Dragons Den: Season 16, Episode 4

Episode Four of Dragons’ Den saw four start-up businesses run the gauntlet

Episode Four of Dragons’ Den (BBC Two, 1 September 2018) saw four start-up businesses run the gauntlet by pitching for investment in their businesses to the BBC’s five potentially fiery tycoons. As an expert in the psychology of high performance in business, what did I see in the contestants that might give clues to business success?

It’s worth beginning by pointing out that as a TV show the Den is as much about entertainment as it is about business. It thrives on those evil twins of reality TV: conflict and humiliation.

This episode had a bit of both although the conflict was mostly between the dragons! (These tycoons do like to be heard and were quick to have a go at one another when interrupted.) But, putting the artifice to one side, in-the-moment performance is important in growing one’s business whether in investor presentations, sales meetings or other pivotal encounters on the way to commercial success. Whatever stage your business is at, you will need to take people with you and that will sometimes mean dealing with difficult questions and responding to challenges.

There are three inter-related qualities that predict success in business: confidence, self-control and resilience. These are dimensions of mental toughness that successful entrepreneurs need to sustain over long periods and, most importantly, need to exhibit when nobody is looking. But on Saturday evening, four startups had the spotlight shone on them – how did they get on as millions watched?

Confidence

All participants came across as having no shortage of confidence. This should not come as a surprise – a contestant without it would be unlikely to get through the audition process. So, before the dragons began their inevitable assault, all the opening pitches were polished and credible. Barbara and Eileen of StrawWorks had a winning natural self-belief, something that comes with deep immersion in one’s business over time.

Confidence alone is not, of course, a predictor of success, particularly on talent shows – witness the legions of highly confident hopefuls on X-Factor. If not backed up by sufficient experience or a proven commercial model, it risks appearing delusional. This is a trap that the three founders of online art marketplace Feral Horses fell into, so much so that Peter Jones actually used the D-word to their faces. Not a good sign for their investment prospects, it turned out.

Self-Control

In a performance situation, self-control is needed to deal with criticism and tough questions, often difficult when passion and personal attachment are high. While Leila looked visibly bruised by criticisms of her product and business, she succeeded in not taking it personally and held her nerve. This meant that she was better placed to bide her time and bounce back (see Resilience).

The other contestants to receive an onslaught of negative comment were Feral Horses. CEO Francesco made the mistake of getting inflamed at Peter Jones’s direct but entirely justifiable reservations. This only put them on the back foot and made him seem defensive.

Resilience

Resilience is our ability to bounce back from adversity, something abundant for most contestants on Dragons’ Den. A rare exception this week was Infuse My Colour from Rob and Denis who attracted three competing investment offers from the Dragons with barely a negative word. This reflected the advanced state of their business and the great story they had to tell.

Leila took a lot of early criticism from the Dragons about her travel wear business but she held her nerve and pushed back valiantly. This shows where success in business can sometimes be about rhetoric – she pushed back and was applauded for it by Deborah who then went on to invest.

Eileen and Barbara of StrawWorks lost early momentum when they were exposed as merely a design agency with no manufacturing capability. Was this a known gap that they hoped would be passed over? If so, they miscalculated as it caused all five Dragons to call themselves out in spite of high levels of early enthusiasm. Resilience is also about being open about weaknesses and leaning into them. If they had been upfront about getting their product manufactured abroad but presented this as an interim step, maybe their outcome would have been different.

Ian Price is a performance psychologist and author of Head Start: Build a Resilient Mindset so You Can Achieve Your Goals published by Pearson and available on Amazon.