businesses I’m involved in. They’re massive to me. I don’t care if it’s a £30k investment or a £250k investment. I care about them and they’re going to get my attention. They’ve got to matter to me. If they don’t, that’s the day I’m going to get out of it. So I can ask all the questions in the world but eventually it’s down to, ‘do I want to do this?’ Do I care enough about this business?’ That’s gut.”
If you’d come into the Den at the start of your career, how do you think you’d have done?
“I don’t know. Of course, I could have been absolutely brilliant, answered all the questions perfectly and had all five dragons offering to invest in me. Obviously that’s what would have happened! Maybe in reality, when I was younger I wasn’t as organised as I am now. I was very enthusiastic but I couldn’t necessarily present it very well and that’s what I’ve learnt with years. Hopefully, there would have been a wise dragon and that wise dragon would have seen through that over-enthusiasm and seen my potential.”
Have there been any pitches you’ve regretted turning down?
“I’m never going to say that, am I! Really, am I going to admit that? I’m not a regret kind of girl. I’ve seen products that I can say I was wrong about that because they’ve gone on to be successful, like Tangle Teezer. He’s gone on to be very successful and I can live with that. I’m happy to be wrong if it means somebody’s made a success out of it.”
What’s the biggest mistake people make when they come into the Den?
“I can’t believe people come in and say, ‘I’m not a numbers person’, and when you ask them something about their turnover, they say, ‘I need to get somebody in.’ No, no, no, it’s YOUR business! There are only three numbers you need to know. You don’t have to produce a balance sheet. If you’re not a numbers person, you can’t go into business. You have to fundamentally understand how business works. When we ask what’s your turnover or what’s your gross profit and they say: ‘I don’t know’, I feel like putting my head in my hands. You KNEW we were going to ask that!”
Do the Dragons socialise after filming?
“We do actually. I was at Peter Jones’s charity day. We’re busy people and we live all over the country but every night after filming, we go out for dinner, we have fun, we probably spend more time with each other than with anybody else because for 20 days and 20 nights, we’re out socialising. So yes, we get on.”
What happens when you hate an idea and another Dragon loves it?
“I say in the Den, ‘you must be joking!’ Sometimes though I’m not always right but people have different reasons to invest and sometimes I’ll invest in something because I think it’s right and for my reasons. And if another dragon hasn’t got their reasons then they won’t invest. So it’s often not right or wrong, it’s ‘can I see what I can do with that product?’ and sometimes somebody else will see something that I don’t see. My fellow dragons are all hugely successful people so I do give them the respect to make their own decisions! On the few occasions where I think: ‘you’re barking mad!’, I’d say it and say it on telly!”
How do you feel now about going on Strictly?
“I absolutely loved my Strictly experience. I had the best time. But it was hard for me. I’d never danced in my life and it’s tough. It’s much harder than my world. Going out and dancing in front of 12 million people is tough. I was training for 8-10 hours a day! I had 19 businesses at the time and I had to say, ‘you’re on your own! I’ll be back when the dancing’s over.’ The day after, I was inundated with thousands of emails!”
Would you encourage any of your fellow Dragons to do Strictly?
“I would say to anybody, if you love dancing, do it! Who gets to learn to dance with the best dancers in the world? The only downside is that, if you’re not a dancer, it does take up a lot of your time. It’s tough if you’re not a performer. I was learning to perform and dance! I’ve danced with Duncan and Peter, they did Let’s Dance for Comic Relief. Piers has got some moves on him! And Kelly!”
Dragons’ Den returns on Sunday 20 July at 8.30pm on BBC2.