The Dragons’ Den star and long-standing IoD member has had a diverse career – from selling ceramics, to running a family travel business, to owning a textile mill. As she collected an honorary doctorate from Bath Spa University, the serial entrepreneur told us what she’s learnt so far.
Location, location, location. That was the first business lesson I learnt when, aged seven, I set up a stall selling flowers at the end of our drive. I quickly realised half of the passing cars couldn’t see me, so I moved to the drive next door. Our neighbour was furious and my mum told me off, but, secretly, I think she was very chuffed indeed.
I’m comfortable meeting new people. My parents moved for work and, by the time I was 12, I’d been to six schools. I was constantly the new girl, moving into micro-societies that had already formed. It made me socially agile and taught me to read situations, deal with change and not panic.
I couldn’t bear my first job. It was as an assistant in a fashion house salesroom – taking orders and modelling the clothes… I’m only 5ft 2in, so I’m not exactly model material! I hated it, but the guy who took me on was very kind, so I stuck it out – there was a leadership lesson to be learnt there.
If you don’t change things in life, nothing changes. I knew I wanted my own business, so I thought ‘I need to put myself out there.’ I went to Milan, aged 18, and ended up meeting the producers of these wonderful ceramics and acting as their agent to sell to stores in the UK.
I don’t like failure. But I think how you deal with failure has a bigger role in your success than how you deal with success. Eventually they started selling their ceramics direct, but I didn’t have time to think ‘woe is me’. I was £3,000 in debt, which was a fortune, and so I thought ‘I’m just going to get on with things.’
Timing is important. Back in the UK, I was walking through Knightsbridge when I spotted Stefanel, a clothing brand I’d seen in Italy. So I bounced in and asked, ‘are you setting up franchises?’ And the guy said, ‘your timing is immaculate, let’s talk.’
Set out what you want from a deal… and stick to it. Deals can have a way of migrating away from the thing you started off doing – before you know it you’re discussing something you said you’d never do.
Family business shouldn’t be too personal. I did a buy-in management buy-out – but please don’t call me a Bimbo in print! – of the family travel business [Weststar Holidays]. It worked because we always treated business as business, and kept things very professional.
I said ‘no’ to Dragons’ Den twice. I’m a control freak and was nervous about putting myself out there and losing that control. But they convinced me to try a screen test with Duncan Bannatyne and Richard Farleigh, and I had a ball.
I’m a different Dragon now. When I started I took a lot at face value and trusted that people were being genuine because they were on TV. But I’ve learnt that sometimes they’re just there for publicity. Today, you’ll have to make me see that you genuinely want me as an investor, or I’m out.
Really know your product. That’s the secret of a good pitch. You don’t have to be perfect – I like to get the feeling that, even if someone can’t present their message terribly well, they really understand the market they’re covering.
Leaders should know when to laugh. I don’t mean in a self-indulgent way, but there are moments when tensions need to be broken and people need to relax and realise that a problem which looks insurmountable perhaps isn’t that bad.
Make a decision. I believe making a bad decision is better than making no decision at all – at least you’re in motion, and hopefully you can tweak as you move. The most dangerous situation for any business to be in is stagnant and frozen in fear.
I am constantly scanning the horizon. About half of my investments come from Dragons’ Den, so I have a whole life of investing going on beyond that. With [clothmaker] Fox Brothers, I didn’t wake up one day and think ‘I’d love to own a mill’ – what excited me was hearing the story, putting myself in the customer’s shoes and seeing how the business could be relevant.
I don’t need to escape. If I’m away and I get an email from one of my businesses, I don’t think ‘oh God’, I think ‘oh brilliant!’ I’m interested in business, and I think it’s a very lucky and ultimately happy person who ends up doing the thing that they love.