Before the Canadian Dragon’s Den and before the U.S. Shark Tank there was the Dragon’s Den of Britain on the BBC. Originating from a Japanese TV show format, the UK series proved hugely popular, launching careers of inventors throughout Britain and inspiring the consequent North American spin-offs.
Some of the high-flying Dragons in the UK include Rich List regular and computer industry multimillionaire Peter Jones, leisure and tourism tycoon Deborah Meaden and retail magnate Theo Paphitis. They’re a tough crowd to please, and those inventions that make it through to securing a final deal with one of the business-savvy Dragons have a good chance of success at home and abroad.
Stressful though the would-be inventors’ presentations look, there’s much more to the Dragon’s Den than the on-screen meeting with the unforgiving Dragons. For a start the application process is arduous, bureaucratic, and weighted to attract characters and products who will make for good TV. Additionally, a Dragon’s on screen investment is a long way from being legally binding, and a solid proportion of the deals quietly fall through when the season has come to a close.
Interestingly, many of the inventions, companies, and services which make this list as the most successful items presented in the Den actually didn’t succeed in attracting an all important investment – for which the Dragons must be kicking themselves a bit now – but these inventors used the exposure that the program provided them to attract more camera shy, but (potentially less egomaniacal?) business partners and publicity.
10. Chris Barnardo’s Magic Wand
In theory, the button-less, gesture controlled universal remote sounds like a great idea. At least the Dragons certainly thought so, with Duncan Bannatyne making a £200,000 investment in the wand. The device can control electronic appliances such as laptops, lights, TVs, DVD players and even remote-controlled curtains, and won its two creators a record total offering of £900,000, with Bannatyne eventually outbidding the other dragons for a 20% stake in the company.
The device did fairly well in the short term, and is thought to have turned over around £2m in the first year. However, reviews slammed the wand, stating that it had no unique selling point and was a worthless gimmick that would be abandoned in hours. There was originally a whole range of wands planned, but the company never got past one modelled on Doctor Who’s screwdriver.
9. Neil Westwood’s Magic Whiteboard
When Neil Westwood took his invention of a self-adhesive whiteboard made of a similar material to cling-film on Dragons Den, his aim was really to gain coverage for his product. As it turned out, Deborah Meaden and Theo Paphitis invested £100,000 in the business, with promises to help market the idea, and the guarantee of a leg up from Paphitis’ stationary chain Rymans.
At the time, it was easily Paphitis’ best investment, and Westwood was able to pay back the investment in under two years. In retrospect, Westwood seems to have regrets, saying that ‘I shouldn’t have given away as much as I did – we’ve made them more money than any of the other Dragons’ Den investments – but at the time it seemed a less risky way of getting the investment.’ The company now offers roll-out blackboards, self-adhesive whiteboard style postits, a clear board and even blackout blinds.
8. Denise Hutton’s Razzamataz Theatre Schools
With Dragon’s Den products, it is often the case that the money isn’t the most important gift the entrepreneurs receive. Denise Hutton walked away with £50,000 for her theatre school, but the publicity of 3.42 million viewers was of much greater value.
Given the melodrama of the Den, Hutton did well to start off with a cute-factor song and dance from some of her pupils, but she quickly lost ground when it came to the Dragon’s questions. Although each Dragon declared themselves out, Bannatyne swooped in the final moments to take a quarter of the business. The theatre company now has bases and franchises all over the UK and Ireland, and is even offering franchise opportunities internationally.
7. Imran Hakim’s iTeddy
Just two years after its conception, with the help of the Dragons, Imran Hakim’s iTeddy was producing a turnover of around £11 million. Hakim claims that a supportive family is the key to his success, but admits that the £140,000 from Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis may have helped ‘catalyse’ his mp3-equipped toy’s success. In under a year the £59.99 bear was appearing in shops across the world, from catalogue shop Argos’ 684 stores, to London-based toy giant Hamley’s, and even British grocery store chain Tescos. At its peak the toy appeared in 45 countries, and in 1400 American stores.
Like many powerhouse entrepreneurs, Hakim started young. He remembers how before he had even turned 15 he borrowed £2,000 from his dad to buy and sell computers ‘and promised to pay him back within a year. I actually paid him back within a week.’
6. James Halliburton’s Waterbuoy
At first James Halliburton accepted the Dragon’s investment of £200,000 for his Waterbuoy key-ring – a device which was designed to prevent valuables from sinking. However, after some consideration he ditched Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis, claiming that he wanted to go it alone.
The reality is a little more complicated: whilst testing balloons with LEDs, Halliburton’s neighbour’s children started playing with the illuminated balloons. He quickly realised that there was a wider market for the strengthened balloons, and decided that he could do without the two millionaires hanging to his coat tails. Having cut them loose he launched the Illoom Balloon, designed for use at children’s parties, which sold an incredible 5 million units in under a year.
5. Rachael Lowe’s Destination Board Game
During her time as a law student, Rachael Lowe was forced to become a taxi driver to support her two children. One evening, whilst working a shift, Lowe came up with the idea for the Destination board game. She launched her first version by selling sponsorship for the Portsmouth version, raising £12,000 from ferry companies, universities, and football clubs.
When Lowe took her game to the Den she was looking for an investment of £75,000, but was torn apart by the Dragons, who derided her efforts, laughing at her lack of knowledge of the difference between gross and net profit. Despite the Dragons’ claim that she would be ‘eaten alive in business’ Lowe’s board game went on to become the best selling game at London’s Hamleys, with further games created in partnership with Walt Disney and Warner Brothers.
4. Levi Roots’ Reggae Reggae Sauce
Levi Roots is the Den’s most infamous contestant. He appeared in 2007, and was awarded a £50,000 investment from Peter Jones and Richard Farleigh for his sauce. The bottle stated that ‘Our family in Jamaica have been blending homemade jerk sauce since way back, and for years it’s been the taste of London’s Notting Hill Carnival’ – but it emerged this wasn’t true.
Roots, whose sauce made him a millionaire, was later sued by his ex-business partner for £600,000, and throughout the proceedings several facts emerged. The claim that the generations old recipe was the ‘taste of the Notting Hill Carnival’ turned out to be part of a marketing ploy, and Roots’ ex-partner claimed to have created the sauce himself. It also turned out that Roots had been hiding his gangland past, which he had vigorously denied in his cookbook.
3. John Richardson’s Natox
John Richardson claims that his pitch to the Den was doomed from the moment he pointed out that Deborah Meaden didn’t understand molecular quantum physics. From that moment on the dragons were ‘huffy‘, and ignored his 42 pages’ worth of research.
Less than a year later, Richardson had shifted 34,000 bottles of his natural alternative to Botox, generating a turnover of £3 million. His product appeared in London’s prestigious Selfridges department store, and is now on shelves in 15 different countries around the world. In an interview with The Mirror, the somewhat smug inventor stated that ‘The Dragons said no, but the world is saying yes. If they tried calling me, I’m afraid I’d have to say, ‘I’m out’.
Natox wasn’t the only product to be rejected by the Dragons only to surf the publicity to wild success: nine years after Rob Law invented the Trunki he appeared on the BBC, only to have Theo Paphitis break his children’s sit-on suit case. Each of the millionaires quickly turned down the offer, leaving Law penniless.
Incredibly, just five years later in 2011, a full 20% of British three to six year olds owned a Trunki. Law now employs over 50 people, and his company produces a turnover of £7 million each year. Trunki also received a wave of positive press when Magma Moulding, the company’s manufacturing division, purchased a UK-based factory, bringing further jobs and money to Britain.
1. Tangle Teezer: £15m/annum
In true punning style the Dragons declared the Tangle Teezer brush to be a ‘hair-brained idea’. They each turned down the possibility of an £80,000 investment, and in doing so closed the door to one of the most lucrative recent developments in the hairdressing world. Pulfrey claims that he knew he’d lost the Dragons when Deborah Meaden denied having her hair coloured.
Shaun Pulfrey (a former hair colour technician with years of experience) came up with the idea to combine the benefits of a comb and a brush, and remortgaged his house to support his invention.
In the ten months following the rejection the Tangle Teezer turned over £800,000, and a profit of £200,000, which all went to Pulfrey. In the following months the product landed a lucrative deal with Boots Pharmacy, and has continued to go from strength to strength.