Deborah Meaden isn’t just a career entrepreneur; she also spends her working life listening to other entrepreneurs, in the Dragons’ Den. So she’s better qualified than most to tell MT what makes a good one - and what's guaranteed to raise her hackles.
She thinks there’s definitely a type: ‘They’re all very different, but there are some key common elements: they’re perceptive, competitive, able to take risks... But good judgement is one of the most important elements. It’s no good getting passionate about the wrong thing.’ Hence why the theme of her new book is common sense, which she defines as ‘good judgement without specialist knowledge’.
Good timing is also essential, she says – not just in terms of whether your business will work in the current climate, but also whether the entrepreneur’s personal situation is right. ‘You’ve got to think: am I fighting fit? Am I in a position to give this business what it needs to get it off the ground?’
In her book, Meaden talks about Britain being a nation of ‘potting shed entrepreneurs’. So does she think we’re better inventors than businesspeople? ‘An inventor is someone who’ll think I need something that does that, and I’m going to come up with the answer. The entrepreneur is the person who says, hmm that’s good, I’m going to make that, here’s the market and I’m going to sell it. Sometimes that can be the same person, but it’s quite rare. So a clearer understanding of the difference is very important.’ But she still thinks Britain is Great: ‘I get sent 100 ideas a week; some of them are crazy, some of them are brilliant. But they’re ideas, and that’s fantastic.’
The good news for entrepreneurs with a workable idea is that they should find plenty of business angels keen to invest, given the relatively measly rate of return they’re getting if they leave their cash in the bank. And since bank loans are hard to come by, it’s perhaps no surprise that business has been brisk in the latest series of Dragons Den (which she's currently filming). ‘I’m seeing better business opportunities than I have for a long time,’ says Meaden.
So what's the key to a successful Den pitch? Well, to impress Meaden, go easy on the snake oil. ‘I don’t like over-slick pitches – what I’m seeing is a good salesman. I’m looking for someone who can convince me that they know so much about their business that there’s not a question I can throw at them that they can’t answer.’ Predictably, that means Meaden’s distinctly unimpressed by people who are hazy about their numbers. ‘You don’t have to be brilliant at numbers, but you have to understand the basics, or you won’t have a clue what’s going on in your business.’ And your answer will almost certainly be followed by a prompt and slightly irate: 'I'm out'.
In today's bulletin:
Is Northern Rock back on the block?
Setanta proving a turn-off for investors
Halfords pedals up profits as commuters get on their bikes
BP's top woman Vivienne Cox resigns
MT Special: Deborah Meaden on what makes a good entrepreneur