So, was she as scary as the dragon in the den – we’re talking about Deborah Meaden here!
We were hugely privileged to see and meet Deborah Meaden (from Dragons Den) at an Entrepreneurs Circle event a couple of weeks ago.
And she was lovely! Very down to earth and a huge inspiration to all that attended the event. She followed up her talk with a long ‘no holds barred’ Q&A session.
Let’s begin at the beginning. Since the age of 7, Deborah described herself as being single-minded and wilful. The family had little money, but Deborah had a very resourceful Mum who was always on the lookout for opportunities. One instance of Deborah’s wilfulness came about when she was 11 years old. Miffed that her elder sister had managed to acquire a small pet, Deborah saved up £50 from her first paid job (leading pony rides along Minehead seafront) and bought herself a pony!
Needless to say, her family were not at all ‘amused’ given that the pony had to live in their small garden!
Deborah’s first businesses
Deborah wasn’t quite sure what to do, all she knew was that she “really wanted to take control of her life and didn’t want to take too much instruction!” Her very first job was as a Bingo caller. It was the key job that taught her about business, in particular, customer service, customer care and “the power of properly knowing your customers”.
As an 18/19 year old, Deborah started her first business as an Italian exporter (set up mainly because she had an Italian boyfriend who she followed to Italy). She saw lovely products in Milan and approached people to ask if she could bring their goods into the UK (including into Harrods, Fortnum and Mason). As sales started to drop off, she realised that her role as the “middle man” (“middle-woman!”) was being cut out and the business subsequently failed.
Next, Deborah and her partner purchased one of the first Stefanel textile franchises in the UK. After 2 years, she sold it for a profit.
Next, Deborah decided to join her parents business by running the operational side its amusement arcade. Four years later, Deborah joined the family’s Weststar Holidays business (a holiday park based in Exeter) and in 1999, she led a management buyout and acquired the majority shareholding – she “wanted a business that she could grow”, and it worked. She turned sites into “villages that surpassed her customers home life”
Deborah said that she always “went for things that she didn’t know she couldn’t do!” and that she felt she was a “generalist – business is business, it doesn’t really matter what it is”.
Getting it right: “customers will be far more forgiving if they like you”. You have to be at ease, comfortable and inviting with your customers and this ethos was cascaded down to Deborah’s staff – “organisations behave in the way that influencers do”.
Deborah personally got involved with all aspects of the business (“part of her toolbox”) – she “wasn’t an expert, but knew enough”.
Flexibility and mood: How do you sell your product? You have to understand what your customers are feeling and what matters to them. Ask yourself “what do my customers feel about me?” Customers will buy if they trust you.
Have a direction and a loose plan.
Tackle the big stuff first – if you don’t, the little stuff can kill the big stuff.
(As an aside, there is a brilliant little book that focuses on this called “Eat that Frog”).
Deborah currently works with 19 businesses from Dragons Den although she has invested in 45 businesses.
In particular, two of the Dragons Den businesses are doing extremely well (Dock and Bay – should do £10 million next year, and Hope & Ivy (women’s occasionwear).
When asked what she felt was the worst Dragon’s Den pitch, she thought for a moment and said “False Finger Nails for Cats!”
Regrets on pitches lost – “Levi Roots”. Deborah confessed to looking at the numbers too much (they were miles out!). She learnt from that!
When making a decision about a pitch, the final switch for Deborah is the gut: “Do I trust you. Do I believe we can do business together?”
Filming Dragons Den
It takes 1½ days to film each session. Deborah comes in at 7.00am to start filming at 9.30am. Sometimes the filming goes on until about 9.30pm.
When filming, all the dragons go out to dinner each night. When asked (if she was single) which of the Dragons she would go on a ‘date’ with, she tactfully declined to answer!
Deborah loves animals and is a trustee of an African wildlife project.
Today, Deborah likes riding and walking her dogs (she would have loved to have been a professional show jumper, but said she wasn’t good enough).
Deborah and her husband live in a house that was built in stages between 1565 and 1765 when it was bequeathed to William Pitt the Elder (who of course went on to become Prime Minister). The house was very ‘run down’ when Deborah and her husband purchased it – she confessed to spending huge amounts of money on renovating the property (using period materials).
Each morning, Deborah walks barefoot around her garden (rain, shine, snow) – she does this to “ground herself”.
What a fascinating, inspirational and humbling talk Deborah – thank you.
More about Deborah Weaden
Written by Prue Deane