5 start-up tips from Dragons' Den's Sarah Willingham

The entrepreneur on raising cash, hiring the best people and juggling several businesses and four kids.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 25 Apr 2017

MT has had its run ins with Dragons’ Den in the past. But it’s fair to say the show has been granted a new lease of life in its past two series thanks to the addition of three new investors: cheeky chappy fashion tycoon Touker Suleyman, your favourite uncle and Moonpig founder Nick Jenkins and foodie entrepreneur Sarah Willingham, formerly one of MT’s 35 Women Under 35. 

Though she’s best-known for growing the Bombay Bicycle Club into Britain’s biggest chain of Indian restaurants, Willingham’s current working life is extremely multifaceted. She’s invested in five businesses through the show and several others, including the London Cocktail Club chain of bars and the Craft Gin Club, a subscription service for enthusiasts of the juniper spirit. 

Then there’s her charity work (in 2012 she launched the #feed5000 campaign to provide Christmas dinners to children in poverty) and media commitments – other than Dragon’s Den she often appears on TV as an expert on money saving, and this year is judging Nectar’s small business awards. ‘It’s actually my kids that keep me the most busy – I have four of them under 10,’ she tells MT.

Watch: How to pitch to Dragons' Den's Sarah Willingham

‘One of the things I really love about what I do is no week is the same. I might have a real surge doing something for London Cocktail Club for example – we might have a particular week where we’ve got something going on that I would normally get involved in happening (like fundraising or property deals). And then I might do nothing for two weeks for that particular business.’

When she’s deciding whether to invest in a business, Willingham says personality is just as important as anything else. ‘Sometimes I sit there and think yes, I could really work with you and think we would work really well together. And other people I think, it sounds like you’ve got an amazing business but I just don’t think I could work with you. That happens more often than not actually’.

Here’s some of the wisdom Willingham has accrued over her career:

How can an entrepreneur make their business somewhere really talented people want to work?

‘I wish there was a very tangible answer to that. It’s the ‘magic’ and you’ve either got the magic – that good vibe - or you haven’t. One thing is to make sure you’re always honest with people – one of the worst things is you’ve got people that you think are not performing but they have no idea. And be clear and concise in your decision-making. Ultimately people do want leaders and if you don’t make decisions and don’t have people’s backs then they start to lose confidence.

You did an MBA. Is that something all entrepreneurs should consider?

‘The full year was very focused on me having the time, brain space and focus to go from a corporate life into becoming an entrepreneur. It worked extremely well for me. But do I think you need to have an MBA to be a good entrepreneur? Of course not.

‘One of the things that was very useful for me was...it can give you real confidence in areas you might not feel are your strongest points. If you’re one of those people that’s like, "I don’t know anything about marketing, or accounts, or legals" or whatever it might be, an MBA is a really good way of opening your eyes and saying, it’s really not that complicated.’

What are the most important things to get right when pitching for investment?

‘One of the things that a lot of people do is over-promote – especially certain personality types. Just be very real – this is where we are, this is where we hope to be and this is how we plan on getting there. 

‘As we’re sat there as investors we’re thinking: do you have something that people want to use and would buy? Who is it that wants to buy it and why would they buy that instead of something else in that industry? And why are you going to be more successful in this business than the next person? It’s important to address all those key points.’

What advice would you give to an entrepreneur struggling to maintain a healthy work/life balance?

‘It’s probably the single hardest thing, it certainly is for me. I’ve got it wrong on a number of occasions and I strive to get it right on a daily and weekly basis and am constantly trying to redress the balance. When it works well is when I’m very strict that I’m either working, or not working. I know that sounds very basic but you’d be amazed by how few of us do it.’

How can new restaurants and bars stand out from the crowd?

‘People think it’s PR, but it’s not. There’s no point in PRing something that fundamentally isn’t great. You’ve got to be the best in your class and just really, really good at what you do. In the boom times even something mediocre can survive but long-term it won’t and nowadays with competition so fierce and consumers so discerning you’ve got to consistently deliver on what you promise you’re going to deliver.’

Sarah Willingham is a judge of this year's Nectar Business Small Business Awards


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