A blog from the Dragons' Den
Who’s afraid of the big bad Dragons? Not me that’s for sure because I have been into the Dragons’ Den and lived to tell the tale, and here it is.
I love to walk the fields early in the morning and so does Rennie my faithful and daft as a brush golden Lab and it’s a great time for thinking and planning and in Rennie’s case running around frantically. It was while I was out on a cold and frosty January earlier this year that the idea came to me. For about the millioneth time, I was chewing over the problem of how to get the ‘Fussels’ message across to those people yet to discover what we do . Then everything became clear, I needed to beard the Dragons in their den. Simple.
As ever my enthusiasm and naivety was immediately channelled into getting on to the show, and anyway how long could it take, how difficult could it be? To begin with everything went like a dream, a couple of phone calls and I was talking to the producer’s assistant and she was very encouraging and then things took an unexpected turn. I cannot even begin to tell you how many forms I had to fill in, the mountain of data and background, business plans, cross examinations, check lists and on and on and on. I did query as to whether all of this information was essential and having seen a lot of hapless pitchers on the show, as to whether everyone went through the same process. The short answer was yes. So turn up and do your pitch it is not. From making contact it took all of 5 months before the final box was ticked and then things moved apace and I realised that there was no going back and it really was going to happen, but only if I passed the screen test.
So it was I found myself in a non descript building in Shepherds Bush in front of the producer for a final grilling. If I wasn’t nervous enough already, I soon was as it was explained to me that I had not been an obvious choice, and thousands had applied but they loved my passion and the story of Fussels. I wasn’t sure whether I should be pleased or disappointed at this news but either way I didn’t have time to think about it too much as I was all too soon staring into a camera. Of course this was hardly a surprise, but despite this all the advice I had been given to “Relax”, “Just be yourself”, “Enjoy”, “Ignore the camera” etc, was forgotten. I can honestly say that my blood turned to ice and time stood still. I have very little idea how long my three minute pitch took, or indeed if I said what I had planned to, but something must have happened for with a smile and a shake of the hand I was ushered out blinking in the sunshine. Somehow I had passed the test, next stop Dragons.
Six weeks later and after lots of rehearsal and briefings from and with Gary I was as ready as I ever going to be. My bags packed with samples and bowls , and my favourite cap and dungarees I set off to The Bull at Iver Heath , where I spent a rather nervous evening making sure to avoid the other hopefuls, before retiring to my room for a bit of supper and more practice. Surprisingly I slept well and at 6.50 am sharp we were all picked up in what suspiciously looked like the limo’s they use on the apprentice. A far cry from my faithful and somewhat battered Discovery, sadly it was a short trip to Pinewood and so at 7.05am we were there and the first thing I noticed was the James Bond set. I was beginning to get a taste for this television lark, but from 7.06am onwards things did not go quite according to plan.
For the rest of the day we were all chaperoned every where to make sure that we had no outside contact, although I’m not sure why unless they were worried we were going to get a doppelganger to do the show for us. The ‘Green Room’ was to become an all too familiar place in the long hours ahead and quite how I managed to stay grounded after umpteen cans of the drink that gives you wings, I have no idea. The wait would have been easier to deal with if there had been a running order, but apparently Dragons work on a more random timeframe than us mere mortals. Having said that, there was an early flurry of activity when we were all taken to the famous stairs so that we could be filmed climbing them as to the gallows. I can now reveal that the stairs are nowhere near the Dragons’ Den, indeed there are only a few token steps as you enter their lair. Who says that the camera never lies!
My hopes were raised when I was told mid morning that I would probably be on just before lunch and I immediately checked my notes, began muttering my lines under my breath and rehearsed the holding of the bottle in a relaxed and natural way that would show ‘little Andy’ on the front label to full effect . My 3 minutes of fame were drawing near, I assembled my props, and then I was led off to studio 12, which was Dragon free as I laid my table. The heart began to pound and my mouth suddenly dried up like a pond in a desert as I was miked up. This was it …except it wasn’t as the Dragons announced (via a very sympathetic engineer) that lunch would be taken.
“No problem” I thought, as lunch wouldn’t take long, which it didn’t but as the hours went by and more of my fellow hopefuls went to their fate and onto the motorway home I began to feel just a wee bit fed up. Then there was one, me, so it was back to Studio 12, (which by the way is not a lovely old warehouse building, but a cleverly camouflaged box, so that’s another illusion shattered) at 5.30 pm, a full ten and a half hours after my arrival.
Once more I was there and this time so were the Dragons, I was nervous they looked tired and in the case of Duncan Bannatyne somewhat under the weather, which is something of an understatement as he actually looked like a very ill man. Too late to worry, someone shouted “Action!”, and amazingly I was walking centre stage, desperately trying not to trip whilst unravelling my tied up tongue. For a split second I felt like turning round and leaving, the one voice that I could hear was shouting into my subconscious, “What are you doing here?” I tried to block it out and then they were there, and they were looking at me, I blinked and rearranged my bottle and I began. Just as I was wondering if the Dragons were listening, I was cut off in my prime when the mike went down.
I looked to the Dragons and attempted eye contact but they were not interested. I felt very alone and time went very slowly. As the techies tried to sort out the recalcitrant wires, Mr Bannatyne had a timely cough and a splutter off camera and Deborah Meaden wrestled with a spider in her hair. Oh the glamour of television. Again the word “WHY!?”, was running through my head but then the spider was vanquished and I was once again directed to the attractive ‘Gaffer Tape’ mark on the floor, and the “Action “ word was beating on my eardrums. Instinct took over and steeled with a determination that veered towards what can only be described as ‘Foolish’, I prepared to meet the Dragons head on. I was off and running for the final time.
It was done, they liked the oil, they liked the products, and especially the F.G.S and Deborah had a sneaky second helping. Joy. Then came the questions. First up Duncan Bannatyne asked if I had understood if the pitch was supposed to be three minutes, I think this is what you call a leading question. I was somewhat miffed by this, but I suddenly discovered that there was at least one friendly Dragon, as Deborah put him in his place by pointing out the various hold ups which were beyond my control and maybe he should go home to recuperate from his illness. I decide that I rather like Deborah. This thought was further strengthened when James Caan made a somewhat withering remark about my dungarees. Was the man not listening, did he not understand that I am a farmer, a simple honest farmer, a man who speaks plainly, someone who is passionate about British food, a man who wants people to see all those qualities in the Fussels brand? Luckily Deborah had been listening and did understand about the Fussels brand values, she even asked me if they were “Dickies “dungarees, and if I had got them in Radstock. They were, I hadn’t, but clearly Deborah was a true Somerset girl. Very sharp is Deborah.
Then it was decision time. Duncan was actually very positive about everything and although he opted out, he did suggest that we get in touch to see if we could supply one of his local hotels. James was somewhat less enthused, clearly not a fan of farmers or overalls. Peter Jones was determined that given my commitment to the farming process, there was a strong possibility that I might not always give Fussels Fine Foods 100% focus. To be fair, no farm no Fussels Fine Foods as far as I’m concerned. Then I realised that Theo Paphitis was describing me as ……..
“The worst kind of contestant “…..
As I began to thing about a pithy reply, I realised that he was actually being complimentary. He liked me, he liked the Fussels philosophy, and the products and he could see how it all came together as a brand proposition. So far so good I thought, but then he explained that he felt that at this point in time, there was not enough in it for him, especially as I had made it clear that a share in the business did not give him a share of the farmland. Last but not least, Deborah.
She looked me straight in the eye and I waited with baited breath. This was it. Of course I knew this moment might come, but now that it had I was thrown into confusion. What would I say if she wanted a stake? Would I say yes? No? Maybe? Not that much, perhaps a bit more! All of these options and a lot more that I cannot print here raced around my brain, then time started again and she was speaking. I focussed and listened intently.
It seemed that I had won her heart, but her head said that Theo was right and there was not enough in the deal for her to buy in. That was that. I thanked them all and feeling as if a load had been lifted from my shoulders, I set off for more interviews with the internet team and a bit of friendly banter with the crew, who by the way were very complimentary about my efforts and especially of the F.G.S and the Mayo. Unfortunately they did not have a lot of spare cash to hand.
Now the show has been aired and it brought everything back to the front of my memory, but on reflection I cannot say that I have any regrets. I gave it my best shot and whilst I would have been pleased with a different outcome with regard to the money, the most important objective was to get a lot of positive media coverage for Fussels and whilst time would tell, I was pretty confident that this would be the case after the show was aired. In the last couple of years the business has come on leaps and bounds, and in Gary, Tich and Mary I have a loyal and very accomplished team and we are all convinced that together we can take Fussels Fine Foods a long way; the Dragons’ Den would surely prove to be another significant step along the road to success.
So Fussels is a Dragon free zone, although Deborah did suggest that we get together for a meeting and we have been in touch, so a cider based lunch is on the cards. We shall see….!