The Version Interview... Deborah Meaden.
Entrepreneur Deborah Meaden has become a household name after appearing in ten series of Dragon's Den and more recently competing in Strictly Come Dancing.
With applications having just opened for the next series of Dragon's Den, The Version had an exclusive chat with Deborah to find out more about what gives her the drive to succeed, and what she really looks for when parting with her cash...
You started your first business very on and I wondered what it was about your childhood that gave you the drive and the confidence to do that?
I think my parents expected me to do stuff. You know, they weren't parents who just did stuff for us. When I wanted a pony I had to go and work and get the money and to be fair they didn't have the money anyway so it was basically if I wanted something, I had to earn it. I think that just made me understand that you have to work hard to get what you want.
You studied business didn’t you?
I did, I went to Brighton to do Business Studies although I was pretty….*laughs* well basically I had really good time! I just about scraped through, I wasn't a shining example of what to do when you got to college at all! *naughty laugh*
So if you didn't learn your skills there, where did you learn them?
My Mum divorced my real dad, we were a single parent family, she just worked and I think I learned from her. She then met my Father and they set up their own business and we talked about it, and what did and didn't work and I think I just absorbed business through them. I say this to people, the place I feel really comfortable and have a natural leaning towards happens to be the thing that makes money.
Despite your success, you have also had failures. What’s the biggest lesson you've learnt?
Honestly, I think that failure is a bigger motivator for success. I don’t like it, I stopped and looked at what I had done wrong, but that's how you learn. I assumed everyone had the same ethics as me and that your word is your bond and actually, that isn't always true when you meet people in business and so I think I've learned to spend a little time on my judgement and just stop and think, how do I feel about this and not to just expect everyone to be like me.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Oh you know, I’d say to myself make the same mistakes all over again because there’s nothing like making mistakes to know what you have to do. I don’t like getting things wrong, I beat myself up about it, I think about it for about thirty seconds and then I think hey ho and off we go again. We shouldn't avoid taking risks, that’s the thing I learned to do. Sometimes you get it wrong, you have to get more right than you get wrong it is that simple, but when you do get things wrong there’s no point sitting in the corner crying about it, just get on with it!
So many people want to start their own business now, and there are start-up courses, innovation centres all kinds of means for people to 'learn'… is that the way you would suggest people go or are there better ways?
It all depends on their own particular character as much as ability. Sometimes people learn better in a structured environment. I wasn't stupid but I wasn't any good at school, I didn't like rules, I just wanted to get out there and make my own mistakes and my own successes. Some people aren't like that and some need a structured environment. Anybody can learn to run a business but not everyone is an entrepreneur. They are two completely different things and I think people need to decide which one they are. There are some very successful business people who make themselves very nice lives and lots of money but they are not entrepreneurs. As an entrepreneur you have to be able to take risks and if the risks go wrong you've got to be able to pick yourself up and get on with it.
We need to talk about Dragon’s Den and this year it has just felt really fresh with the new dragon’s. Do you agree with that?
I loved it and I'm glad you said that because listen, I don’t have to do it, I do it because I enjoy it and every year I think maybe I shouldn't do it again because maybe I'm not fresh, but I loved the three new guys they were very smart, very challenging and it makes it very interesting for me and for Peter and I think it worked. Normally new dragons take a few days to bed in but this year I was like, yes! They’re on it! I thought it was really, really good.
There are endless shots of you biting your nails and looking grumpy right from when when people walk through the doors. How quickly do you actually make your judgement on people?
*laughs* look, everybody makes instant decisions, it’s animal instinct, we do make snap decisions but what I have learned is hold on a minute, you've been wrong. So I just give people time. I have been wrong, I've thought no way… and then they say something and make a really good point. Whatever anyone thinks, I'm never grumpy or cross, I just listen. I'm totally neutral because I have no idea what they’re going to be like. Will they be rude? Funny? Interesting? Naive? I am completely neutral and whatever actually happens in the den is trigged off by the entrepreneur themselves.
Is there any kind of business that hasn't come through the door that you’re waiting for?
No not really, I'm not a specialist in any particular sector. I just want to understand why people will buy the product and how big that market is. As long as it is ethical and in my rules I don’t mind, I just sit and listen and wait to be explained to why it would be a good product. I don’t have a yearning to work with any particular sector I just want to understand why the product will work.
If I was to walk through the door and say can I have some money for The Version please, what would you be looking for apart from facts and figures?
I’d want to understand what and why you needed to spend the money and behind that, you’d be telling me how well you know your market place. A lot of people think they can throw money at something and it will fix it and you think no no, that’s not what will fix it. You’re telling me your reason to be. What’s that? Just because you have something that’s good I want to understand what the USP is. Why is it great? Why will you plug that gap? As an individual I need to trust you, know you’re smart with good judgement and I have to believe in you.
I’m all of those things!
*Laughs* was this whole thing just leading up to a pitch?!
Yes, can I have some money please!? ...I love the idea that you’re a hard-nosed business woman, but can you paint a picture of how you relax at home on your farm?
Yeah, I think people would be surprised at how I live. I am not driven by fast cars, big boats and whatever. I’m not interested and I think you know what, I’m not playing that game. I just do what I want to do and that’s that. The first thing I do is I come home, have a shower or bath and wash work away. Then I put on the scruffiest clothes you can imagine and Wellington boots, I take the dogs out and I go for a walk just to get myself back in touch with what I love. I love the garden, I have an opinion on where all the plants should be...I am very fortunate to have a life where I meet lots of people, travel and do lots of interesting things and on the other side I can have down time in my own space and I love it.
Do you cook?
Bloody hell no! I’ve not cooked in thirty years! My husband cooks. We have a third of an acre vegetable garden so we try to eat seasonally and eat the right things at the right time, it’s great.
And what do you spend your money on?
I spend money on the things that touch me. I don’t see the point in just buying things. I spend money on horses, they are ridiculously spoilt. I’ll spend money on the house, on charitable work I want to do. There isn’t one thing I want, I just see something and think I want to have that or do that, I spend money on whatever I want to!
How’s your one-eyed duck Cyclops?
Oh poor old Cyclops is no longer with us. He went blind in one eye, then the other and the other ducks started picking on him. The poor little chappy isn’t with us any more…. That’s life!
You are in the public eye quite a lot, what’s the best and worst things attached to that?
It’s a weird thing to say, I am on television and even did Strictly and that’s not very private but I am a very independent and a very private person. I go out a lot but when I do, I feel very much like I am on display and so with my more private social life it is more about dinner parties at home with friends. I want to go incognito in bric-a-brac stores but people always come over and want a chat and then I end up having to leave the shop and I’m not complaining at all, but what I miss most is just going about my own normal business.
You mentioned Strictly, what advice would you give to this year’s contestants?
Oh have fun! Just have fun, it is a one off in your life, just don’t take it seriously honestly. In the first week I was terrified and Sophie Ellis-Bextor asked me why I was doing it and I said just because I wanted to and she said well then just enjoy it and she was so right. I knew I wasn’t going to win, it wasn’t about that, it was about having fun and learning to dance and once she said that I absolutely had a ball, I loved it.
Did that give you a desire to do any other tv shows apart from Dragon’s Den?
No not really, I am very much a business person who does something on tv, I am not a television personality. I don’t consider myself like that. If something came up that I care about I would do it but I have never ever, never looked to do anything. I didn’t ask to do Strictly, they asked me. They asked me to do Dragon’s Den, I don’t go around looking for tv work.
When is Dragon’s Den back?
We don’t know but I think after Christmas, this year it came back after January. It’s already filmed so it is just a case of when they want to run it.
So finally, applications for the next series after that are now open. What advice would you give to applicants?
If you’re doing it just to get on television, don’t bother. If you’re doing it because you have a good opportunity and you don’t know what to do with it then do come on. If you've got a good product... We can’t make a bad product good but we can certainly speed things up with a good product and we can minimise the mistakes. Absolutely apply and come on. You know even the people who think they haven’t enjoyed it, afterwards, they all say it was an amazing experience because you learn something.
Shall I apply then?
Oh go on then but I’ll have to say I know you and so in that case, I’ll have to declare myself out!