How Natalie Ellis defied the Dragons

Speaking at the Women Unlimited Extraordinary Entrepreneurs event at the British Library earlier this week, Ellis told us her story: “I used to design a range of seasonal pet products, ranging from advent calendars to Easter eggs. I was about to take my dog for a walk one day when I realised I wouldn’t be able to take its bowl in the car without spilling water everywhere. So I set about creating a non-spill dog bowl myself, gluing bits and pieces together in my kitchen. I went to the trade show in Germany to exhibit the product but I had a TIA – a mini-stroke. I came back a vegetable. I literally had to start again.”

It was then that she met someone from the BBC who talked her into appearing on Dragons’ Den. “I was fine talking to the Dragons about my business. But when they started grilling me about my past, I got emotional and walked off,” she recalls. While Paphitis praised her for her courage (“You’ve climbed Everest to get this far. You should be proud of yourself”), none of the Dragons offered to stump up the £125k of investment she needed to grow the business and crack the States. “America is the graveyard of UK businesses. Remember that phrase,” warned James Caan.

Ellis told us that she felt like leaving the country, she was so embarrassed by the whole affair. “My friends eventually forced me to sit down and watch the show. I sat there with my hands covering my eyes,” she says. “Oddly enough, the minute it was over, I looked at my Blackberry and had a flood of orders for the Road Refresher.”

Despite the Dragons’ advice, Ellis was convinced her non-spill dog bowl would go down a storm in the US – so she went to Chicago and literally “knocked on doors”. She found an agent, brokered a five per cent deal with him, and got listed on Amazon. “President Obama has even snapped up one of my bowls!” she says.

This year, Ellis’ Prestige Pet Products has pulled in £1m in sales, with 40 per cent of revenues coming from the States. She’s bringing out four new colours, three new products and expects turnover to hit £6m next year.

She wasn’t the only impressive female entrepreneur at the event. Sitting on Real Business’  table was Zandra Johnson, the 65-year-old founder of Fairytale Furniture – beautiful, bespoke creations for children, ranging from Pip the Pony rocking chairs to Zawadi the Elephant chairs. Johnson, who was inspired after taking a woodwork course, creates the prototypes herself at the back of her garage and has them safety tested and manufactured in Poland. She’ll be exhibiting her products at the Kind + Jugend event in Cologne in September next year. There was also the lovely Emma Heal, one of the directors of Quash, the 100 per cent natural hand sanitiser. She’d slipped a sample product into every goodie bag at the networking event, doing a good job of raising brand awareness.

Fourteen per cent of businesses in this country are owned by women. In the US, the figure is 28 per cent. If the UK could match that, we’d have an extra 800,000 small businesses in Britain. Just think what that could do to our economy. Gordon Brown, take note.

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