Behind the Scenes at Dragons’ Den with a Yorkshire Entrepreneur
Business dreams are made – and destroyed – inside BBC2’s infamous ‘Dragons’ Den’. Kevin Stevens, a Yorkshire-based entrepreneur who recently presented his innovative Snowmule ski accessory on the show, reveals the inside story on his time before, during and after the show…
Shortly after launching my Snowmule products I was interviewed on BBC Radio 2’s ‘Simon Mayo Show’. In itself this is a fascinating experience, however, a few days later a researcher called from Dragons’ Den. Did I need investment capital and, if so, had I considered applying? My first thought was something along the lines of ‘not for all the tea in China’. I’ve seen the ridicule heaped on too many participants (or ‘entrepreneurs’ in Den speak) to offer myself up for the same treatment. However, after some thought I could see the up side – the exposure and PR would be fantastic. I might have the best product in the world but if nobody knows about it… Plus, an investor would have the contacts, expertise and capital that I needed.
I therefore complete the very detailed and lengthy application form, send it off and secretly hope they won’t call back. I am still conscious of possibly being made to look a chump on national TV. If they reject me at least I’ve had a go, haven’t I? The BBC has different ideas though. I am called a few weeks later for an audition in Manchester. I would be filmed delivering my ‘pitch’ as if I were addressing the Dragons.
“Go for the jugular”
The pitch has to be an absolute maximum of three-minutes. It follows a prescribed format, hence everyone on the programme introducing themselves using the same format. Several hundred practice pitches at home to the world’s hardest audience (aka my wife) reduce my early five-minute ramblings to a reasonably slick and consistent three-minute delivery. She also helpfully points out one or two odd things that I say or do while speaking that she thought weren’t important enough to mention in the last 20 years. But now I was going on the TV it is worth bringing up. She is right of course.
So off I trundle to the shiny new BBC complex at Salford to deliver my pitch to a camera for the first time. The researchers are fantastic and gave me a few tips so that, after three takes, I am consistently down to two-and-a-half minutes. I am now asked some questions in the style of the Dragons. About the product, my business plan, forecasts, business background and more.
This is not scripted at all. Although I have done my homework, this is where participants on the programme often seem to fall apart. So I am conscious of not tripping myself up. Ultimately it is fine but we all agree that if I am selected to go on the programme I will need to do a lot of preparation on this aspect. The Dragons are somewhat more ruthless than the researchers and would happily go for the jugular at the first sign of weakness.
“Are they scary?”
The Snowmule is a unique towing device for children on skis. We have a discussion about how best to demonstrate it in my pitch. One of the researchers asks whether it would be feasible to actually tow children on the stage. It isn’t something I’d considered, but after much discussion we agree that it would be very visually effective. So I go home and pitch the idea to my wife and sons. Would they like to be on TV, being pulled across the stage? Being eight and ten they have no hesitation. Dad, yes, wow, Dad, can we speak to the Dragons, are they scary? Dad, Dad, Dad…
The hardest part is that being on the show has to remain a secret. I sign up to keep the whole application confidential until the show is screened. The BBC are particularly adamant about this. Eight and ten-year-old boys aren’t the best at secrets, but we give it a go. Needless to say another call comes through saying that I have been selected for the show. Cue two excitable children!
Dragons Den: “Critical to the pitch”
From here there are demands for a huge amount of information from the BBC. It is a surprise to learn that the Dragons have absolutely no contact with the entrepreneurs before the show. They genuinely have no idea about you or your product until you walk on to the stage. Therefore the BBC do an enormous amount of due diligence beforehand. Supplier contracts, trademark registrations, bank commitments, company registrations and a whole plethora of information all go into making my file a couple of inches thick before the filming day. The BBC is at pains to ensure that participants know what is involved should the Dragons invest. They also want to ensure that any information given to the Dragons at that stage is ratified.
We are put up in a hotel the night before filming. We hand over our props ready for the next morning’s early start. The props need approval by the producer as overt branding or product placement is not permitted on the BBC. Obviously, I want as much branding as possible to be shown. So some negotiation is required as I insist it is all absolutely critical to my pitch. On the day all the participants are together in the ‘green room’, away from the Dragons. There are six entrepreneurs on the day. We are given dressing rooms (without stars on the doors) to change, practice our pitches and relax. There is also a communal room.
“Going stir crazy”
No one tells us in which order filming will progress. But as the day progresses people go quietly, never to be seen again. After filming everyone leaves through a different door to ensure no-one knows who is successful or in tears. By mid afternoon we are struggling to convince my sons that they will ever be on TV and achieve instant stardom. The room is almost empty and we are going stir crazy. So we are taken out for fresh air. The researcher then asks if I’d like to run through my pitch again. Which I work out is code for ‘you’re on’. We are then whisked through a labyrinth of corridors to the stage door. If I back out now my boys will never forgive me as it’s their moment of fame.
I walk on stage with my sons clumping down the stairs behind me in their ski boots. I uncover my props, which have black cloths draped over by the stage crew. I clip my sons into their skis, which I had fitted with runners to roll across the smooth black flooring put down by the stage crew. And I start my pitch. As I approach my three-minute limit Deborah Meadon asks if I have nearly finished! Of course I have, with all those rehearsals! After my pitch I dispatch my sons back to their mum, off stage. We’d agreed this would be best as George, my eldest, would be likely to jump in if he felt I am getting a hard time! I could imagine the riposte: “Stop giving my Dad a hard time Duncan. He’s worked really hard on this and his Snowmule is fantastic. What do you know?”
I am still determined not to fall into the inevitable traps. So I am cautious about getting into specific financial details at the start. I can see where the questioning is going. This is later used in the programme, along with Duncan accusing me of being casual. Theo states early in the discussion that he thinks the business is too niche for him to make a decent return. This is the line taken by all the Dragons eventually.
Although they do not invest, both Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis say they can see the market and will buy one to ski with their kids. Duncan Bannatyne is the only other Dragon who skis with kids so I am delighted with a 66% approval rating. I am very pleased with the outcome. The Dragons like the product, our branding and could see a market, but feel it is too small an opportunity for them. I couldn’t ask for much more.
In the end I have been on stage for about 40 minutes. But, of course, that is edited down for the programme to around two minutes. When the programme is aired I have no idea how it has been edited. In the end, all the hours of practice pay off as the response from the show has all been fantastic. My boys are on national TV, more people than ever know about Snowmule and they even include Theo saying he would buy one. So I have the full Dragon endorsement!