Dragons’ Den: Peter Jones gets soppy

I’ll state my position from the start: I’m an Apprentice man through and through. Dragons’ Den, like Rafael Nadal, has always been a bit brazen and posturing for me. I like the more gradual drama of The Apprentice. Give me Sir Alan and Roger Federer any day.

That said, last night’s Dragons’ Den was one of the best I’ve seen in a while. My chief complaint has long been the deterioration in quality of the presenting businesses. Sure, you’re always going to have a few flakies but, for the concept really to hit home, the programme needs proper businesses that really need money. I’ve witnessed the Dragons’ Den research team scraping around for any little mom-and-pop outfit; too often, they’ve come up with nothing better than a micro-ventures on a PR whimsy.

Last night, in Clive Billing and (to a degree) Richard Mires, we got the real stuff.

Let’s dispense with Richard first. Clearly a bright fellow with a track record in developing products for the kids market, he came to the Den with an idea that, at first, looked like a winner: a timer system that limits the hours your kids spend locked into the TV or computer screen. His presentation was smooth, he told a story, he illustrated it well, the Dragons were quietened. All looked well.

Then came the dissection. Duncan Bannatyne hit Mires from the consumer angle: why not just tell your kids to switch the telly off? (I can’t see Bannatynes junior disagreeing with Dad too often.) More vicious, however, was the Dragons’ behaviour when they realised that Richard already had a moderately successful business that was excluded from the deal; all they were gettting, in exchange for ?150k, was a piece of the dodgy timer.

The Rumbling of the Opportunist followed, and it wasn’t pretty.

What came through in Mires’ flaying, and in the negotiations with Clive Billing, was the increased focus of the Dragons (and probably the wider economy) on asset-based businesses. Fancy, branded, world-changing ideas are all very well but, in these straitened times, investors want bricks, mortar, stock and cash to back up their investments. You can see it in the banks’ behaviour in the mortgage markets (it’s all very well being a plausible first-time buyer, but where’s the collateral?), and you could see it last night in the Den.

Clive Billing’s time in the Den was the most fascinating episode in the programme. This was a gnarled veteran of the diamond industry with a seriously big opportunity genuinely seeking support and investment in taking his traditional business into the 21st century. If UKplc is to prosper, such ventures must succeed. His diamond venture could remain a small, lifestyle business; or it could become a multi-million, global, online player. This is important stuff.

Billing’s problem was that he didn’t have the expertise to take his DiamondGeezer.com into the online age. Yes, he had a great idea; and he knew his industry inside-out. But, as years of failed dabbling with the internet had proved, he just couldn’t lift it onto the next level.

Deborah Meaden swiftly dropped out due to some confusion over a previous approach to her for money. However, the others got very interested, particularly when Billing informed them of the size of the opportunity – the biggest player, BlueNile.com, does more than $300m of business a year selling diamonds online.

It got tremendously juicy and dirty when they got down to serious detail: would Billing’s ?450k property be included in the company’s assets going forward; would he write off a ?100k loan he’d made to the business in the previous year? This is the raw, real stuff of everyday business and it made great telly.

Finally, the Dragons made their offer: the full ?255k offer, but for 40 per cent of the business. Billing had his money, but could he countenance giving away almost half of his lifetime’s work.

He couldn’t. He cogitated, he considered, he probably even nibbled in his own mind. But he couldn’t.

And I respected him for his determination. And I respected the Dragons for giving it a go. Life moved on. That’s business.

PS: as for Peter Jones’ unprecedented decision to invest ?20k more than Victoria McGrane had asked for in her budding fashion label, it was clearly the right decision for Victoria. But you couldn’t help but think of words such as “head” and “turned”. (And maybe “blonde”.) Related Topic- Hungry House Dragons Den

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