Winning at Dragon’s Den – the inside story of pitching M14

Dragon's Den

Winning at Dragon’s Den – the inside story of pitching M14

The short version:

I was on Dragon’s Den. I did well. And at one point I literally forgot everyone’s names.

The long version:

I was on Dragon’s Den.

I do a lot of fun things as part of my job; interviews on ferris wheels, pretending I’m in Game of Thrones, and travelling to exciting places (come check out the M14 Dating Industry Conference in Amsterdam – May 26th). When you run the “Tinder for Beards”, expecting the unexpected comes with the territory. But appearing on Dragon’s Den has been the most noteworthy experience of my career so far.

I applied to be on the show way back in September 2015, when we were still just Bristlr, shortly before we became M14 Industries. I honestly didn’t expect anything to come of it, and went back to working on the business and what would become M14’s first funding round.

But lo and behold, “Connecting those with beards to those who want to stroke beards” has piqued someone’s interest, and come January I get the call back from the BBC. We chat back and forth about how Bristlr has grown into M14, and obviously with Bristlr being what it is, they want to see me focusing on that. It’s good TV.

A few days later and I was at Media City for the audition (yes, you have to audition); they film you giving your pitch and give you a mini Q&A session. They’re sussing out if you’re a) talking BS b) just looking for PR, and c) going to come across well on TV.

Roll on a couple more weeks and we hear that we passed the audition! Say what! Bring on the due diligence!

At this time we’re closing our seed round of investment, so conveniently have everything they could possibly need; business plans, legal documents, investment decks, projections, etc.

And we also have a problem.

I need to have a signed letter from each shareholder saying I can negotiate in the Den on their behalf, and they waive their rights. Because we hadn’t closed our funding round, we didn’t technically have the new investors as shareholders. I didn’t want to push my luck with a “hey, whilst you’re handing over the cash, could you sign this little letter saying you waive all your new rights?” But, we were expecting the round to close before filming. A lawyer-and-paperwork juggle began.

We closed our funding round just two weeks before our filming date. Shit.

I mean, woo! But also, shit.

There was no way to get the signatures needed to pass due diligence in time, and I made the decision to cancel our appearance in the Den. Sad times.

But it wouldn’t be a roller-coaster without ups and downs, and no sooner has my emotional egg basket been dropped, but it’s picked up again when the BBC offer us a new filming date a couple of months later. We’re back in business!

The morning of filming is filled with chats with various members of the production crew, a quick bit of make up (good luck covering up the sweat), and some walking around the Den as they film all the closeups of me walking up to the lift doors, pressing the button, standing around looking nervous, all that good stuff.

I have a chat with one of the producers who warns me that my asking price of £100k is something of a red flag in the Den. It’s the most commonly asked for price, and it’s a mental trigger that makes the Dragons give you a harder time. As someone who’d like to avoid a hard time, I drop my asking price to £80k.

And then it’s my time to enter the Den for real.

I’m one of the few people to enter the Den not holding anything.

I’ve got nothing in my hands, and the only “prop” I have is the TV screen showing pictures Bristlr (which one of the production crew is controlling). I feel almost naked, but also confident (which is very much not my usual feeling when naked).

I have a certain confidence because I’m entering the Den after nine months of pitching Bristlr and M14 to investors who’ve been asking all kinds of tough questions. I’ve had my business shit on by high-ups at Google during fancy meals, I’ve had investors give me the run around and pull out at the last moment, but I’ve also successfully closed a funding round, and I know our numbers are rock solid.

I also know that behind the TV in the Den, out of sight, is a stack at least an inch thick of due diligence paperwork. I’ve done my homework on the questions which catch people out, and I’ve learned the made-up 4 year projections they always ask you to memorise. I’m ready.

I walk into the Den, find my mark, get friendly smiles from Deborah and Sarah, and start my pitch.

I’ve given similar pitches in different forms quite a few times (here’s my pitch at the Northern Stars competition for example), but was still so damn nervous when I pitched.

The story I like to tell in these times is that of the problem, followed by humour with Bristlr to relax people, backed up by surprisingly positive numbers, and ending with an solid business model. It’s a tried and tested pitch.

And that’s where my control of the situation ends. After the pitch it’s time for the Dragons to take over. I got to talk for three minutes. They get to do Q&A for hours. I was in the Den for an hour and a half, some people have been known to be in for up to three hours. And it’s all edited down into 10 minutes.

The questioning started with the Dragons wanting to learn more about the business, and the market. I was able to answer in a way that let me say all the things I wanted to, even if sometimes I was also avoiding answering the questions they were asking (in my experience this is forgivable, as long as you don’t make a habit of it).

Touker dug deep into how our technology works. As the platform’s main architect I can chat about our micro-services until the cows come home; but boring tech-talk doesn’t get you investment. I tried to focus less on the technical side, and more on what our tech lets us do. Nobody ever doubts your technology.

I realised things were going well when Peter made me blush by telling me I was one of the most investable individuals to have come through the Den. But even so, the whole time I was still waiting for them to either ask me about my numbers, or to suddenly catch me off guard and start being arseholes. Neither of which happened.

As soon as the first offer came in, there was a sense of palpable FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) spread across the room. I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. I was honestly expecting maybe one offer at some silly percentage that I’d turn down and be on my way, but one by one they all came in with offers.

What is going on.

Before Nick showed his hand, and it was looking like I might get investment from all five dragons simultaneously, I started to internally panic. This isn’t how this happens.

After all the Dragons had given their offers, I knew I’d have to go with Nick and Peter; they have the experience and if they’re not willing to share, I don’t have much choice.

And it’s at this point where an interesting thing happens: I forgot everyone’s names.

My memory is poor at the best of times, and I have given up even trying to remember names when people are introduced to me. But knowing I’d have to say people’s names out loud to accept the offer, my mind went blank.

To pad for time, and to help me remember, I asked for a bit of paper, and went to the back of the room to have a pace around. Thankfully, my memory returned, I remembered everyone’s names, and could bring proceedings to a close.

The decision was made. The deal was done. And no sooner had we all shaken hands but I was out of the Den and wondering if this is real life.

Turns out, it is.

My key take-aways from the whole experience

  • Say yes to things that seem very unlikely, but which may turn out to be big.
  • You have to know your business inside out. The Dragon’s can smell BS a mile off. If you’ve just learned a load of information but don’t live and breathe what you’re pitching, it’s going to go wrong.
  • Stay calm; it’s fun! And it’s a two-way conversation. You’re figuring out if they’re a good fit for you, as much as they’re deciding whether or not to invest.
  • Be flexible. On everything.
  • Seek advice everywhere you can.