Interviews

Dragons' Den – Who needs them? From a collapsed deal to scalable growth

6 min read

29 March 2015

Real Business discovers one SME’s story of success, even after negotiations with two of the Dragons broke down, as it looks to revolutionise the way you go about pre-booking minicabs.

Like many impoverished students, Amer Hasan worked part-time while at university to earn some pocket money. In Hasan’s case it was mini-cabbing at evenings and weekends. As well as helping with his finances while he studied, his experience in the minicab trade inspired him to start his own business just a few years later.

He spent nine years in the mobile sector, latterly as global head of apps and internet partnerships at Vodafone. “In 2010 I was itching to do a startup and recognised that cabs were the only form of transport you couldn’t easily pre-book online, unlike flights and trains,” he said. “So, harnessing my digital and cabbing experience, minicabit was born.”

With minicabit customers can type into the company’s app or website their location plus the time and date of their pick up and compare taxi and minicab quotes to get the best deals for their journey. They can then book the cab they want. It covers over 40 UK cities and compares real-time prices from over 600 private hire taxi operators. All completed trips are carbon balanced by the World Land Trust.

Read more about other taxi and minicab businesses:

Hasan seeded the beta of the business and it was then selected to join the first intake of Telefonica O2’s Wayra accelerator hub, which included an investment of cash and management expertise.

But this wasn’t the only offer of help that Hasan and his team received. “On the last day when we were based at Wayra’s hub, a BBC scout for Dragon’s Den who had seen my pitch suggested I go on the show as we had an interesting story to tell,” he said. “Like anyone, I was initially apprehensive but I thought that, beyond any PR benefits, the Dragons could offer genuine expertise in growing a business. I’ve encountered all sorts of interesting twists whilst building up minicabit and have learnt when to take a calculated risk, and going on the show was one of them.”

He was naturally nervous at the prospect of presenting his ideas to three people who are not known for holding back on their opinions or sparing the feelings of their guests. “But when the lift doors opened and I walked into the Den, it actually felt just like any other investment pitch with the Dragons asking some pretty smart questions,” said Hasan. “I was relieved when Peter Jones gave the first offer as it then turned into an intense back and forth negotiation between him and rival offers from Deborah Meaden and Piers Linney. Shaking hands with Peter and Deborah to become the first mobile app to win offers on Dragons Den was a great outcome.”

The deal that Hasan and his team settled on in the Den was a £75,000 investment for 35 per cent of the business.

But things did not work out. The arrangement sounded great but as the detailed negotiations progressed Hasan began to realise that getting Meadon and Jones on board was not going to be as easy as he had hoped – and as many viewers might assume it would be. Eventually he and the Dragons went their separate ways.

“While it wasn’t a deal I particularly missed, it was always the Dragons’ expertise I really valued,” he said.

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However, the minicabit story was about to take another twist. Partly as a result of the exposure he gained from Dragons Den, Hasan and his team ended up recruiting some prominent, experienced board advisers, such as Steve Norris, the ex-transport minister and former London mayoral candidate.

“Since then, minicabit has gone from strength to strength, with the likes of Heathrow Airport and O2 Academy offering our service online,” said Hasan. “After the broadcast, I had so many people interested in investing in us, including our own Cab Operator partners and customers, that we decided to run a crowdfunding campaign on Seedrs last year where we successfully raised just over £150,000 for five per cent. Importantly, it’s given us a nice army of advocates for the business.”

Its experience with Dragons Den aside, minicabit has other attributes that, as an SME, would make it appealing to investors, according to Phil Mitchell, director of Harbour Key, a business combining specialist tax, reward and funding knowledge with traditional accounting skills and an advisor to the company.

He said: “I believe the success of the business and its attraction to investors comes from it being a simple scalable idea. Although primarily a minicab booking system, the information that can be obtained from the system regarding cab users patterns enables the platform to be a much more powerful information tool than just a booking facility.”