THERE HAS BEEN a recent glut in television programmes dedicated to entrepreneurial activities. Donald Trump’s Apprentice in the USA spawned a spin-off UK version starring Sir Alan Sugar; followed sharply by a popular C4 series called Make Me a Million featuring, among others, Chris Gorman, coaching the prospective leaders of a new healthcare coaching company.
But the one that has really taken off is Dragons’ Den, which has been attracting over 2.5 million viewers a week, comfortably within BBC2’s top ten of most popular programmes. This is compulsive viewing, as the five Dragons decide whether to risk some of their own money in backing the prospective start-up businesses.
But is this the right way to encourage entrepreneurial activity? One of the basic principles of BBC reality shows, as opposed to other channels, is that it isn’t supposed to do ‘cruelty’. Whereas the X-Factor has the ‘nasty’ Simon Cowell to destroy ambitious hopefuls in the early stages, the BBC’s Strictly Come Dancing has judges that are more sympathetic to the competitors.
But they appear to have forgotten this rule when it comes to Dragons’ Den. Prospective entrepreneurs seem to get absolutely no guidance or coaching in making their presentation, so that they often fluff their pitches badly. In many cases they are poorly advised as to the terms of a deal that might be possible, allowing the Dragons to dismiss the offers as laughable — and it looks as if they have been given free rein to insult them as they wish.
Over a decade ago, I remember being involved in the process of launching a version of the MIT Enterprise Forum, called the Business Forum, here in Scotland. At every forum meeting, two companies get a chance to pitch their business ideas to a couple of expert commentators and the audience. There then follows expert comments from the two-man panel and, finally, the audience gets the opportunity to ask its questions.
The difference between the Business Forum and the Dragons, however, is the way that the process is set up. The folks who established the MIT Enterprise Forum emphasised that the presenting companies should be properly prepared for their pitches. They are required to provide a business plan and to give a rehearsal run-through of their presentation to the panellists in advance. This rehearsal can be as tough and critical as you wish, as it is all done behind closed doors. The panellists get detailed guidance about how they can make their presentations stronger.
At the actual forum meeting the expert panel are very careful to limit their criticism. Comments are expected to be positive and the chairman reminds the audience that these should also be constructive. Because they have rehearsed their presentation, the quality of the pitches is usually excellent.
I met a prospective entrepreneur earlier this year who had developed a highly innovative babycare product and had already got it stocked in John Lewis stores. She had been asked to become a candidate on Dragons’ Den — they were especially keen as she was female — but she turned it down. Her husband heads up a PR and communication company and they had decided that it wasn’t right for them.
Quite right too. What a shame that other prospective entrepreneurs get suckered.