It’s hard to believe now, but there was once a time that Dragons’ Den really warranted its name.
When the BBC’s flagship show about budding entrepreneurs started in 2005, even watching the Dragons from the safety of your own front room was often enough to make you break out in a cold sweat.
And those brave souls seeking investment from the Dragons were scrutinised in a rigorously thrilling but fair way. Only the very best ideas found backing.
But with the new series, the Dragons seem to have lost their fire. And I can’t help feeling that it’s part of a wider malaise in society.
At the start of each episode, presenter Evan Davis dramatically introduces Peter Jones, Deborah Meaden, Touker Suleyman, Steven Bartlett and Sara Davies as ‘captors of commerce’ and the ‘fearsome five’ – but these days, they seem more like a support group.
For every single one of the entrepreneurs put before them to pitch their idea in return for investment seems to begin with a tear-jerking tale of misfortune.
And the rot had evidently already set in during the last series. For example, in episode 11, the invention of Alan Gillett – a device used to capture the dust from drilling – appeared, as far as I could tell, to be little more than a vacuum cleaner. Thankfully for Alan, he wasn’t judged on his gadget, but on his emotional backstory.
‘In 2006, I invented it,’ said the Kent-based entrepreneur. ‘I left it in the cupboard [when] my mum got cancer and I had to stop work because I was looking after her. My mum unfortunately passed. It took me a while to recover from that. But then, my wife and I, we were like, “OK, we’re gonna do this”, and we picked it up again. And then she was diagnosed with cancer. Eleven weeks later, she died.’
NOW, of course, it’s hard to imagine a more desperately sad story than Alan’s, and my heart goes out to him. But should his tragic past alone have led to offers from both Peter Jones and Touker Suleyman?
Peter Jones himself admitted that he wanted to give Alan ‘a break’. But that’s not a reason in the brutal world of business to cough up £40,000. Since when did Dragons’ Den become a charity?
One viewer, called Tami, writing on X, said: ‘Alan so deserves this investment.’ But did he really?
Isn’t the very appeal of Dragons’ Den that it attempted to show the world of business as ruthless as it really is – red in tooth and claw?
Business may not be for everyone, but its central appeal is that your feelings don’t really figure.
It is a crucible in which you are to be tested, and very possibly found wanting – as the unfortunate husband-and-wife team who invented children’s building toy Bizzy Bits found back in 2013.
After the couple’s energetic presentation to the Dragons, Duncan Bannatyne spat: ‘I wrote down one word: rubbish.’
They were crestfallen, but creating a successful business is not easy. I have the scars to prove it.
After I had my first child, my partner wasn’t well-off, so I knew I needed to make money. I qualified as a fitness instructor and shortly after set up my own business: LadyXsize. Within weeks, my Zumba classes went from six people to 80 people.
But it was tough going. I poured £100,000 into taking my company online, but the subscribers just weren’t there and I made no profit.
If I’d had clear and honest feedback on my plans, I might not have wasted that money.
What I’d needed was a healthy dose of realism. And, as much as other issues may tug at the heartstrings, realism is what everyone in entrepreneurship needs.
What certainly wouldn’t have helped my ailing business was leaning heavily on an emotional backstory.
I feel sure that the fashion for telling compelling personal stories must have come from the US.
Because talking with Americans can sometimes give you the impression they are performing the star role in the movie of their own life.
And while some may say that bragging about your ‘personal brand’ is insufferable, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Our friends across the Pond get a lot done.
In the last 15 years, the US economy has grown by two thirds to $25 trillion, while ours has merely puttered along.
And that’s partly because Americans are so good at telling success stories – even if it means a bit of embellishment here and there.
While over here, it seems, we find stories of personal suffering far more persuasive.
So it was with 31-year-old Giselle Boxer from Sheffield who last week sought funding from the Dragons for her wellness brand.
Viewers barely got an opportunity to hear about her unusual ‘Chinese ear seed’ product (a needle-free acupuncture kit) because she almost exclusively spoke about her devastating experience of being diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) aged 26.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, she went on to secure offers from all six dragons, becoming the first person to do so in the show’s history.
Another young hopeful, Ben Gallagher, successfully convinced the Dragons he’d started his luxury re-sale business after his sister got a more expensive Christmas present than him.
Brother-and-sister team Alex and Nicole started their organic skin care business with £1,000 left to them by their late grandmother.
Apparently, skin care is a ‘safe space’ for Alex, who once suffered from acne as a child, which is when it became his ‘calling and passion’. Give me a break!
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the importance of a backstory. I’m proud of where I’ve come from.
AS a black woman in business I’ve faced my fair share of challenges. But I’ve never asked for the sympathy vote. It’s hard graft and sheer resilience that have got me where I am – not playing the victim.
What sort of a message are we sending to the next generation of entrepreneurs: that your personal story is more important than hard work?
That’s not only going to lead to a lot of failed businesses, it may leave us stranded for ever in the economic doldrums.
My fear is that without giving sound advice to young entrepreneurs, the Dragons are actually doing more harm than good.
Yes, you might hurt a few egos. But to give people false hope in business is actively irresponsible.
And that goes for all walks of life. Our society is in danger of forgetting that you have to be cruel to be kind.
I struggle to imagine the Dragons from years gone by behaving in such a way.
The likes of Theo Paphitis and the late Hilary Devey seem to belong not just to earlier series but to another world.
This series has seen the introduction of two guest Dragons in the form of former England footballer Gary Neville and businesswoman Emma Grede. Nice enough, yet a far cry from their predecessors.
The show has previously spawned some hugely successful businesses.
Levi Roots’ Reggae Reggae Sauce secured a £50,000 investment for 20 per cent of the company but is now worth an estimated £30 million, while Hertfordshire inventor Peter Moule made more than £25 million from his plastic device for arranging electrical cables.
But what chance is there of such successes being repeated now that the most attractive investment idea on the show seems to be maudlin personal tales?
I loved the show when it first started. But almost two decades later and Dragons’ Den looks to have become nothing more than garbled woke nonsense.
And for that reason, I’m OUT!