The honest truth about pitching your business on Dragons’ Den

Following his controversial pitch in last Sunday's episode, DAME co-founder Alec Mills reflects on how the show left him with "a bad taste"

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It’s the worst kept secret that Dragons’ Den is not really about investment in small companies. For the Dragons it’s about broadcasting their egos; for the start-up rookies it’s about national exposure.

The two meet in an arena packed with BBC cameras and microphones, and the hopes and dreams of entrepreneurs are dashed or fulfilled in front of three million people. It’s a TV show – entertainment, not business.

In the Den

As it happens, my co-founder and I did not get investment for our subscription model period-product delivery business. After a three-minute pitch and a ninety-minute roasting, the Dragons outed themselves one by one.

But we flew into the Den (under our former name Sanitary Owl) hoping for a different sort of result. We wanted our monthly subscription service to be the first period-related business to make it onto the programme, gaining exposure not just for our company, but for products – and a subject – that are still fighting for recognition as ‘normal’.

It was therefore disappointing that the editors had chosen to show the Dragons giggling childishly at some of the products we sell, such as the Mooncup (a reusable menstrual cup), and making light of a topic almost every woman can relate to.

It also amazed us that the opening line in the voice-over was Evan declaring “it may seem counter-intuitive to launch a product half the population may never have use for”. But that’s half the population Evan! 35 million women in the UK is a huge market size by any measure, especially if the product has the potential to improve each of their lives.

Funding hurdles

It is a TV show, we get it. But as a start-up in women’s health, it is just another example of the hurdles we have had to face, which have ranged from misconception to ignorance.

Throughout our funding journey we have constantly been faced by rows of men, some wincing at our pitch, some laughing, others refusing to see us because Celia Pool (my co-founder) has children which would “distract her mentally” from growing the business as her time would be “taken up by childcare”. It is remarkable that in 2017 we still have to put up with such BS.

Since the show was filmed we have re-branded to DAME and expanded our product offering, focusing on female wellness. We aim to bring women the opportunity to conveniently experience a range of organic products, eco-friendly product options and supplements to make their whole month, not just one week of it, better.

We have increased our margins, and have just closed a £250,000 funding round from angels and funding networks around the UK. Most of this was done through angels, 90% of whom were men.

Only when we were recommended for a specialist female-centric investment network were we able to pitch to women, and even then, it was two men who ended up investing.

So, after our pitch to the Dragons and subsequent departure in the ‘lift of doom’, the moment the camera cut to Peter Jones as he declared he found our pitch “quite uncomfortable” is what left a bad taste for us, not the fact that we didn’t win investment.

The reality is, we’ve found the entire male-centric funding process quite uncomfortable – and comments like that aired on national television do little to help. Though it was great to see Twitter users picking up on this period negativity when the show aired and voicing their complaints.

Gearing up for start-up success

So where is DAME now? We have re-branded and changed our offering, losing customers as a result – however, most of those we lost had only been receiving tampons and pads from us at prices we could not sustain.

We were very sad to have lost them but, by looking after the customers who want more from their box, we have actually seen overall revenues increase by 30% in the past week.

We now have customers who find real value in our period-positive service and we’re ramping up our marketing efforts to find more of them, which is going well.

This is great news from a business point of view, and it confirms that there is space in the market for a bespoke essentials and wellness box that is totally woman-centric – even if the funding process to get there wasn’t.

Alec Mills is co-founder of DAME (formerly Sanitary Owl), a monthly subscription box service promoting women’s wellness with sanitary products and organic supplements.

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