Fresh from stepping off the stage at Sage Summit in London, Deborah Meaden sat down with Real Business to exclusively discuss what she’s up to away from the cameras and the skills the business builder believes are essential for 21st century success.
Meaden has occupied a seat on the well-known TV show, which has seen household names such as Tangle Teezer, Trunki and hungryhouse pitch for investment, since 2006 – during which time she’s invested hundreds of thousands of pounds in up-and-coming ventures.
So what does Meaden look for when it comes to an investable business, how has her approach to finding them changed and what are today’s entrepreneurs doing wrong?
“When I first started on Dragons’ Den I assumed there was a basic level of business knowledge, but learnt very quickly there wasn’t,” she remembered.
“For me it’s about learning about the opportunity as well as the experience and knowledge within the business – I need to know how to leverage it.”
One test Meaden likes to conduct is working out whether she thinks those pitching to her know how to make money. It’s all well and good having a sound idea, but the team’s ability to make money out of it in the long run is more crucial.
“Dragons’ Den has played a big part in the the development of entrepreneurialism [in the UK]. I get 11 year-olds coming up to me in the street talking about EBITDA as they hear about it on TV and it’s now a language they understand,” she added.
“I like to think the show has made a difference, business is not just about an idea but also trying to sell it.”
Away from the bright lights and cameras, Meaden has her own business empire. One company she was keen to draw particular attention to was Fox Brothers. Once a small-time garment producer in Somerset, the last woollen mill in the South West of England, the outfit was bought by the business builder seven years ago.
“It was old, dusty and irrelevant, but because of it’s ‘Britishness’ and heritage I acquired it and turned it round so that we’re now exporting all around the world to the likes of Hermes and Chanel.”
When pressed, Meaden put the resurgence in the business, which has been making cloths in the West Country since 1772, down to making it relevant in today’s economy – leveraging its history but working out which would be appropriate buyers.
As someone who gets numerous business proposals landing on her desk, as well as those shown on a Sunday night when Dragons’ Den is running, Meaden has learnt a thing or two about the difference between a business person and an entrepreneur.
“I know lots of business people who have done really well but are not what I’d call ‘entrepreneurs’,” she noted. “Entrepreneurs take risks and are courageous, that is what is common there. I’ve observed businesses not prepared to take risk, to push the boundaries, as well as those which have done so too much.”
For Meaden, a successful entrepreneur is someone who knows how to push the boundaries but not risk the entire business – a fine line between taking risk, but not too much.
“I also see entrepreneurial people get bogged down and lose flair as they become too busy, that’s why it’s important to look up and take stock,” she advised.
Deborah Meaden advice
By appearing at events such as Sage Summit, a now multi-continent entrepreneurial set of events put on by the British accounting software business, Meaden is standing by her mantra that mentorship provides an important contribution to growth.
“We need to say calm and reassure people that this state of flux is forever, not just now. People need to embrace fast change, as it’s only going to get faster – so learn how to enjoy it.
“But be clear about what matters with your business, as with what is going on right now it is easy to under or over react.”
Those wanting to be successful in entrepreneurship must focus on ensuring their product or service is markedly “better” than what existed before, she advised.
While we all still want to “eat, drink, feel safe and enjoy our lives” – things which don’t change – Meaden highlighted the way in which these things are delivered will evolve.
“Business is very simple, but the world is moving at a fast rate. We no longer have the luxury of being long-winded. Companies that are fleet of foot will be the ones that will survive – those that are tuned in and know what is going on.
“Make sure you have quick and robust decision processes as increasingly businesses will need to be flexible in what is bought in and needed.”
Meaden has made a career out of backing the right horses, often under the intense pressures of a BBC camera. Her delight for businesses which are prepared to take a risk is evident. However, our conversation with her left me feeling business owners today face a constant battle of knowing when to floor it and when to switch pedal.