The first surprise was being contacted by BBC researcher Ben, who turned out to be both a great advocate and (in his own words) the biggest possible ‘pain in the neck.’ He rang us from out of the blue and asked whether we’d ever considered trying out for Dragon’s Den!
After chatting to Ben it seemed as though it was a potential goer.
An initial application form led to a successful screen test followed by another batch of pre-audition questions before a trek up to London at the new Broadcasting House with Martin, our newly appointed Business Development director. (Although my longer-term business partner, Harry, would be the logical choice, he actually studied for his MBA with Dragon Nick Jenkins, thereby disqualifying him from appearing.)
We stood up before a video camera and off the cuff I pitched the business, our technology, our plan and ourselves. A few days later we were told that we’d made it through!
Practice. Practice. Practice. We ran through our audition with some impartial ‘Dragons’, which served its purpose as we discovered the holes in our knowledge - but overall I was encouraged.
Then the day came… I drove from Fowey, picking up Lauren and Lucy; our designer and sports scientist respectively, en-route to Manchester. Martin, slightly delayed after sitting in a garage in Staines waiting for new tyres to be fitted, met us later for a pre-dinner rehearsal and a sleepless night.
05.30 came around very quickly and by 06.00 we were behind the studio, preparing for our props meeting.
Our props were all there, ready for us to assemble: the CardioWall Compact, Pro-X and TrailBlazer climbing wall. Everyone joined in – including the BBC crew - I gave a couple of the light pods to a very helpful crewmember to take a nut off. Five minutes later he was back… Unfortunately he’d managed to unscrew part of the rear pod. Not great!
I needed to find a vise - and fast (it was now 06.50 and the studio manager was calling for the props meeting to start). I remembered to bring some spares and I knew I could rebuild it within the time – if only I could find a vise. Fortunately, one of the BBC’s prop builders took me across to their workshop where I stripped the pod down and had it back working just in time for the meeting.
The director, studio manager, lighting and sound engineer plus all the camera operators and runners gathered round. We talked through what each product did, how much light and sound they gave out and how they’d be positioned in the studio in relation to the Dragons.
Finally, everyone seemed satisfied. We were led away to the Green Room for makeup, just a dust of powder and then miked up and sound tested.
Off to the first interview - just me. The room was that one with all the big gears and levers that Evan Davies often does links in, but it was a studio set, one floor above the main set, lit very dramatically. I talked about what Rugged Interactive was about, what my previous career had been, expectations, favourite dragon and so on.
I was then back with Lauren, Lucy and Martin in the Green Room for some final moments before we were summoned down to the studio. This was it.
Off we went to the lift doors, pressed the button, into the lift, doors open and out into the studio. We already knew that there would be screens shielding the products from the Dragons but I just caught a glimpse of Sarah Willingham’s beaming face from the side - well, at least she seemed pleased to see us!
We wheeled the screens away to the side of the set and then went back to the lift doors to do the walk again. I knew I was looking for a green tape mark on the floor and I couldn’t find it so I just kept walking slowly forward until I realised I was almost standing on top of Deborah Meaden’s toes. I quickly retraced my steps and still couldn’t find it. Eventually I had to ask the Dragons where it was.
OK. I was in the right spot. I looked round to the products… the climbing wall was completely dead. I nipped behind and found a loose power supply. I reconnected it and came back to the mark. Then I noticed an error message on the Pro-X Club – something I had never seen before. I had to say something so I asked the Dragons if I could sort it out. “Well I suppose you’ll have to,” was Peter Jones’s exasperated reply. I restarted and all was well.
Overall… not the start I’d envisaged!
In any other pitch I’ve ever given as a professional consultant I’ve never written a full script, just a bullet list of points I wanted to get across. This time there was a lot of key points to make clear within the three-minute cut-off. I’d learnt, spoken and rehearsed it to the point of nausea. So it came as a complete shock when I got to the fourth or fifth sentence and mixed-up a couple of my words… then completely blanked.
I’d spoken to the director earlier and had asked what happened if I started to go wrong - could we re-take? I was told, “No. Just take a breath and reset and it’ll come back to you.”
In classic Dragons Den style, I paused, realised that I had no clue what was coming next and then said something to fill the space. From that point, I can honestly say I have no clear recollection of what I said. At one point I looked across at Lauren and Lucy – their frozen expressions told me all I needed to know.
Eventually, I ran out of things to mess up and invited the Dragons to have a go. They preferred to see Lauren do a demo so she began to play whilst I walked around and described what they were seeing. Apart from Lauren stopping ten seconds short of the end of the game, then restarting, it wasn’t bad, and pretty soon Nick Jenkins and Touker Suleyman were on their feet wanting a go.
Excellent! We started up a 2-player game, handed them D-Balls, stood back and watched it happen. Despite Touker apparently trying to destroy the pods by hitting them as hard as he could, they both seemed to enjoy themselves. It soon brought Deborah to her feet, encouraging Sarah to have a go too.
Deborah chose boxing gloves; Sarah had the D-Balls. They squared up to the Pro-X. Sarah ditched her stilettos and off they went, battering the pods as fast as they could - Deborah eventually emerging victorious and grinning.
So now we were into the nitty-gritty. This was the point I asked for the Dragons permission to bring in Martin. They agreed and soon enough the lift doors opened and in he came.
All was going well until Touker asked what the sales were for the next 12 months – Martin came back with a number. (Uh-oh I thought, that’s the forecast not the actual sales. Never mind, Martin will realise his mistake and correct himself.)
Touker pushed, and asked if that was the actual number, paid for, or definitely ordered or deposit taken. (OK – this is it. This is where Martin says, “Ah, sorry, misunderstood. This is the real number…” But he said, “yes”!)
What followed was very uncomfortable – as Touker pushed and confronted, Martin pushed back. Eventually Peter jumped in and told Martin he thought they’d been lied to. That was a strong statement and Martin pushed back harder. In all honestly, I can’t remember exactly what happened but somehow we managed to pull it back on track.
Then Deborah asked me about the balance sheet. The last time I looked at the balance sheet was a year ago. She probed, asked me if I even knew what a balance sheet was – I don’t think I covered myself in glory.
It’s interesting what catches your eye when you’re under pressure. I can recall clearly being distracted by a yellow ladder propped up outside of the set behind the Dragons and a dolly camera that had a cup of coffee on its base, catching my eye every time it moved!
And then suddenly – it was all over.
Peter said those fateful words: “I’m going to make you an offer”, followed by Touker, then Deborah… then Sarah (who actually said she needed some more time to think). Nick declared himself ‘out’ as he revealed that he went to business school with my colleague Harry.
Weirdly, I was enjoying myself up until then but I had that sensation of things coming back to the room as I realised that this was actually the reason we were here – which is easy to forget when there are camera crews filming your every move.
Martin and I walked to the back of the set to ‘talk to the wall’ and decided that we were going to do the deal but we needed to play with the percentages offered.
We walked back and started negotiating.
Now. What I wanted to ask and needed to understand, since this was a big deal, was what the offering Dragons immediate thoughts were about strategy and their input - just so it might help us decide between the offers. Instead, I somehow managed to offend them by asking for their CV’s!
I remember Nick shaking his head and screwing his eyes up, Deborah slamming her notebook shut and Peter staring hard. Gulp.
Deborah challenged me to say what I thought Peter actually did… I searched my memory and came up with something, which seemed to satisfy, but it was uneasy.
Then it came to the final offers. Peter and Deborah agreed to collaborate together and offered a percentage buyback after two years if we were on target and I liked the sound of that – but then Touker came back offering all the money, for a lower percentage!
Back to the wall. After some discussion, we decided we didn’t think we could work as well with Touker and having two dragons on board could only be a bonus – so back to the front.
We accepted Peter and Deborah’s offer.
They leapt off their seats and came up to us for handshakes and kisses. We’d made it!
In hindsight I regret not going over to Sarah, Nick and Touker and shaking their hands, but I was so caught up I completely forgot.
We exited via the lift and I think we high-fived in the lift (another awkward moment) then we were out. I expected to see the girls there but the only people there were the crew, who were elated. They told us they were messaging each other on the expected outcome - they’re doing well, no they’re not, oh yes, oh no…! It was a rollercoaster for them, not just us (and that wouldn’t be the last time we’d hear that phrase over the next hour).
We were ushered straight along to another tiny room where we did the second interview: Martin and me this time - and we went through the whole thing as the interviewer guided us.
Finally we headed down a corridor that led us to where Lauren and Lucy were waiting. And what’s more they had no idea what had happened. When we told them we’d had a double-Dragon offer they couldn’t believe it! I’m sure when they left the room it was going so badly there was no doubt in their minds it was going to fail.