Dragons’ Den: Series 12, episode 7

This week the Dragons were divided over a solution to sinking heels, found hilarity in leggings for me and fought over a photo booth venture

It seemed to be a battle of the sexes this week with two female entrepreneurs walking into the lift with the backing of two Dragons each, while – save for two young brothers – the boys failed to impress.

While the founders of Clean Heels and high-visibility clothing business Equisafety won the Dragons over, three aspiring menswear entrepreneurs were not so fortunate. Almost laughed out of the den they suffered the ignominy of having their business dubbed by the Dragons as the “most ridiculous pitch ever”.

Ali Stevenson

Company: Clean Heels Ltd
Concept: Device to stop high heels sinking in grass at outdoor events
Investment sought: £50,000 for 15% equity
Investment received: £50,000 for 25% equity split between Deborah Meaden and Kelly Hoppen

The pitch:

Calm confident and assertive, Ali Stevenson entered in high heels and left in high spirits after winning investment for an idea so simple it’s a wonder it hasn’t been done before. Stevenson was seeking £50,000 for rubberised heel stoppers to prevent ladies high heels sinking in the grass at outdoor events.

The Dragons’ erupted in fits of laughter when the entrepreneur claimed older women liked her invention to “stabilise” themselves, prompting Peter Jones to suggest Deborah Meaden try them out for herself. The businesswoman tried walking on a sheet of turf with and without the stoppers and was remarkably impressed at what a difference they made.

Buoyed by the successful demonstration Stevenson got down to details – a pair of stoppers retailed at £4.99 and cost just 42p to make, she’d sold 250,000 units since starting in 2006 and 53,000 in the last year. Meaden had initial fears about the length of time she’d been trading, but these were dissipated when the entrepreneur revealed a struggle with breast cancer had set her back, adding – she’d fully recovered and was “raring to go”.

From the outset there was a divide along gender lines, with Meaden and Kelly Hoppen impressed by the cost effective product’s simplicity and marketability, but the male dragons concerned about the possibility of imitations and pricing strategy. Bannatyne joked that he would carry some round to offer to ladies in distress.

But Stevenson seemed to have all the answers, even under the intense scrutiny of Jones who, though he liked the product, said he could see it in Primark and pound stores for 99p. She pointed out that five pounds to protect a pair of expensive shoes was perfectly reasonable.

When Piers Linney had questions about the possibility of people replicating the stoppers and whether the target market was big enough, Stevenson revealed she’s tried every other shape and they don’t work. She also claimed there was a potential market of one billion heeled, grass walking women in the world.

After sparring with Jones, Meaden offered the full £50,000 for 25% of the business. Hoppen matched the offer, while the three men, though highly impressed with her and her pitch, all bowed out.

Stevenson boldly asked if the two women would consider joining together; they coolly locked eyes and subsequently agreed much to her relief, but wouldn’t agree to go down to 20% equity between them as Meaden stated, “you’d just become another investment”.

Start-up business lesson: Even if you don’t have all the answers, preparing a retort to questions about the problem areas of your business plan will avoid you looking dumb and clueless.

Tom Hunt, Luke Shipley, Joe Hollingworth

Company: sTitch Leggings
Concept: Fashion leggings for men
Investment sought: £20,000 for 20% equity
Investment received: None

The pitch:

In a pitch that the Dragons later agreed was the “most ridiculous” they’ve ever had, three young entrepreneurs tried to garner investment to launch ‘meggings’ into the mainstream.

In a catwalk entrance, six men in garish, patterned ‘meggings’ strode confidently from the lift and stopped like a boy band in the middle of the floor. The front three handed out sample ‘meggings’ to the Dragons before peeling off and leaving the room.

Beginning their pitch before a panel of variously befuddled and bemused visages, it seemed the boys had already lost. Opening with a somewhat dry anecdote about how attending a party dressed in leggings had left them looking and feeling good, they said they decided to start a company that would “enable men to wear what they want as opposed to what they should”.

Rather than question the boys on their business plan, Meaden opened proceedings by asking if they’d come up with the idea as a joke in the pub. Even after they assured her of their sincerity – in a humiliating ritual Jones asked them to raise their hands and ‘swear by the almighty dragon’ that the pitch was genuine.

Concerns about its veracity aside, things went from bad to worse as one by one the Dragons tore ruthlessly into their lacklustre business plan. With responses ranging from all out mocking, Jones: “Have you looked in a mirror?” Hoppen: “You look absolutely ridiculous” to Bannatyne simply asking, “why are you doing this?” the three aspiring entrepreneurs’ response that it represents “a natural progression from the skinny jean” failed to convince.

Even with a last ditch attempt to regain credibility by saying that two of the largest male fashion retailers in the UK now stock male leggings, Meaden parried by claiming she’d seen far cooler and smarter leggings than theirs. “What’s new? What’s different?”

The boys re-entered the lift embarrassed and dejected with the Dragons all agreeing it was the most ridiculous idea they’d ever heard, but this wouldn’t be the first time a venture dismissed by the Dragons has gone on to prove them wrong. So while we’re all entitled to an opinion, let’s wait and see!

Start-up business lesson: If you’re going to pitch business angel with a business idea that’s likely to invite ridicule, make sure your case and traction-to-date are enough to blow them away. Evidence of sales, orders, profits and market growth can turn the most sceptical investor.

Hyrum Cook, Joshua Cook

Company: Zeven Media
Concept: Internet enabled Photo Booth
Investment sought: £50,000 for 7.5%
Investment received: £50,000 for 25%

Brothers Hyrum and Joshua went from an initially rocky start to win the Dragons round with a cheeky charm and canny entrepreneurship and attract three offers.

The brothers hoped to transform the photo booth market with a high-end integrated, contemporary photo booth they designed specifically for retail outlets, bars clubs, hotels and restaurants.

What differentiated their product is its sleek design and the ability to instantly share photos on Facebook and Twitter. They claimed to have turned over £120,000 in 12 months through rentals at £650 for six hours, and had worked with some of the world’s leading brands.

The investment would be used to create a coin operating system and sell the product to venues. From there they would hope to do 1oo prints creating £300 in turnover from which they would keep 80%. Each machine costs £3,200 to build and they’d sell them for £9,595.

An impressive and well rehearsed pitch; but were the Dragons impressed? Hoppen was first to offer her opinion commending the brothers on their design, saying she was going to get one for a party but it was so ugly.

For a moment it seemed Jones – who owns Jessops – would completely derail the duo after exposing their lack of research, he said they should be “embarrassed” at not having realised he would be competition. He had further concerns about the price and that a photo Hoppen had taken with the machine was “boring”.

With the atmosphere sufficiently soured, Meaden opened up a new line of enquiry about the origins of the business. The younger Cook explained that they run the business from the premises of their older brothers’ renewable energy company – who also pay for their internet and insurance in return for a small stake in the business.

Meaden asked how long they’d be prepared to put up with that, to which he replied that they’d move out when they were bigger than their brothers. This prompted a laugh and alleviated the nervous tension left by Jones’ interrogation. From there things started to lighten up and after eliciting a few more laughs from the stern Dragons it seemed they might receive some investment after all.

Linney was the first to bow out saying he was certain they’d make money somehow. Jones followed saying that ultimately he couldn’t invest in competition and even went so far as to admit that their product was enough to worry him.

Bannatyne kicked the offers off – seemingly just to be in competition with Jones – with the full £50,000 for 20%, Hoppen was also impressed and made an identical offer. Meaden played her hand by revealing she had a history in the coin operated machine industry and could offer them contacts but for 25% of the business.

The brothers took a few moments to confer in a dark corner before returning to ask Meaden if she’d consider dropping down to 20% after she’d had a return on her £50,000 investment. She paused for a while before agreeing with a smile, citing their personalities as major factors in her agreement.

Start-up business lesson: Make sure you research all the Dragons before your pitch to see potential conflicts of interest or how they match up to your business idea.

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