Saturday, 30 June 2007

Why Products Fail

Since writing my blog below about Peter Jones' new show Tycoon, I set up a Google Alert which has since sent me every online piece documenting - in excruciating detail - the failure of Peter's latest TV project.

When you are entrepreneur just starting out, at least you can mistakes (and there always will be mistakes!) in private, whereas we 'Celebrity Entrepreneurs' are always under the full and often embarassing glare of the media spotlight.

Although I actually feel for Peter, having been through my own very public 'media meltdown', nonetheless it did prompt me to think about what makes a great product (whether that be a TV programme, or any other creation out of which you intend to make money).

When the Dragons were first approached by the BBC and introduced to the talented producer Martyn Smith, who had been commissioned to create the concept for Dragons' Den, I think we all expected an X-Factor type show in a studio at White City.

Instead we were sent to a desolate warehouse in one of London's less safe suburbs, sat on mis-matching chairs in a bleak set and had no real instruction on what was about to unfold.

But when the first series of Dragons' Den was aired back in January 2005, it was clear just from watching episode one that the BBC had a hit on their hands. Although it was quite raw and the entrepreneurs weren't brilliant, to me that first series was by far the best - it had a great energy; the Dragon egos had not become bigger than the Show itself and the entrepreneurs were truly desperate for funding and support - not just after a free primetime TV ad.

In short, Martyn Smith threw out all conventional TV wisdom - and took the risk to create something briliantly innovative and original, which would change the way business TV programmes were conceived forever. And the BBC has been milking the formula relentlessly ever since (in fact, some would say the cow has long since run out of milk).

The reasons why Dragons' Den was such a success are exactly the same reasons why Tycoon - and many other products like it - failed.

Playing safe and following what others have done before may seem like a solid option to achieve success, but in business it is actually often the riskiest approach you can take.

Tuesday, 26 June 2007

Alpha Females

Congratulations to Management Today for profiling the 'Top 35 Women Under 35' in this month's issue - but shame on the Sunday Times this week for labelling them 'Alpha Females' !

I've met several of the ladies on the list and can categorically say that they are 180 degrees opposite to the old fashioned 'Alpha Male' breed of businessmen. Yes, they are all focussed and determined - but the similarity really does end there.

Women tend to go into business through passion for what they do, not for profit. But ironically, it's that same passion - to sell great products, give fantastic services and create unforgettable experiences - that gives these 'Passionpreneurs' a formidable edge over their Alpha Male adversaries, who are typically much more interested in making money than in the customers who spend it.

Women who create businesses from the heart also create a really positive flow of energy - so vibrant that you actually feel energised in their presence - an energy which magically seems to attract the right people, as well as an abundance of opportunity. Speak to any Passionpreneur about their entrepreneurial journey and you can't fail to notice that amazing coincidences and synchronicity always seem to feature vividly in the mix.

Yes, there are still a few hard faced 'Alpha Females' out there, trying to prove they can be 'as good as the men' - in their navy pinstripe skirt suits and black stilletto uniforms.

By contrast, our Passionpreneurs are successful while still being feminine, and also run their business with tremendous ethics and integrity, realising that relentless pursuit of profit at any cost can no longer be the sole business driver in the 21st century .

Which magnetically attracts customers like bees to honey.

And given that 80% of consumer decisions are now made or influenced by women, it would seem that the time is ripe for our Passionpreneurs to show the men a thing or two about what it really means to be successful in business.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Peter Jones' New Show 'Tycoon'

I tuned in to last night's much hyped new ITV business series 'Tycoon' with much anticipation.

Not only am I an avid fan of the new breed of TV business shows, but also having known Peter Jones 'before he was famous' - when we filmed series 1 of Dragons' Den back in 2003 - I was interested to see how he had developed in his role as 'celebrity entrepreneur'.

But minutes in, as we were flown over the City of London in the opening credits and then had a street level view of his shiny new Bentley arriving outside a disused warehouse-type building, it became clear that we were destined to endure a lowest common denominator formulaic pastiche of The Apprentice meets Dragons' Den.

Jones has selected 6 would-be entrepreneurs to take part in the show, each trying to build their business in a 10 week period working in an open plan office, under the scrutiny and 'guidance' of Jones.

The problem with the show is that it quickly becomes apparent that Jones hasn't a clue about brands or marketing, constantly misguiding the businesses in his charge.

Thus we see the 'Gardening Girlies' being encouraged to re-brand to something more 'attention grabbing' - and then being heaped with praise for coming up with the new identity 'Sod Women'. Personally I can't think of a brand name more likely to alienate what is predominantly a female, middle England target customer.

Similarly, vodka juice girl was given a slating by Jones for her attempts at finding a name for her product - citing 'Death' cigarettes as a great example of an attention grabbing brand (yes, those were the fags launched in 1991 by the company which was in liquidation by 1999). She finally resorted to grabbing passing joggers on the South Bank for their suggestions.

Back to the warehouse office and Jones has summoned everyone to a meeting to discuss their progress. The Gardening Girlies, sorry I mean 'Sod Women', have arrived in navy pinstripe suits wearing ties - only to receive more praise from Jones for showing so much progress under his guidance. No doubt in a future episode they will arrive having undergone a complete sex change, only for Jones to coo 'Congratulations ladyboys, the penny has finally dropped with you that only men can be successful in business'.

Finally, Jones heads down a pier for a showdown with vodka juice girl - plus the inevitable threat of a sacking - when what she really needed most at this point is some friendly guidance from one of London's big branding agencies.

This is where I think the show was so disappointing compared to, say, the brilliant Mary Queen of Shops (BBC2 Thursdays 9pm). In that series, Mary Portas not only points out where the businesses are going wrong, but then really gives brilliant hands-on guidance - by bringing some of the top fashion professionals in to help show how it should be done.

As the show progressed, while Jones' teeth got whiter, his cufflinks got bigger and the Bentley got shinier, Jones personality got thinner and thinner. By the end of the epsiode I was left feeling that this was simply another TV vehicle for his now monstrous sized alpha male ego.

The penny finally dropped when we saw the last frame and realised that the show had been created and produced by Jones' own TV production company Peter Jones TV. Like his Max Clifford co-client Simon Cowell, Jones clearly sees TV production as his latest way to make some much needed money.

A quick peek at the latest Phones International accounts shows why the diversification is needed - £4million profit on £186million sales is a nice business to have, but hardly puts Jones in the 'Tycoon' bracket of a Branson, Dyson or Sugar. Especially when up the road at Red Letter Days (the business I started, which Jones acquired out of administration in 2005 in a flourish of 'I'm-a-Dragon-and-I-know-a-Great-Business-Opportunity-When-I-see-One' publicity) has just filed a loss of £7.1 million.

While the TV route may have worked for Simon Cowell, sadly I don't see the same happening for Peter. While the idea for the show was great, the execution was lousy, and as one of Britain's supposed new breed of business leader, Jones just doesn't have the X-Factor.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Big Fish and (Two) Dragons

Fresh back from London (I love London and still find myself spending at least two days a week down there, but am always grateful to get back to our beautiful home in the Peak District), and full of renewed inspiration for entrepreneurship...

Yesterday I interviewed Karan Bilimoria (founder of Cobra Beer) for my forthcoming book on entrepreneurship - and then went to the Big Fish entrepreneur's networking event in the evening to hear my old pal and co-Dragon Doug Richard talk about his entrepreneurial experiences.

Karan is the most charming man; newly appointed as a member of the House of Lords and now moving in terribly high circles. We both started our businesses back in 1989 and have both faced business meltdowns; his in 1998 when, similarly to me, the banks pulled the plug - the difference being he managed to survive! Since then, he has gone international with the Cobra Beer brand and now has the vision to take sales to £1billion - and will probably float in 2008/9.

His new book is a great read too - get it at

Doug was in brilliant form and actually it is the first time I had heard him speak and tell his own story. He started out building software businesses in the States before coming to the UK and becoming an Angel Investor.

I always felt that Doug was one of the best ever Dragons - certainly the cleverest, sharpest and most entertaining; the Show just isn't the same without him.

On that note, I saw at the weekend the BBC has just announced the line up for Series 5 - Richard Farleigh has gone in favour of James Caan - some much needed fresh blood, but personally I would have kept Richard Farleigh - who represented the only human face of business on the Panel.

Dragons' Den may be good ratings fodder for the BBC but as a business show has totally lost all credibility - and that is a view consistently echoed by the entrepreneurs I meet at business events up and down the country. The old pin-stripe suited 'greed is good' Alpha Male (& Alpha Female) face of business is now so dated, it's really time that the BBC woke up to the fact that there are a whole new generation of entrepreneurs out there doing business in a much more ethical, collaborative way, and with real integrity and respect for others.

And, ironically, it is exactly those types of business that are increasingly turning customers on too.

Saturday, 16 June 2007

Blog Virgin

The man I have to thank for inspiring me to create this blog is Steve Clayton - he is a Big Cheese at Microsoft, there's nothing he doesn't know about the web, and he is passionate about blogging as a way of getting your message out there. See his own blog at

I met Steve at the StartupsLive event in Bristol last week - we were both speaking to an audience of about 150 entrepreneurs; it was a great event, the atmosphere was electric and I learnt a lot from my co-speakers.

First problem in creating my blog was finding someone else had taken my name on blogspot in October 2005 - clearly a disgruntled ex-Red Letter Days customer or supplier - I guess there was a lot of hate around at that time so it is only to be expected.

Next step in this process is to try to integrate this blog into my own website - watch this space !!!