Business TV uncovered and whether you should say yes

We find out what it's like on the other side of the camera

It seems that every producer in the land wants to make a show featuring entrepreneurs – business programmes are suddenly must-see TV.  So with more chance than ever of appearing before the cameras, we speak to those who’ve already been there to find out what you should expect

I’ve been involved in this industry for 20 years and this is the first time it has been cool to be an entrepreneur,” enthuses James Caan. Now a venture capitalist, he appeared on BBC’s Dragons’ Den for the first time last year and has gone from relative obscurity to being a household name. He is celebrated on Facebook, newspapers call him for quotes on the subjects of the day and, most importantly, business at his private equity company, Hamilton Bradshaw, has taken a boost. “Deal opportunities have gone up 10 to 20 times,” he says. 

However, it is more likely you will be offered a project that is far less famous than Dragons’ Den or even unknown. So if you get a call out of the blue, what should you do?  

Do your research

If you’re asked to do a show you’ve never heard of, you can get a good idea of quality by checking out the production company’s track record. Research what it has done before and track down some of the people it has worked with previously to find out what their experience was. Seb Bishop, president of MIVA and chairman of Steak Media, receives many requests from production companies working on ‘new projects’, but says he turns most down. “Find out about the production company,” he advises. “For instance, has it got funding for the programme? I would be wary of investing any time unless they have the money.” There are plenty of sharks in the media who will use you. Also, some will want your tacit support to seal a deal. You could be agreeing to something that’s barely off the ground, which may change beyond all recognition from the concept that has been pitched at you.

Bishop appeared on Millionaires’ Mission, in which he and seven other entrepreneurs went to Uganda to see if the talents of business people could be used to help solve its problems. However, he was involved with the production company, Silverfish (which has produced shows such as Jamie’s School Dinners and The Apprentice) for about 18 months before filming. “You need to understand the likely tone of the show. You have to sit down with the producer and feel comfortable with their approach,” he says.

Shahid Azeem appeared on the same show, and claims that publicity wasn’t the sole reason. “I wanted to go out there and experience a country I had never been to,” he explains.

Martin Webb, a serial entrepreneur and presenter of Risking it All, says there are two types of entrepreneurial TV shows: those that focus on characters and those about business. He was only interested in the latter. “Risking it All wasn’t about me,” he says. “Although I was the ‘expert presenter’ I wasn’t the focus of the programme.”  

Business sense

If you get an offer, then the producers will want to carry out a screen test. This is not a time for amateur dramatics, but rather to find out if you are right for TV. If the producers want you after this then make sure you find out why. Some shows make their name for their confrontational nature and this can be great TV, but you must consider the impact your appearance might have on both clients and staff.

Abiola Ajayi-obe, of SmartChartzRepublic, was offered the chance to appear in the first series of Dragons’ Den, but decided it was too early. However, 18 months later it was a different story. “By then I had made sales,” she says. “I have realised that investors want to take more if you are starting up.”

The Dragons turned her down, but since then the business has prospered from the publicity. “My server crashed because of the amount of emails I got through, and, because it is TV, you have a lot of armchair investors who say the Dragons got it wrong and that they would be interested.” The message is clear: present well and be prepared for the aftermath.

Be yourself or don’t do it

Katie Hopkins from The Apprentice destroyed her reputation, lost her job and turned her life into tabloid fodder after she appeared on the show. Perhaps in real life she is as dislikeable as she appeared, but if she was turning it up for the cameras then she was making a big mistake. Reality TV shows can have a massive effect on you afterwards. Your reputation is on the line, but if in real life you are generally perceived in a positive way, then it is best to keep this persona on screen. As Bishop says: “Be yourself. A lot of people go on these shows thinking they can act like someone they aren’t and they don’t pull it off. They end up coming across like they have a split personality.”

There is often the accusation made against some reality shows that people are told to act up or say things they don’t mean. Webb says TV producers are unlikely to understand business in the same way as you do, so you must be firm with them about what you are and are not prepared to do. 

“You have to argue your point,” he says. “I didn’t have any editing control, but I wouldn’t say anything to the camera that I didn’t believe in.”

The confrontational nature of shows like Dragons’ Den has led to accusations that the Dragons are hamming it up. However, Caan disagrees, saying: “There are no restrictions and no one says you need to be mean or nice. There has never been any time where the BBC has asked me to be tougher.”

So why is there such a confrontational atmosphere? “The reason is that the Dragons believe the opportunity is life changing and feel passionately that, if you get this opportunity, to then come on the show and not be prepared is very disappointing,” he says. “You take it seriously and prepare carefully, but then you get people who don’t know their numbers.”

Broadcast rights

You also need to carefully consider what you’re signing. Most contracts will have a certain degree of non-disclosure attached to them. Most of this is with regards to talking to the press prior to broadcast, but check this isn’t too onerous. You may well need independent legal advice and shouldn’t rush into anything. It is key that the programme benefits your business, so you can’t afford to be restricted too much.

“Read your contract carefully, considering the international marketing and internet rights,” Bishop advises. “Make sure you are protected, in case the show really takes off and is sold to other countries – that’s where the production companies make their money.” 

Ben Way , who took part in The Secret Millionaire, gets a surge of interest each time his episode is broadcast in a new country. “The funny thing is that I know every time the programme is aired, because I get hundreds of Facebook requests,” he says.

Life on the set

As a business owner, you might be used to telling others what to do, but you need to accept that on a TV show you’re the one being directed. The crews work long and hard, and ultimately have no choice but to make it work. The take has to be right, the set needs to be perfect and they must put together a show that will be bought by a TV channel. Re-filming costs a fortune, so prima donnas are not welcome. You must also understand that the show is a package of which you are just one part. People don’t like to be stereotyped or pigeon-holed, but this can happen. The eight entrepreneurs on Millionaires’ Mission weren’t over the moon when the title of the show was revealed. “I never knew it was going to be called that. They changed the title from The Mission at the last minute,” Bishop recalls.

Life on set is hard work and you might also be surprised by how much filming needs to take place. Millionaires’ Mission, which comprised four 45-minute episodes, was drawn from 1,800 hours of filming; Caan says he does 20 days’ filming from 8am to 8pm over a 10-week period for Dragons’ Den; whereas Risking it All involved one full day of shooting per month for seven months.

“It is not as glamorous as you think; there’s a lot of hanging about and sitting in second-rate hotels,” says Webb. “It takes a long time to get the bits the director wants. It is a lot harder to walk down the street and talk to a camera than you might think.”

Also, don’t expect to have any editing control over the show. None of the entrepreneurs featured here had any say over the final edit, and most only saw the show either just before or when it was broadcast.

Reality is the wrong word

TV is not, and cannot be, real life, so you should expect there to be a substantial amount of editing and tailoring for the audience. Also, the programme has to tell a story that can be understood by the audience. As Webb says: “There are certain constraints and conclusions that need to be made before the end of the show. It also has to be televisual; you have to come up with things that work on camera, so talking about improving web sales might not work.”

There are also legal constraints that you must appreciate, as well as ethics regarding fairness and balance. You might expect TV producers to want to sensationalise in the first instance, but this is too much of a generalisation. Way recalls how parts of his experience were cut. “What happened was even harder and more extreme than what was showed,” he recalls. “For example, there was a stabbing in the club I was working at while they were filming, and they decided to leave that out, even though it would have added to the drama; they were very responsible.”

Regular viewers of Dragons’ Den may have observed that a deal is always struck in every episode – this is no coincidence. “We film 20 days and then the BBC edits them all into episodes,” explains Caan. “So you could have a contestant from the first day followed by one from day 20. People have noticed that Deborah always wears the same outfit. I wear the same suit, same tie, same watch and even my beard is trimmed precisely the same for continuity purposes.”  

Being broadcast

Most people feel a twang of embarrassment when they seen themselves on video, so be prepared for a much bigger level of discomfort when you appear on the box. “The first time I watched it I cringed,” recalls Azeem. But he became used to the idea after he was reassured by friends. “If I came across as an idiot, it would be bad, but I came across as myself, and people who I know who have watched it said it was me.” Caan was shown no preview of his debut Dragons’ Den performance until it was broadcast and was equally on edge as he sat watching. “I felt really embarrassed,” he says. “I thought: ‘God, did I really say that?’ and realised I stroked my beard more than I thought.”

Both men have done well since, although some entrepreneurs do appear badly. Webb helped a number of struggling businesses on TV and while most benefited some didn’t, but he feels this was just desserts. “For anyone who came across badly, it was probably their own fault. I think they were all quite fairly presented.”

Is there life after Dragons’ Deen?

If you choose to brave the Dragons don’t be too perturbed if you don’t get investment…

Rowland Omamor and Eli Huttner, of Restaurant Innovations, appeared on Dragons’ Den in April 2006 to seek investment for their automated table ordering product, iServe. However, it was in prototype stage and, although Peter Jones expressed some interest, it was rejected. Initially, the pair were disappointed, but the broadcast drove interest to the company. Since then it has signed a deal with the University of Hertfordshire to develop iServe for market. “Securing the deal was easy as we had received massive publicity and the university already knew who we were,” says Omamor. iServe was launched at the Restaurant Show last October.

Shane Lake , founder of Hungry House, actually secured an offer from Duncan Bannatyne and James Caan for his take-away website service. However, after filming had ended, the deal went sour during the due diligence phase. Four months after filming it was called off. Nevertheless, traffic to his site soared after the broadcast and has never returned to previous levels. “We got 20,000 visitors to the site in the first 30 minutes after the show aired,” says Lake. “We added extra servers, but even our increased capacity struggled with that first surge of traffic in the minutes after the show went out.” 

Abiola Ajayi-obe, of SmartChartz, was rejected for funding, but benefited from the publicity. Her words should inspire anyone who has left the Den empty handed. “It made me more determined as I wanted to prove them wrong,” she says.



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