Dragons’ Den: Series 15, Episode 10

Sunday night's episode saw two entrepreneurs with disruptive inventions take home investments from multiple Dragons. Here's how they won them over...

In the same week that one of the Den’s youngest investees Jordan Daykin – founder of Deborah Meaden-backed GripIt Fixings – acquired his father’s automotive firm Vehicle Preparation Services Group Ltd (VPS), we also saw Dragons’ Den‘s first new episode of 2018.

On Sunday night, a revolutionary bricklaying invention, a Black Mirror-esque child tracking device, astronaut-inspired snacks and a “life-changing” product for wheelchair users were all pitched in the Den, with their founders hoping to secure a relationship with one (or more) of the Dragons.

Only two of these start-up businesses sealed deals with the seasoned investors, overcoming intense grillings, unfortunate mistakes and even a brush with unconsciousness.

Read on to learn how these entrepreneurs tamed the Dragons…

Dragons’ Den success story: EcoSpot

Founder: John Boff
Concept: An adjustable mortarboard for bricklayers
Investment sought: £25,000 in exchange for 15% equity
Investment received: £25,000 for 35% equity (Deborah Meaden)

The winning pitch

With 27 years’ experience as a bricklayer, Welsh inventor John Boff entered the Den with the EcoSpot: a round, cement-holding mortarboard affixed to an adjustable scaffold, enabling bricklayers to scoop fresh cement without having to bend over and strain their backs – with Boff stating that the product reduces musculoskeletal injuries by 70%, according to a University of Swansea trial.

After a fun demonstration which saw the Dragons don hardhats and high-vis vests, however, Boff’s road got a little more bumpy.

Despite having been impressed by what Deborah Meaden said could be “the next big safety thing for building sites”, the Dragons were concerned when Boff revealed that he hadn’t sold any of his 90 units, but had instead been renting them out at a rate of £1 per day (a price so low it had the Dragons flinching).

Equal parts humble and fiercely defensive, Boff was quick to point out that he works full-time, only running the business during evenings and weekends, and that he – a construction manager – wouldn’t pay more than £1 himself. But he conceded he’d be open to selling to larger, more affluent construction firms, and when he told the Dragons he’d turned over an impressive £20,000 despite his low prices, they jumped back onside.

However, a grilling about the product’s patent protection saw Boff come unstuck. He believed his product to be fully protected but, after examining his paperwork, Meaden exasperatedly explained that only Boff’s particular design was registered, and so its concept could legally be taken and re-worked by competitors – and so, while he might be its inventor, he would likely not make much money off it.

Following this blow, Peter Jones seemed ready to opt out. But, won over by Boff’s revolutionary idea, he made the surprising and unusual offer of one fifth of the money for 7.5% of the business: a deal which would require all the other Dragons to work. One by one, each agreed to invest £5,000 for an equal share.

However, Meaden was of the opinion that – as the saying goes – too many cooks would spoil the broth, and so offered Boff all of the money herself, but for a considerable 35% stake.

After struggling to decide between a single Dragon with construction industry experience versus four for the price of one, Boff boldly proclaimed that he had “no interest in talking to the wall” and cemented a deal with Meaden.

Company finances

  • £20,000 turnover

What the Dragons said:

Peter Jones: “When you first came in and demonstrated this, I almost thought it was bizarre and it was going to be a bit of fun. I can’t believe I’m about to say this, but it clearly does – it works. My personal sense about all of this, is that this idea and concept lives or dies by the protection you believe you’ve got. If you have a patent that gives you full protection on that, this could change the construction industry forever. I think you could have a highly valuable business.

“I’m going to offer you part of the money, because I think if you had several Dragons, it could work. But I think it’s more than that. I do think you’ve got an opportunity of putting several thousand of these into the construction industry, and that means that I would get my money back very quickly, and I’ve got pretty much low risk.”

Touker Suleyman: “John, I think you need a break, and you’re good. And in my view, I could quite easily say ‘I’ll give you all the money’. But I would join with Peter.”

Jenny Campbell: “I too could offer the whole money and would kind of love that as well. But I think there’s something really powerful about putting more Dragons behind this for everything that they bring. So I will join the merry team of Dragons.”

Tej Lalvani: “I think that you’d be a delight to work with; your passionate energy – you believe in this product, and I think that’s a great sign. I’d like to make you an offer too.”

Deborah Meaden: “I sometimes think the power of more Dragons is very, very powerful. But in this instance, I don’t. You need to speak to the people who make decisions all day, every day on those sites about how they’re going to run them. I have businesses that are in there with products on test right now – all of the big builders. So I’m going to make you an offer, but I’m going to be greedy. It’s for all of the money, and I want 35% of the business.”

Dragons’ Den success story: Staels Design (wheelAIR)

Founder: Corien Staels
Concept: A cooling backrest cushion for wheelchair users
Investment sought: £75,000 in exchange for 15% equity
Investment received: £75,000 for 30% equity, to drop to 20% once the investment is repaid (Peter Jones and Deborah Meaden)

The winning pitch

Though her invention offers a unique yet simple solution to a widespread problem, 25-year-old Belgian entrepreneur Corien Staels suffered through a dice with the Dragons that was more difficult than most.

Pitching her remote-controlled, “award-winning, battery-powered airflow backrest cushion” which gently pumps cool air onto wheelchair users’ backs to keep them comfortable and prevent overheating, Staels started strong, with a gleaming endorsement from double Paralympian Michael Kerr, who joined Staels for the opening of her pitch.

Though Staels had already garnered plenty of interest and predicted capturing £45m in the UK alone, she explained that she needed the Dragons’ help to manufacture and distribute the product, which she hoped would “change every wheelchair user’s life”.

Jenny Campbell clapped as Staels informed them that she had a bachelors in international fashion management and a masters in international business and entrepreneurship, while Startups Awards judge Touker Suleyman joked “Perhaps I can give you a job!”

But things started to go downhill when Staels explained that her product costs £127 to make and retails at £575, which the Dragons felt was too expensive – though Staels argued that anything lower would make the product less credible. Not to be put off, textile expert Suleyman suggested that he’d be able to lower the production costs and retail price dramatically.

When Staels revealed that she was applying for a grant to develop a cushion that both cools and heats, Jones questioned why she should use public funds instead of re-investing her own profits as a self-sustaining business – and when asked about her revenues, Staels haltingly cited £4m after three years and 800 units sold. Explaining that she knew all of her numbers but the high pressure of the Den was making them fly out of her brain, she couldn’t tell the Dragons what her gross margin would be.

When a relentless Jones asked how she had reached a £500,000 valuation, Staels admitted that she was going to pass out and had to take a seat in her display wheelchair.

Having recovered outside of the Den, Staels bravely returned to hear the Dragons’ verdict. Campbell declared herself out with several stern words, but the product’s potentially life-changing capabilities had won the others over. Tej Lalvani and Suleyman offered to each pay half of the money for 20% equity, while Jones and Meaden offered to pay half each for 15%, undercutting Lalvani and Suleyman by 10% equity.

Keen to seal the deal for themselves, Suleyman and Lalvani matched Jones and Meaden’s offer, and an eager Suleyman quickly offered to drop his 15% to 10% once the investment is paid back. However, Staels asked Meaden and Jones if they would do the same – and when they agreed, she opted to close a deal with them.

Company finances

  • Three-year forecast of £2.5m turnover – selling 1,000 products by year three

What the Dragons said:

Jenny Campbell: “There’s a lot of things I don’t like. You clearly come under pressure under your numbers, despite you being a distinction student. You haven’t shown the business acumen that comes with this, not to me. The thing I take most issue with is an 85% margin for a product where you’re trying to help people. I take issue with it, and I don’t have confidence in you becoming a businesswoman and this being scalable. And for that reason, Corien, I am out.”

Tej Lalvani: “I think there’s quite a bit of risk. However, I think that, if it’s a unique product, with the right support and the right backing, it could do okay.”

“I don’t think there’s anyone here who is more passionate about health. That is my business. That’s what we do, we help improve people’s lives.”

Touker Suleyman: “I don’t think you can work on such huge margins. If you could bring the cost of that unit down to £40, then you could retail that for £199. How does that sound to you? Look, there are a lot of question marks. I’m the Dragon for you – I think you know that. And I’ll share the risk with Tej.”

Peter Jones: “What I feel is that there is a real, huge opportunity, actually, for your product to enter the market, and you can see how it’s potentially life-changing. I’m going to make you an offer. But mine is conditional upon the fact that, if Deborah is interested, that I would share with Deborah.”

Deborah Meaden: “I don’t know if you know, a very close member of my family is in a wheelchair. As a result of my sister’s problems, I’ve actually been involved with project designing a wheelchair. I would have made you an offer in any event, but Peter and I work very well together. We’ve worked on many other projects, and I know that we can both add value. So, I’m going to make you an offer.”