Book review: Insights of the Den's diva, by Deborah Meaden

Deborah Meaden exploits her television fame in the most constructive way with this practical guide for would-be entrepreneurs, reports Alastair Dryburgh.

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Last Updated: 25 Oct 2010

Common Sense Rules - What you really need to know about business
Deborah Meaden
Random House
£18.99

Given her high media profile following her stint as a dragon on BBC2's Dragons' Den, Deborah Meaden could probably have sold a publisher any sort of book. The most obvious choices would have been either something about life in the Den and the wild and wacky ideas presented there, or a version of that old favourite, 'my story'. These might have sold well and could even have been quite entertaining, but neither would have been likely to add much to the sum of human knowledge about business.

Fortunately for the interested reader, rather than take the ob-vious route, Meaden has done something more useful and also, ultimately, more valuable for those who are looking for serviceable, transferable insights.

This book, Common Sense Rules, does what it says. It's not a recipe for success but rather a set of principles for all stages of business - from start-up through growth and maturity to exit, and even possible failure.

What justifies the book is the author's view that common sense is, in fact, 'one of the least common of commodities'. And what adds spice is her willingness to go against many instances of 'entrepreneur mythology'.

The first four chapters are about entrepreneurs, and the Den. There are some fun vignettes of successful and unsuccessful visitors to the Den, but the most interesting part here is the first chapter, 'What makes an entrepreneur?'. Some of this is boilerplate - commitment, confidence and self-belief - but much of it is not. There are ideas she wants to debunk. For instance, she really has a go at the concept of '110% commitment'. 'Apart from it being a mathematical impossibility,' she writes, 'giving even 100% is simply not realistic all of the time.'

She even addresses the Great Unmentionable Fact - whose denial causes more problems in business organisations than almost any other: 'Trust me, there are going to be some days when there is not a lot to do.'

There are other sensible pieces of advice as well: be realistic; take calculated risks, but don't gamble. Overall, it's a refreshingly sensible look at an area plagued by hype and mythology.

But it's from chapter 5 - which looks at the idea of buying a business or running a franchise - that the book starts to become genuinely useful. Dragons' Den is good telly, but the fact is that most businesses aren't built on whizzy new ideas. Most of the money in the economy is generated by businesses where the concept is familiar but given a new twist, or simply executed really well - think of bus firms, or chains of pizza restaurants.

Chapter 6 covers 'Running the show', and continues to deliver simple truths that are too ofen forgotten. Know what to spend your time on, understand the numbers (even if you find accountancy baffling), manage cash. Here, she sounds a warning note: 'Many entrepreneurs find it fashionable to fly by the seat of their pants and say that running a company is all about drive, guts and enthusiasm, not numbers. To me, being entrepreneurial means having top-notch systems and processes and a strong engine room.'

The next three chapters cover building the team, marketing and selling. Here again there is good, solid advice for any business, with a challenging note - 'marketing on its own means nothing', 'all publicity is not good publicity', and selling is 'often neglected'.

The last two chapters cover the end of businesses, either through sale or through failure. Once again, realism rules.

This is not an inspirational book, and I don't think that was the intention. It's not going to cause any Damascene moments or single-handedly lead anyone to become an entrepreneur or start a business. It may even deter those who don't have the prerequisites: if it does that, it will have performed a useful service. It's not 'anyone can do it', but more 'if you want to do it, or are already doing it, this is what you need and what you have to do'.

The other thing this book is not is personal. We're left without any clear feeling for Meaden herself. We deduce that she's a capable, versatile entrepreneur and manager but take away little sense of her as a person. She tells us a lot about her various business ventures, but only as a way of illustrating the principles she sets forth. We're given a principle, and an illustration, proof or supporting evidence, but no picture of her operating. This can be a good thing, depending on what you are looking for.

Overall, this is one to file under education rather than entertainment. Dragons' Den is the book's marketing hook, but its applicability is much wider than that. In fact, its greatest value is probably to businesses at a later stage than those pitching in the Den.

I hope it finds its market, as it offers many valuable principles.

Alastair Dryburgh is head of Akenhurst Consultants

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