HR & Management

Inside Dragons' Den: What really happens when the TV cameras aren't rolling

13 min read

28 October 2015

Real Business asked investors and applicants from BBC's Dragons’ Den what happened when the cameras weren’t rolling – from applying to be on the show to standing in front of the Dragons.

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.”

Read more about getting a Dragon to invest:

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.”

Read also: Which Dragons' Den investors are most likely to back your business?

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.

But despite the amount of due diligence done on the show, there is always a chance that a deal might fall through after being made on camera.

Kelly Hoppen, who quit the show after two series, claimed the main reason came down to Dragons having to make the decision to invest in an hour or two, when in real time they would take much longer. 

“In their excitement some entrepreneurs, many of whom are in the early stages of their business and startups, can miss vital facts and figures when pitching,” she said. “Once the cameras are off, the Dragons may not find they have, for example, the rights to sole use of the brand name or the IP is not within the company. These are important points to consider with any investments, whether on the show or outside.”

Not actually receiving investment was the case for Take The Wand Company – hailed as one of the show’s great success stories. The company was chosen by the BBC to create a “sonic screwdriver” remote control under a Doctor Who brand licence.

“The investment didn’t go through,” admitted founder Chris Barnardo. “It never even got as far as seeing the paperwork.”

It was not due to the Dragons reneging on the deal, Barnardo stressed. “We went with Duncan Bannatyne on the show but we made £50,000-worth of sales after it aired, so we didn’t need the investment.”

This was also cited by Hoppen as one of the key reasons why deals fell through after being aired on TV.

What happens after the handshakes and celebration that come with a deal done in the Den is crucially where the real work begins, it seems. 

Further highlighting the point made by Linney that we see only a snippet of footage from a pitch that could take hours, new Dragon Sarah Willingham said: “On the show, the viewer gets a very short edited highlight of the pitches we Dragons see in real-time, but sometimes they can go on for hours. Despite that extended time to see the pitch, and because we have no advance warning or information about who is coming up next, you do not have all the information at your fingertips, so instinct kicks in and you need to ask the right questions and watch the body language with the answers.

“In the real world of business investment, the after-show activity really comes under the heading of due diligence, where we have a chance to check out that what what was said about the business is actually true and can be evidenced,” Willingham explained.

She claimed the Dragons had access to the original filmed footage relating to the investments they make so as to check accurately what claims, if any, were made – and then it is simply about following a process, ideally finding time to develop a rapport and the beginnings of a relationship with the people you will be working with.

Willingham said that not all of her investments have been completed yet and it may be that not all of them do.

“The disappointment if a Den investment doesn’t go through is even greater than outside of the Den,” she said. “There’s an emotional connection and commitment that takes place inside the Den and a very early ‘handshake’ that you don’t find outside, so it’s even more disappointing when, for many reasons, a deal doesn’t look like it will proceed. It was a big learning curve for me to realise that some people come into the Den looking for the exceptional marketing opportunity rather than the help and investment.

“It can be very hard to judge a person in the time frame we have with all those lights shining on us. We just go with our instinct and make the best decision we can in the timeframe.”

By far the toughest thing about the show, Willingham suggested, was being away from her family and own businesses. She said she worked from the office at home, did as many school runs as life would allow and had a day or two out and about meeting with her businesses. 

The filming is all consuming, and it’s possible to get to the end of a day and not manage to catch the kids between coming home from school and bed time, and it’s possible to go a week and only communicate via email with my businesses,” she said. “But I wasn’t alone – Peter Jones has five kids and Touker Suleyman has two daughters.”