Shaff Prabatani and Ben Rogers give a first hand account of their experience leading up to and during the Dragons Den
Our Journey to the Dragons Den (part 1)
By Shaff Prabatani
“Probably the worst interview of my life, but now at least I know I’m ready for anything”, that’s how Co-Founder Ben described his 40 minutes mauling in the Dragons' Den.
If you watched BBC2s Dragons Den on Sunday 14 October you will have seen the valiant Storemates team being ejected after failing to convince the Dragons to invest in a slice of the new £22 Billion Sharing Economy (there is a link to it at the end of this blog).
We decided to enter the well-known enterprise duel after being approached by one of the BBC producers back in February 2012. He thought Storemates was a great original idea and one that would excite viewers and possibly the discerning investors. We were unsure at first, having seen many an entrepreneur demolished in the Dragons Dragons, but with a bit of “Who dares wins Rodney” attitude we thought – ‘what have we got to lose?!’ It would be great exposure for us even if we did walk away empty handed.
After completing countless forms, declarations, auditions, trial filmed pitches and a long and thorough process of heavily scrutinised ‘due diligence’ we were finally given a date for the end of April 2012, filming in the new BBC studios in Manchester.
We prepared a lot, with many nights of pitch rehearsals in front of anyone who would listen - including colleagues, friends, families and a very scary criminal court barrister friend. Plus we asked each other difficult questions in Bannatynesque gruffness or with a Deborah Meaden scolding look.
Finally we found ourselves on the train to Manchester the night before the pitch and were put up in the ‘BBC entrepreneurs’ hotel’ for a sleepless night. With hard pillows. The atmosphere amongst the three of us ranged from the impassive to the almost hysterical as we attempted make last minute tweaks to everything from our pitch to our negotiation game plan. Could we ask for more money at the last minute we pondered confident that they would shower us with no strings cash after our impressive pitch. We all took up dozens of shirts too, not knowing what to wear until the last minute, i.e. ties – too formal? We are a creative internet company after all so no ties, colourful shirts but then – could we be seen as unprofessional?
Next morning after an impressive hotel breakfast - a bit too early for our liking (6.30am) we were whisked off to the BBC studios to await our fate. Media City which hosts the BBC is huge, a large gleaming modern metropolis of steel and glass buildings but with the atmosphere of a moon station (it could have been the cold drizzle though). We were shown our group dressing room which we shared with a few other nervous entrepreneurs; many had calculators in hand, manically trying to bash out their net profit and growth potentials. All were guarding their products and pitch ideas closely. We were chaperoned by friendly 20-something production assistants – all with clipboards and walkie talkies and loads of bubblyness despite the early start. We think they were briefed to keep us calm, hydrated and contained within our small ‘Dragon Bait’ corridor. We were even escorted to the toilet – just in case we chanced upon one of the Dragons counting their cash in the toilet cubicle. Or we may have andered off into CBeebies ‘Justin’s House’ which was also filmed in same set of studios (Imagine if we ended up in the wrong studio with 200 screaming 6 year olds I thought – not sure what would have been worse!)
Make up was fun; they covered up my horrific volcanic sized spot embedded in the middle of my chin. They filmed our walk up and down the stairs earlier and separately from our main outing to the Den each of our props including cuddly toys and my girlfriends borrowed shoes were scrutinised for their televisual potential.
Finally after a nervy caffeine-fuelled 11 hour wait, we were swiftly lead to the edge of the studio where the dragons were waiting. Sorry to break the spell but the pitches are no longer in an abandoned industrial brick warehouse but a studio set complete with plastic effect wall bricks, wooden clocks and light projected through windows. There are no stop and start film takes – it is all shot in one go and the vast studio has crowds of production staff and onlookers in the shadows, all busying themselves with clip boards, wires, earpieces and important pointing and nodding. Not to mention the many cameras set up to capture the slightest sideways glance or a flowing bead of nervous sweat.
Waiting in the wings, we were given the final ‘go, go,’ command and hand signals similar to a parachute jump (but just a bit scarier) and I lead our fellow captains to what seemed like a firing squad. Told to walk in and stop at ‘the cross’ on the floor, I drifted well off course as I was carrying a box and could not see the cross below, missing the mark completely and only deciding to stop when I saw Theo Paphitis staring straight back at me with raised eye brows
And there they were - after months of waiting and anticipation - in all their wealthy, larger than life glory, the five Dragons; Duncan Bannatyne, Hilary Devey, Theo Paphitis, Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones lined up like large chess pieces at the beginning of a high stakes game. The lights shone quite brightly onto their heavily made up faces, and the Den fell completely silent as we shuffled into position; there was a surprising calm as the three of us squared up to the 5 of them . This was it, it was now or never. £90, 000 for 15% of the business, could we pull it off...?
Squaring up to the Dragons - a game of Chess (part 2)
By Ben Rogers
Of course we had all watched countless episodes in preparation and had learned our 3 minute opening pitch so well that it was just a matter of reciting it calmly and clearly. Simple. Or so we thought... Shaff started strong, explaining the origins of the Storemates concept - the back-story we had noticed the Dragons often like, making it personal, a real passion, not just a hobby. Suddenly mid sentence, Shaff was interrupted by Peter Jones (the one we hoped would be our investor as something of an internet entrepreneur himself) “What is this, your life story?” he barked, stunning Shaff into silence. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. We were supposed to get our 3 minute bit over with before the sparring began. An early left hook from the Dragon caught us all off guard! Shaff tried to recover his thread, his voice trembling slightly, and managed to pass the baton to me as the middle section, explaining how simple and safe our website is.
Here we go then, my turn to shine: “Storemates is safe and simple to…” “Who are you?” shouted a Dragon. Again, cut off mid flow, I had to introduce myself, then try and remember where I had got to. This was all going very wrong, and nothing like our countless smooth run through. This was a mess! I picked up where I left off and handed the baton to Jay, our third man, to explain what we wanted the money for and how much we were prepared to give up for it. He finished, and so, already exhausted, we offered ourselves to the Dragons for interrogation. “Any questions?”
This is where things go a bit blurred! On the whole I remember we did a good job of answering questions, of explaining the system of trust we had built the site around, and how although we were only a newly formed business we had already built a good solid website that was streaks ahead of any competitors trying to emulate our sharing economy 'eBay of Storage'. But all the questions we had prepared answers for didn’t come up! Like the worst possible school exam, we didn’t get to show off our gleaming, polished answers to the tricky numbers question, or the one about having rivals (“we see that it validates the market!”) they didn’t even ask us to run through the forecasts. They got stuck at the outset on security, which admittedly is some peoples’ initial concern.
“You guys are all lovely and you think the world is full of lovely people” said Hilary, smiling kindly to us, “but it’s not” “Say that I am a bad, bad man” continued Theo, “ and there are lots of bad, bad men out there, I can use your website to hide my stolen goods in a suitcase”. I replied “but why would you go to a neighbour’ house, drink tea, chat about the area, then move in your stolen goods, when there is a 24hour lock up down the road where you can stash whatever you like in the middle of the night without having to talk to anyone?” “I don’t think I could sleep at night” continued Hilary, “with someone else’s stuff in my loft” I think they failed to get that we weren’t targeting the multi-millionaire market, but those who are trying to make the pound in their pocket go a bit further during a recession.
And so we went on, trying to get the Dragons to examine the numbers, to see the potential, to appreciate the huge and growing sharing economy now worth £22 Billion in the UK alone. Take AirBnB, we postulated, have they collapsed as a business because one person abused their system? Has eBay been struggling to survive because on a few occasions people have sold things that are not strictly Kocher?! In fact, have people been put of using cars because apparently some people use them in bank robberies?! The atmosphere was surprisingly jovial and less intense then it often appears on TV. The dialogue between them and us more conversational and the atmosphere was jokey but still very competitive between Dragons.
And so after a 40 minute joust it was not to be. Duncan had stopped stroking his cash, Deborah was still shaking her head, they all looked like it had been a long week, and so despite our best efforts we had to walk away empty handed, but knowing that we had done our best. They liked us and thought we were nice community spirited guys but not ‘mean’ enough for business.
So can’t people build businesses whilst being nice? We reflected. Do you have to become a dragon to compete in this world? We don’t think so. We look at people like Richard Branson or the other Richard from Innocent smoothies often seen on the Apprentice and “Be your Own Boss”. They seem nice! And the fact that the Dragons were actually all really pleasant to us reinforced our conclusion that, this is TV, these business people are also actors but with reputations to protect in the real world.
So we learnt a lot about how to pitch, how to present our story, and with the Dragons probing we were reminded that many people need a lot more reassurances about all the security measures we put in place. Our site now highlights very strongly 10 things we do to keep people and their belongings safe. So all good advice.
Since the Dragons Den we have gone on to secure investment from people who really did see the huge potential of our new ‘sharing economy’ venture by being part of it themselves – a ‘crowd funding’ investment platform called www.seedrs.com. And best of all, we learnt that we did know our stuff, and had the confidence to defend Storemates from even the most cynical doubter. Because we believe community solutions such as Storemates, working to use the planet’s resources in smarter, more collaborative ways, is the way the world is moving. On this occasion The Dragons didn’t see it, but as we all know there are plenty of people who have embraced ‘Collaborative Consumption.’ And certainly plenty of people who could do with a bit more space in their lives!
Long live the new Sharing Economy!