In 2012, airline pilot Kevin Stevens applied for £90,000 of investment on the show, and although none of the Dragons invested in his Snowmule backpack, Peter Jones and Theo Pathitis each ended up buying one.
Stevens explained that he got scouted to be on the show, and that the process was far more rigorous than he expected. He was first contacted by a researcher after he was interviewed on BBC Radio 2’s Simon Mayo show to audition for Dragons’ Den in Manchester a few weeks later.
“I was filmed delivering my ‘pitch’ as if I were addressing the Dragons,” he said. “The pitch had to be a maximum of three minutes and needed to follow a prescribed format. Several hundred practice pitches at home to the world’s hardest audience (aka my wife) reduced my early six minute ramblings to a reasonably slick three minute delivery. After that I delivered my pitch to a camera for the first time at the BBC complex at Salford.
“The researchers were fantastic and gave me a few tips so that, after three takes, I was consistently down to two and a half minutes. I was now asked questions in the style of the Dragons, regarding the product, my business plan, forecasts, business background, etc. This was not scripted and, although I’d done my homework, it was where most participants on the programme fell apart. The hardest part was that it had to be a secret as I’d signed up to keep the whole application confidential until the show was screened.”
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From there on, Stevens claimed the BBC demanded a huge amount of information as – to his surprise – the Dragons have no contact with the entrepreneurs before the show and genuinely have no idea about you or your product before you walk on the stage. As such, the BBC do a ton of due diligence beforehand to ensure that participants know what is involved should the Dragons invest and to ensure that any information given to the Dragons at that stage has been ratified.
“We were put up in a hotel the night before filming, where we handed over our props ready for the next morning’s early start,” said Stevens. “The props have to be approved by the producer as overt branding or product placement is not allowed by the BBC. On the day all the participants are corralled together in the ‘green room’ to be kept away from the Dragons. We were given dressing rooms to change, practice our pitches and relax, in addition to a communal room. We weren’t told in which order we would be filmed but as the day progressed people were spirited away quietly, never to be seen again.”
He explained that after filming everyone left through a different door to ensure no-one knew who was successful or reduced to tears. And when a researcher finally asked if he wanted to run through his pitch again, he took it as code for “you’re on next” before being whisked through a labyrinth of corridors to the stage door.
Stevens mentioned, however, that one of the most bizarre things in Dragons’ Den was that the set of stairs you climb to get to the Den only consisted of three steps. Participants have to pretend to walk up steps to get there. “The whole set of stairs themselves are actually in a completely separate studio, which is quite bizarre.”
According to former Dragon Piers Linney, the full process is just as serious as any angel investment. He said: “The thing that people mostly don’t understand about it is it’s very much the reality of business but in an entertainment wrapper. It’s no different to any other investments I’ve made.”
That being said, the clips we see on TV are just a small fraction of what goes on in Den.
“If it’s interesting we will grill them for two hours or more,” he said. “So we’ll go through the whole business, a bit like a due diligence questionnaire. Because it is your money, it’s reality and you’re not just going to fritter it away, you want to make good investments. Then once you’ve made the handshake you get into proper due diligence and legals and check it out properly, exactly like any angel investment. You don’t hand over a wad of cash in the green room.”
But viewers aren’t going to get excited by in depth discussion of intellectual property or balance sheets that lasts half an hour.
“So what they then do is take an edit which makes it more interesting for TV, and that’s the right thing to do because a lot of people would probably just switch off,” he explained.
This was echoed by Tiger Mobiles research, which claimed the BBC tended to invite businesses that would keep the viewer count high.
“It tends to pick pitchers who are TV-friendly rather than those who are investible with a healthy balance sheet,” the report claimed. This does, however, signify that a lot of research happens behind the scenes, almost to a 24/7 degree.
Read more about the opinions of Kelly Hoppen, Deborah Meaden and new dragon Sarah Willingham.