Dragons’ Den One Year On
Many, many people watch Dragons’ Den and follow contestants on their journey as they present their ideas. They witness the successes, the embarrassment, the comedy, the passion and sometimes the failures but it's rare to find out what happens after the show. For us (Debbie and Rob) who set up Barking Bags this has been a rollercoaster year and here is our take on our entrepreneurial journey with a Dragon, Sara Davies, on board.
How has it helped the business?
For us, the main benefit of appearing on Dragons’ Den was undoubtedly the excellent publicity and exposure. Taking part pushed us to get all our systems operating as smoothly as possible. We revisited and refined our business plan, we improved our website to make sure there was extra security and data protection, we took legal advice on trade marking and protecting our design and we updated our branding.
From the minute you accept the invitation to start the process that means you ‘might’ appear on the programme; you must sign a confidentiality agreement to keep it all a secret. The BBC have strict rules about the use of their logo, which images you can use and what you can say. They also demand masses of paperwork. The Dragons genuinely have no idea who you are before you step out in front of them, so it is down to the BBC to check you out and make sure that what you present is accurate and legal.
Sara doesn’t own a dog, but of course, when we presented her with her bright pink bag, it was wonderful to hear her say, “My mum would love it”, and she stuck up for us when Touker said they weren't very colourful. Sara Davies is as lovely she appears in the show, and on Strictly, putting us at ease and giving us access to her team. She was busy on her Strictly tour directly after the show was aired so it was difficult to meet with her. For several months we were in close contact with her PA, discussing the business plan, ideas, practicalities, and advice that came from Sara and her team, was invaluable.
The publicity led to an incredible upsurge in sales. We sold nine months’ worth of stock in just three days and had to call in help from friends and family to help pack the bags and get them out to customers. For the most part, people who saw the show were really impressed with the functionality and style of the bags and one customer told us she had ordered one even though she didn't have a dog; she simply wanted to support an independent business. Unfortunately, the company’s Indian manufacturers were unable to upscale production at speed, and they were still recovering from the impact of Covid so took almost five months to fully restock. Many customers were unable to place orders and were left disappointed.
How did it feel to get investment?
People often ask if it's as scary as it seems facing the Dragons. We are both ex teachers and have faced far more critical audiences on a Friday afternoon. More worrying was how they would edit the show; would they leave in the comment about us offering to introduce our daughter to Steven Bartlett who seemed to worry our bags were not sexy enough to help him find a girlfriend? Would they mention Rob wearing his lucky pants and show our dog barking at the camera crew? In the event the edit was quite kind, and it was wonderful to get the positive feedback from the Dragons. They put us at our ease. Deborah said she liked the bags and could see them being useful, Peter saw a market for them but predicted it would need greater investment, Steven gave them a low score on style but ten out of ten for utility. It was very exciting securing an investment, but it was a while before the show aired so we had time to reflect on what might happen next while keeping it a secret from everyone around us.
How is it working with a Dragon?
Following the show any entrepreneur must go through a complex process with their investor who interrogates documentation, asks lots more questions and looks at the business plan thoroughly to confirm their interest in pursuing the investment. Sara and her team we're supportive but the partners eventually came to a mutual understanding not to proceed with the offer of investment.
Working with Sara would have involved selling via TV shopping channels and seeking yet more investment to buy in stock so we could upscale. Sara continued to offer support and advice and brokered introductions with her own chosen manufacturers in China. After several attempts, the Chinese manufacturers eventually created a prototype that was good quality and offered a considerable cost saving so that bags could be made to supplement orders coming in from India. Unfortunately, just as things were looking positive, China went into lockdown, so once again the company was struggling to maintain stock levels and spent a good deal of time communicating with frustrated customers unable to get their bags.
Success was a double-edged sword
It was great to see the orders coming in, but it meant taking on new staff and moving to larger facilities, all of which were costly. Barking Bags was still struggling to get in stock on a regular basis and six months after the show we were seriously considering closing the company. Luckily, our exposure on the television had put us under the spotlight with other potential investors. Two such angels, based in Northampton, and less than thirty minutes from Barking Bags’ offices, made an approach and pretty soon a deal was signed. The new shareholders agreed to invest and use their own team of accountants and IT specialists to strengthen the company and support us on the next leg of the journey. They offered training for our staff to take on more social media and customer service roles and interrogated the accounts to see where savings could be made so that the business could be most cost effective. Under the new shared management, the range was rationalised to offer more limited fabrics and materials and the original bags were modified with improvements suggested by our customers.
In late 2022 a new product range was also launched, the compact urban bag. We must thank Steven Bartlett for this, as he suggested that we were missing a trick with urban dog walkers who might want something more compact and lightweight. Accessories including biodegradable poo bags, panic alarms, and branded mitts and bowls are now sold through the company’s website and there are plans to introduce more products with the same high quality and usefulness. Customer feedback is systematically monitored for suggested improvements.
Lessons learnt – was it worth the effort?
There's little doubt that it's been one hell of a year with real highs and terrible lows especially when we were unable to fulfil orders for our customers and having to face the possible closure of the business when we were victims of our own success, but we wouldn't change anything. We are confident we've created a range of bags that really appeal to dog owners and makes walking their dogs easier, comfortable, and safer. Yes… we have been copied and new dog walking bags are emerging since we can up with our original design, but we are not afraid of competition. People still recognise us, especially at dog shows, but we're not celebrities, nor would we want to be. If anyone approaches us with their own good entrepreneurial idea and asks for our advice, we're happy to share what we've learned. We tell them it’s been a memorable experience, but it's been hard work so anyone considering making an application needs to be ready for that.