From Reggae Reggae Sauce to the Squatty Potty, the investors on Dragons’ Den and its US equivalent Shark Tank have gone on to achieve some incredible successes since the shows first aired in 2005 and 2009 respectively.
But as Abraham Lincoln almost said, all of the people can’t be all right all of the time. Over the years, some of the Dragons and Sharks have been left rueing what might have been, when ideas they have rejected have gone on to make millions. Examples include the Rocketbook, which topped the Amazon sales chart in November 2016 and has generated more than $10 million revenue, the cup-a-wine, which became a Marks & Spencer best seller and the vegan lipsticks that were picked up by Target in the US.
Perhaps the biggest blunder of all was the Tangle Teezer. Ridiculed by the Dragons in 2007, it has gone on to become an essential item for anyone with long hair, and the company is now worth more than £200 million.
These are all interesting stories as far as they go. The entrepreneurs have all achieved success, despite walking away from the filming set feeling utterly deflated.
But there is one other category of contestant, the rarest of all. Every one of these entrepreneurs goes before the Dragons or the Sharks pitching for an investment. Most of those lucky enough to receive one grab it with both hands. But just occasionally, it is the candidate who rejects the potential investor and not the other way around. Let’s meet half a dozen of them – including one who rejected offers from a Dragon on two different occasions!
1) Natasha Bowes
Where – Dragons’ Den
When – 2016
What – Bio-tiful, a probiotic kefir drink
Natasha entered the den seeking a £250,000 investment for a 10 percent share in her health drinks business. While the members of the panel were all impressed with her pitch and her product, four of the five dragons withdrew, as they could not envisage a probiotic kefir drink having mass appeal to UK consumers. Peter Jones even described the idea as “ridiculous.”
Only Den stalwart Deborah Meaden saw potential, but she said the £2.5 million value that Natasha’s pitch placed on the business was “crazy”. She offered the investment, but wanted 45 percent of the business in return, meaning she felt the company was worth little more than £500,000. Natasha did not even seek to negotiate, rejecting the offer and leaving the Den.
It was what can only be described as a spectacular misreading of the market. Today, kefir is a staple in many UK fridges, and Bio-tiful is sold in all the major supermarkets across the UK. The company turns over more than £16 million per year. Applying a 1.36x industry multiple places the value of the company in 2023 at about £22 million.
2) Arum, Dawoon, and Soo Kang
Where – Shark Tank
When – 2015
What – Coffee Meets Bagel, an online dating site
The brainchild of three sisters, Coffee Meets Bagel was presented to the Sharks as an online dating site that women prefer. What makes it stand out is that it seeks a match from the user’s social media network. If the two parties like the proposed connection, it provides a discount on a coffee or a bagel for that all-important first date.
The sisters sought a $500,000 investment for five percent of the business, but billionaire investor Mark Cuban had other ideas. He disagreed with the $10 million valuation implied by the investment pitch, but not in the way you might expect. Instead, he was so taken with the business that he offered to buy the entire company for $30 million. Even more incredible, the sisters rejected the deal as they did not wish to part with the company.
The whole story was such a sensation that interest in Coffee Meets Bagel went through the roof. The Kang sisters raised more than $23 million over a series of funding rounds and the company now has more than 10 million users on its iOS and Android apps alone.
3) Ben Fry and Phil Pinder
Where – Dragons’ Den
When – 2022
What – Hole in Wand, a mini golf business
Right up to present day next, with a magical pitch that viewers watched on the BBC in March 2023. When they went before the Dragons last year, the duo were already operating a successful mini golf attraction in York called Hole in Wand, and they had plans to open a second venue in Blackpool.
The pair entered the den looking for a £200,000 cash injection to help them accelerate their expansion with a third Hole in Wand in Edinburgh, with an ultimate goal of becoming the biggest mini golf chain in the UK. They were prepared to part with 10 percent of the business.
Stephen Bartlett said it was “not a particularly ambitious business” while Sara Davies commented she had “zero confidence” in the pair’s ability to manage money as the Dragons dropped out one by one. However, Peter Jones threw the business partners a lifeline, offering them the £200,000 they sought but demanding a one third share of the business. It was the largest offer made by a single dragon in the programme’s 18-year history.
When the pair declined to part with so much equity, the most famous Dragon of them all even reduced his demand to 15 percent, but the pair stood firm and left the den with no deal. Speaking to BBC Radio York, Ben said the stumbling block was more down to attitude than equity. He said that Peter “made it pretty clear that he thought we were clowns” and that he felt a partnership would have been “a constant battle.”
Did they make the right call? Time will tell on this one, but Ben and Phil are going full ahead with their growth plans. The second Hole in Wand opened in Blackpool last summer and has accumulated an impressive set of reviews on TripAdvisor. Meanwhile, the pair still have plans to open a third venue in Edinburgh and to continue the expansion from there.
4) Jim and Richard George
Where – Dragons’ Den
When – 2011
What – Postsafe, a business specialising in wood preservation
US audiences more accustomed to Shark Tank have sometimes criticised the Dragons’ Den pitches for lacking imagination and pizzaz in their business ideas. At first glance, brothers Jim and Richard George’s Postsafe business looks guilty as charged. However, the tools and solutions they have developed to slow and prevent rot in fence posts and other wooden installations are truly innovative.
The family business was already well established when the brothers went on Dragons’ Den in 2011. They felt their company had the potential to scale up significantly, and offered a 25 percent share in exchange for £160,000.
At the time, the spectacle of all four Dragons offering to combine their resources and their expertise was something audiences had never seen. However, their demand for a total 30 percent of the business proved a stumbling block. The George brothers held firm at 25 percent and when the Dragons proved intransigent, Jim and Richard chose to keep the business in 100 percent family ownership.
Five percent seems a small concession and audiences were shocked at the time that it proved to be a deal-breaker. 12 years on, however, the brothers are certain that they made the right choice. The business has grown dramatically without the need for outside investment. Postsafe employs a significant workforce to serve customers in 30 countries. The business has also entered into agreements with a number of utility providers worldwide to help them reduce their costs and their environmental impact by extending the service life of wooden utility poles.
5) Jamie Siminoff
Where – Shark Tank
When – 2013
What – Door Bot, a doorbell with video camera and IoT connectivity
When it comes to ones that got away, the Sharks certainly know how to hit the numbers. 2013 doesn’t sound so long ago, but back then, the idea of a smart doorbell that would patch the visitor through to your mobile phone seemed more Star Trek than Shark Tank.
Jamie Siminoff pitched a product that was already registering annual sales of $1 million. The benefits of the device seem as clear as day 10 years later, which is why most of us now have one beside our front doors.
Jamie was looking for $700,000 for a 10 percent share, but the Sharks were lukewarm. Ultimately, only Kevin “Mr Wonderful” O’Leary remained. He offered the full amount, but as a loan, conditional on 10 percent of all sales until the loan was repaid plus seven percent royalties on all subsequent sales and a five percent share in the business.
Jamie rejected the deal, and although he left the Shark Tank empty handed, his business went from strength to strength. Sales escalated before he had even enjoyed the extra publicity that would come when the show aired later in the year, and a venture capital group headed by Virgin founder Richard Branson injected $28 million into the product, which was rebranded Ring. Just over a year later, Amazon bought the company out for $1 billion and in the ultimate irony, Jamie has subsequently returned to the Tank as a guest Shark.
6) Cally Russell
Where – Dragons’ Den
When – 2015 and 2021
What – Mallzee, a fashion app and This is Unfolded, an ethical clothing business
Only a handful of entrepreneurs have had two bites at the cherry and been invited back to the Tank or the Den with a second business idea. Cally Russell from Scotland was the first to receive such an opportunity having turned down a Dragons’ offer on his first visit. Surely lightning could not strike twice.
In 2015, Cally pitched an app that used diverse data sources including a Tinder-style like/dislike swipe system, to help retailers understand which clothing lines they should stock. This kind of big data analytics is commonplace today, but was highly innovative at the time.
Cally was looking for a £75,000 investment and was prepared to part with five percent of his business, and although Peter Jones was ready to put up the cash, he wanted a 15 percent stake. The two could not agree, and Cally walked away with nothing.
Mallzee thrived as Cally found alternative investors, but the business came crashing down when the pandemic hit in 2020. The following year, Cally was back with a new idea, a clothing company that manufactures garments to order, thereby reducing the usual wastage. 30 percent of clothes manufactured conventionally are never sold.
The business is also heavily invested in welfare initiatives for the workers at the manufacturing site in India and for the surrounding community. Again, Cally was looking for £75,000 but this time, he was only ready to part with a two percent share of the business.
Once again, Peter Jones offered the full amount, and this time, both Deborah Meaden and Touker Suleyman also threw their hats into the ring. None, however, were ready to accept just a two percent share. Deborah proposed 12 percent, Peter 15 percent and Touker, who has made his fortune in exactly this sector, 30 percent.
Cally slammed Touker’s proposal as a “Dracula offer” before asking Peter to come down to five percent. His proposal was greeted with Peter’s trademark “Are you joking?” before the Dragon closed negotiations down by saying he hoped Cally would not regret saying no to him twice.
Cally, meanwhile, has once again found an alternative funding source and insists he did not go into the Den seeking to be obtuse. He told the BBC: “I really didn’t want to say no to them and I am very sad about it but I just couldn’t structure a deal with them that worked for everyone.”
Keep reading – Spotting the signs of financial abuse in relationships.