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I only wanted to raise £1 when I went on Dragons’ Den

Recent Dragons’ Den success story Active Away tells Real Business why it went on the investor show with a very clear, and unusual, goal in mind.
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The BBC’s Dragons’ Den has now been on our screens since 2005, during which time hundreds of businesses have pitched to the 15 investors who have been part of it.

Companies walking away with a handshake and an investment commitment have grown to the stage where 23 offers were made in the last full series. However, it’s a well known industry “secret” that around a half of these deals collapse once the cameras stop rolling.

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One business to have recently appeared on Dragons’ Den, been offered growth cash and then been able to make it happen behind the scenes is Active Away – a ten year-old tennis holiday company run by Steve Davies and Matt Allen.

The duo appeared on the show on 28 December, when a multi-investor bidding war saw Peter Jones commit £24,000 for a 20 per cent stake in the business. But all was not as it appeared on camera, as Real Business discovered when it sat down with Davies.

His is a company that was established in the midst of the global financial crash, a hard period to make what was essentially a luxury offering work. Davies is a born and bred tennis man, having been the 2007 British team doubles champion and 2008/9 British over 35s doubles champion.

In a nine-year period before establishing Active Away, Davies was racquets manager with David Lloyd Leisure – giving him exposure to some wealthy clients, one of which wanted him to take her husband and friends away on a 40th birthday tennis holiday.

This got him thinking about doing it full time and before long he was taking 30 people away each year and planning for the future.

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Matt Allen and Steve Davies

So, you might be thinking, what is a decade-old business which is established and profitable doing on Dragons’ Den? It’s normally a show for disruptive and young offerings run by teams in dire need of money to get things rolling. However, Active Away and its founders saw a unique opportunity that could help the business reach its true potential – Peter Jones.

It’s well known that Jones, the only investor to have been on the show since it first aired, is a big tennis fan having actually trained to be a coach before switching tact and going into the business world.

Alongside seeing Dragons’ Den as a great way of getting their offering before a big TV audience and getting some free marketing, the real hook was the desire to have Peter Jones’ expertise and face to serve as the front to future trading.

While the Active Away pitch was condensed down to just over 15 minutes when it aired, the two were actually before the Dragons’ Den investors for two and a half hours.

“Peter was the first to declare an interest, but the BBC didn’t present it that way [on TV],” Davies told us. “We were surprised by the bidding battle, but once Peter came in then we knew that the others would be biting. With Deborah, it came across like we weren’t interested in what she had to say but we actually listed to her for half an hour.”

What was most unusual about Active Away and its pitch on Dragons’ Den was what Davies actually submitted on his application form when the ball first got rolling.

“We wrote in asking for £1, the first ever giving five per cent for £1,” he revealed. “We went in for exposure and to get Peter on board. In the end we went on asking for £25,000, which Touker said would never be enough and asked us why we didn’t just go for £1. However, the BBC said we had to accurately value the business, so we concluded that was £500,000.”

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Peter Jones tries out the duo’s props

The two business builders did haggle with Jones, arguing that if he wanted more of a stake then more money needed to be put on the table. But he didn’t budge, and indicated more cash would he available after the show if it was needed.

Despite filming in April, and airing at the end of December, Davies and Allen have yet to meet Jones personally, but have sat down with his team four times to iron out the details of the deal. Once they are able to get before the serial entrepreneur, Davies will be moving forward with the company’s new corporate offering – looking to replicate the success of corporate golf days but with tennis. Allen, meanwhile, will continue to look after the holiday side of things.

“Corporate golf is huge – every day of the year there will be a club hosting an event day when a company invests clients to come along, play a round and have a meal.

“Tennis on the other hand is only ‘watch’ events like Wimbledon or Queens. The benefit of tennis over golf is that it’s not male oriented. If businesses already run a golf day then a tennis one is a no brainer.”

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The established travel side of the business will be boosted by corporates

Davies sees his new investors as vitally important to making the corporate offering work, serving as a respectable face who is well known in both the business and tennis worlds – after all, former British number one Tim Henman is one of his good friends.

Advice from Davies when it comes to appearing on Dragons’ Den or similar TV shows is to really be yourself. Anyone who has seen the episode will have noticed him stretching while going up the elevator, and that was all about calming nerves and getting him in the right place for a very important pitch.

“The door opens and you are having them all stare at you. Everyone apart from Sarah looked miserable, thank god she was smiling and relaxed me,” Davis remembered.

“My advice is to pull on any time you’ve been nervous, and how you ultimately controlled that, and then re-channel that again.”

In one of the more unusual pitches to have graced the Dragons’ Den floor Davis and Allen showed established and profitable businesses do have a place on the show. They got exactly what they went on TV for, exposure and Jones. It’s now onwards and upwards for a business born in a recession but now showing people are still prepared to invest in hobbies. Game, set and match.

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About Author

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven is the editor of Real Business. He is also the editor of Business Advice, a title focused solely on a section of the business community currently underserved – micro companies. Alongside this, he is part of the team that hosts the Growing Business Awards, First Women Awards and Future 50 initiative.

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