Deborah Meaden: Dragons’ Den [Video]

Dragons' Den investor and successful entrepreneur Deborah Meaden talks to Startups

Responding exclusively to Startups’ questions from Julian Fisher, Dragons’ Den star Deborah Meaden offers a fascinating insight into the role of a business mentor, as she talks about her own experience spearheading the Local Business Accelerators scheme.

Started in 2011, the scheme plans to boost the profile of local small businesses across the country, offering 1,500 entrepreneurs mentoring from a local business leader, with one lucky winner set to receive dedicated guidance from Meaden herself.

Outlining her own role as business mentor, Meaden explains that the role of a mentor is not to offer a “shoulder to cry on” but to provide “clarity of vision and purpose” for a business. A mentor should not offer all the answers, Meaden explains, but “ask all the right questions”. When asked about what makes a good mentor, Meaden explains that perceptiveness, above all, marks out the best mentors – explaining that when she spends time in a business, often the real problems are “not what is being talked about, but what isn’t.”

In addition, Meaden explains, the role of a mentor should be to help a business achieve independence as soon as possible. Far from being an ongoing element of the business, a business mentor should provide business owners with the tools they need to “eliminate the need [for a mentor] as soon as possible.” In practice, she explains, entrepreneurs normally let go of the need for a mentor as they discover their own direction, and the phone calls dry up.

Asked for an example, Meaden cites her experience with a “great business” she is involved in, West Country textile mill Fox Brothers, and how she deals with the challenge of differentiating it from the competition – “well, it’s a textile business, it makes cloth, what else can it do?”.

In response to this challenge, Meaden reveals a strategy to produce “very, very high-end” and “unashamedly expensive” retail products in collaboration with business partners. This represents a different direction for the business than was originally envisaged, Meaden explains, but it was in response to a pressing need for brand exposure – “we need to give people a reason to know about our name” – and the high-end retail arm represents a route to that.

When asked to give one top tip for finding a mentor for your business, Meaden tells business owners not to look to someone they like, but someone who “could help your business best” – be it a figure in the news, or someone you know personally. Then, you should “write down the attributes” of that person, and use that to seek out a mentor that possesses those attributes.

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Best known as one of the veteran investors of BBC Two’s Dragons’ Den, Meaden is one of Britain’s most respected female entrepreneurs.

After setting up and selling one of the first Stefanel textile franchises in the UK, Meaden bought out family holiday park operator Weststar Holidays in 1999, growing it into a business with an EBITDA in excess of £11m. The entrepreneur sold Weststar in a major deal worth around £83m, representing a highly successful exit for Meaden.

Since then she has acquired a number of other businesses including textile mill Fox Brothers – breathing new life into the business by launching premium retail arm ‘The Merchant Fox’ in 2011.

Meaden has invested more than £2m in businesses on Dragons’ Den, ranging from roll-up whiteboard company Magic Whiteboard to online antiques valuations business Value My Stuff, and from kids’ activity packs brand YUUworld to exercise product business The Running Mat.

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