Getting a grilling on BBC2's Dragon's Den

Amanda Zuydervelt, the founder of hip fashion site Stylebible.com, on her unhappy experience as a contestant in BBC2's Dragon's Den
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The Independent Online

Appearing on Dragons' Den, the BBC2 show where entrepreneurs compete to convince a fiery panel of business experts that they have what it takes, has been a blessing and a curse, which seems to sum up the cult of celebrity - whether you actually want it or not.

I know some of you will have bridled at the last part straight away and you've got a point; after all if I didn't want celebrity then why be on the programme in the first place? Well, to be honest, I didn't appear on Dragons' Den with the primary goal of getting funding (although obviously no one in their right mind turns down £250,000 and the contacts book of a successful entrepreneur). I was there for one reason and one reason only: to promote my business after having been courted to appear.

And although I didn't succeed or, frankly, acquit myself in the manner I would have liked on national TV, I have learnt a lot from the experience and in that way it was worth every excruciating moment. One of the biggest things I've learnt is that even the best intentions go awry.

The BBC's mission to support entrepreneurs is, without a doubt, admirable but now, having been given a fairly intimate insight into the methods of the people they've aligned themselves with, I would question whether or not they are going about it in the right way. I took part in Dragons' Den because I believed it championed entrepreneurs. BBC2 has always been renowned as a channel that pioneered business television, Working Lunch and Troubleshooter being two amazing examples.

My pitch wasn't perfect by any stretch of the imagination but I was looking for the benefit of the Dragons' experience and advice, not humiliation because of the lack of sophistication in my pitching skills - and surely that's how the show was positioned? Well, it certainly was when I was asked to go on it anyway.

I was nervous (it definitely takes time to settle once you are in the Dragons' lair), but what was even more difficult was that from the moment I walked in, it seemed that one of the Dragons, Doug Richard (Californian founder and chairman of info services company Library House), had already made up his mind, without word one from me. From my viewpoint it looked as if he took one look at the blonde in the pretty dress and made a snap decision that he wasn't even going to listen - and judging by some of the e-mails I received following the show, I wasn't the only one that walked away with this impression.

But the old adage of a "30-second elevator pitch" just doesn't hold true any more. In the real world you would never find yourself in a position where you had to sell something in three minutes (without the benefit of being able to showcase your product to boot) or in such an aggressive atmosphere. It's this "firing squad TV" element to Dragons' Den that can't help but make you feel they are after ratings not the reputation of helping budding entrepreneurs get a leg up or boosting the economy. This is where I feel Dragons' Den becomes a poor cousin to The Apprentice and Make a Million. This is reality TV where people can be assessed over time, and you can see how they respond to the advice they have been given.

Dragons' Den is very old economy. There may have been a panellist who made their millions in technology but that doesn't make the entire panel experts in internet communications, and it's incredibly 1980s for "non-experts" to rely on three-minute pitches in which to invest their funds. Show me a venture capitalist who would invest on those terms and I've got a great bridge in Brooklyn to sell you. Granted, reality TV is a lottery but there were things that occurred on the day of taping that rang alarm bells for me.

For example, if you went to a genuine investment meeting you'd certainly prepare for it whether you were seeking or offering funds, yet the Dragons hadn't read my business plan.

While this may sound like a small thing, but surely if the BBC is setting itself up as trying to encourage entrepreneurs then actually executing this exercise properly is the way to do it? To me, that would include having potential investors at least have access to the business plans they are considering.

The other worry was, having seen one or two bits that popped up on the internet from people who had filmed before me, I should have known that the programme was, in order not to lose viewers in its second series, going after Simon Cowell's crown for nastiness. Their lack of preparation and their penchant for the hostile should have made me realise that the show may not be what it purported to be. In hindsight, I now wonder if perhaps I was just selling to the incorrect market. The business people I was presenting to have already made it and they, rightly, don't need to do any of their own legwork any more and therefore were not seeing the inherent appeal of Stylebible to those who still do their own organising.

What they couldn't see is that Stylebible is aimed at girls sitting at Goldman Sachs, men who work at Merrill Lynch and anyone else with a reasonable disposable income who likes to spend it on pampering, eating and generally enjoying themselves. These people have five minutes to organise dinner with their partners or friends and want rapid reviews they can trust for the best, hippest or perhaps just latest establishments. In other words they are people like me, aspirational mid-twenties-early-thirties who are just tired of the same old pub, bar or restaurant, have a high disposable income and want to spend it. Stylebible's model does work for these people, as shown by the fact that the site now has more than 3,000 subscribers, and is on the rise.

The one thing that really offended me about the programme, and something I'd like to make clear now, is that Stylebible operates like every other media outlet in that it sometimes gets invited to review things, and we do receive free drinks, we get free dinners and, to help get rid of it all, yes, we get free pampering.

However, these complimentary offerings do not guarantee their granters a place on Stylebible. We have in fact rejected more than 15 establishments we have been invited to review as sub-standard for our membership, and weeded out goodness knows how many at press-release stage.

So I'm sorry, and I know the media people will be with me here, I find it difficult to believe that Rachel Elnaugh (the woman behind Red Letter Days, a company offering once-in-a-lifetime experiences) has never, in her whole career, accepted an invitation to stay, eat or just experience somewhere because she was the boss of Red Letter Days.

Overall, when it comes to entrepreneurs today, younger people, particularly women, are rebelling against the old vanguard and doing it for themselves, as the song goes. Nearly all of the people who work with, or for, me are either successful freelancers who are sick of being bullied, under-valued and under-paid in the wider workplace or people trying to get their work/life balance right. Now I'm not saying any of these people will ever be multi-millionaires but is that the only mark of a truly successful entrepreneur? And should we dismiss their contribution to the economy because they don't want to? Or should a show such as Dragons' Den be offering entrepreneurs like them genuine advice on how to pitch, create a business plan and deal with aggressive and hostile situations like the one I faced?

After all, we have seen that making huge sums of money isn't an infallible way to success, security and happiness, as the collapse of Rachel's Red Letter Days has very publicly demonstrated.

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