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Tuesday, 7 July 2015

TheCustard braves Dragons' Den

It's a surprisingly scorching day in May and I'm sweating. I could blame my uncontrollable leakage on the unseasonable temperatures, but in truth my unflattering sweats are caused by the fact I'm inside one of the most intimidating sets on British television. No, my bum isn't making a dent in the Mastermind chair, nor am I about to audition for The X Factor, I'm somewhere even more nerve wracking than that - Dragons' Den!


Not wishing to 'break the forth wall' but in reality this means I'm inside a maze of sound stages on an unassuming industrial estate in Manchester. The Den itself is such a masterfully created set that being inside it plays with the mind. I was lucky enough to enter the Den when those impressively upholstered chairs were empty.  I must admit that, even minus the Dragons, the surroundings make you feel uneasy. I've watched Dragons' Den since 2006, never missing an episode. I've seen many a confident pitcher go to pieces under the pressure of being in the den. When you're sat in your living room, watching from the comfort of your recliner, it's easy to mock these gibbering wrecks as they struggle to remember the name of their invention, but, as I surveyed my intimidating surroundings, I gained a new respect for anyone who has ever stepped foot inside the Den hoping for investment.

The series, which celebrates ten years this year, has gone through some changes this time around. Alongside the introduction of three new Dragons (the biggest revamp of the panel in the show's history), regular viewers will also spot some changes in the format that producers hope will help revitalize the show. In a new twist, viewers will meet the hopefuls before they enter the Den. Whilst we'll still be in the dark about what they're bringing with them into den we'll find out which Dragon they are hoping will invest, and learn a tiny bit of background. I think it's quite a clever idea. Producers hope this will help viewers to root for the investors and we get to see whether the investment they receive is actually what they want.

When we eventually meet the Dragons, they've completed a day's filming and have swapped their dapper suits for a more dressed down and causal look. Peter Jones, the longest serving Dragon is dressed as if he's about to head off to the gym but is sporting his trademark stripy socks. When I ask if the socks are returning for the new series he laughs and quickly pulls up his trouser legs giving me a glimpse of the socks in all their stripy glory!

We may have bid farewell to Kelly Hoppen, Piers Linney and longtime Dragon Duncan Bannatyne, but not to worry, Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones are back for those of us who are fans of continuity. I don't think longtime fans need to be concerned about having three brand new Dragons in the Den. Moonpig founder Nick Jenkins, restaurant entrepreneur Sarah Willingham and fashion brand owner Touker Suleyman are more than qualified to sit in the empty chairs.

So who are the new Dragons?

First up is Moonpig founder Nick Jenkins. It took Nick five years of losses and four rounds of fundraising before the website eventually made a profit; today Moonpig.com ships greeting cards to millions of customers worldwide and has become a household name. Nick sold the company to Photobox.com for £120million in 2011 shortly after Moonpig.com reached No 3 in the Sunday Times Profit Track 100.


Nick read Russian at University and had planned a career in the army but the collapse of the Berlin Wall led to more exciting opportunities and he gave up his place at Sandhurst to accept a job offer to work in Moscow. He spent eight years working as a commodity trader before returning to the UK. He spent a year studying for an MBA at Cranfield University as an opportunity to write several business plans. Within a couple of weeks of finishing the course, one of those plans became Moonpig.com.

Since 2008, Nick has been actively investing in other start-up businesses, mostly in the technology and internet retail space. He sits on the investment committee of Impact Ventures UK, an investment fund which invests in social enterprises using innovation to find better solutions to social issues in the UK. He is also a trustee of the educational charity Ark and he is a patron of Shivia, a charity that helps some of the poorest families in West Bengal to raise their standard of living through enterprise.

When we meet he describes his time in the Den as "exhilarating".  Nick has never done to TV before but says that once those doors open it's business as usual. "Obviously it's an unscripted show but it's also very under produced, so when those doors open it's very similar to when I speak to potential investees. The only time I become acutely aware of the cameras is when they present snacks, I'm very aware I mustn't scoff them. Nick also admitted that being a newbie can sometimes be difficult. "There's a danger when you're new that pitchers might pigeonhole you because of what you're best known for. In  a way you have to sell yourself, which can be difficult. I've invested in a number of different businesses but, of course, I'm an unknown so it's hard."  He also admitted that he found the lack of knowledge the Dragons are given about the prospective businesses frustrating. "I just wanted an hour on the internet to research the people in front of me, but I soon realised that the joy of the show is that we as Dragons are viewing the pitch in exactly the same way as the people watching at home.  We are asking the questions that the audience would want to be asking. It we did do research it would be very dull."

Despite his short time as a Dragon he seems to completely at ease in his new surroundings. "This is what I do for my day job so it feels utterly normal, it felt like a very natural thing to say yes to."




 Toucker Suleyman is new to the Den and has also never done any television. He's the owner of fashion brands Hawes & Curtis, Ghost and Low Profile Holdings

With over 40 years' retail and manufacturing experience and is best known as the founder of quintessentially British menswear brand, Hawes & Curtis and the man credited with reinventing the seminal 90's womenswear label, Ghost.

Touker’s rise in the business world has not been without its challenge. In the 1980's auditors identified significant debt behind one of his business ventures and he had six weeks to find £2 million pounds. Unfortunately a potential investor pulled out at the last minute, forcing the business into liquidation, and he was forced to start again from nothing. Touker has a keen interest in supporting start-ups and invests in a number of small British companies.

Toucker told us he hasn't struggled with the inevitable competition that arises in the Den. "If there's a great idea, you want it. As a new Dragon it's been a little bit more challenging because an entrepreneur comes into the Den already knowing they'd like Peter and Deborah, so we have got to really sell ourselves."  

As far as becoming a TV star, he also isn't fussed. "I've been papped once with Peter, it's a new challenge, I'm enjoying it." He admitted about needing guidance on day one. "I was initially really conscious of the cameras, but I watched Peter and Deborah and within the first day I felt I knew what I was doing."  


You may well recognise Sarah Willingham. She is the Creator of restaurant chain The Bombay Bicycle Club and co-founder of The London Cocktail Club and has a few years ago she appeared alongside Raymond Blanc on his popular BBC Two series The Restaurant. Today, Sarah runs her business portfolio from her home office alongside her entrepreneur husband and together they jointly invest and support more than 10 business ventures, from start-ups to established and growing brands in the food and drink, consumer finance, health food, banking, mining, technology, lead generation and entertainment sectors, most of which are located across the UK, Middle East and North America.

When we meet Sarah says that, despite her previous TV exposure, the Den is a daunting place to be. "Peter and Deborah have been really welcoming. I think you soon realise that this isn't really TV, you're really there to sit and listen to someone and invest your own money.  It's real business. I walked into the Den on that first day, and wow, it's Dragons' Den! That's Peter Jones off the telly! The show is so un-produced and I hadn't expected that at all. It feels extremely real and you haven't got a clue what's going to come through the doors. The nerves go because you're in business."

Sarah co-founded and invested in The London Cocktail Club and Craft Cocktail Company and has helped grow these two concepts into award-winning businesses. She is also the co-founder of Letssavemoney.com and regularly offers money saving advice on TV, print & online.




Deborah Meaden is back in the Den for her eleventh series. She joined the show in 2006 but says that having three new Dragons in the Den helped her 'up her game'. "I get really competitive in the moment. If I want something, you can see it in my eyes. If I don't get it, it feels awful, but the lovely thing is that doesn't ever go on outside of the Den because we all get on and have a great respect for one another. She admitted that even after this long she still gets frustrated and bemused when pitchers come in unprepared. "I'm absolutely amazed, and they look terribly surprised!" I want to scream have you never watched Dragons' Den?! We're not asking for tricky numbers. We're asking for turnover and net profit. It's loopy!"  As for her other pet hates, she says, "I really don't like people who are really really good salesmen. You can't get to the person behind the pitch, some people come in and deliver and incredibly smooth pitch but you have no idea what the reality is of the business". 


Peter Jones, the other returning Dragon is the only one of our current five piece to be a part of the show since day one. He says having three newbies in the Den feels "completely different. I don't think I've ever said this but I think this will be the best series yet. This is a very very strong lineup." Despite his long stint in the Den Peter did question whether he should return for another series. I'm always going to question whether I should go, but with three new Dragons it feels incredibly new.  I still get butterflies when those double doors open, I'm looking for the next Levi Roots. I still have a level excitement every time."  

So, after ten years on BBC Two, does Dragons' Den still feel fresh? Yes! And Peter comments that, "I think you're going to see a very very different re energised Den this time around".


Dragon's Den begins Sunday at 8.10pm on BBC TWO

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