Inside the Dragons’ Den

Ever wondered what it feels like to stand before the notorious Dragons’ Den panel and pitch your business in the hope of attracting investment? One man who knows is Dominic Ricciardi, owner of refurbished catering equipment supplier Caterquip. Here, he gives his own account the bits that you don’t see on the TV…

"Two years ago I’d been thinking how I could provide my growing national customer base with better local service, region by region. After much research , we made the decision to venture into franchising and as a company we began the mammoth task of producing business plans, franchise prospectuses and legal documents.

Throughout this journey I was lucky enough to work with some of the best franchise experts around, and it was because of them I was contacted by BBC’s Dragons’ Den, who were looking for some master franchisors to put in front of the Dragons.

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I’ll be honest, I hadn’t watched Dragons’ Den for a year or two as I felt it had lost its way, as it was not so much about the businesses, and more about the Dragons and their celebrity egos. Because of this I was in two minds about it. Did I need the investment? No, not really. Did I need a Dragon to help me? Not really, as I had already done all the work. But with the exposure that a dragon would give you, it would be a fast growth business.

I had two weeks to prepare for the audition, which takes place in Manchester. I had to arrive the day before, staying at the Holiday Inn in Media City. It’s an amazing place, entirely there for the BBC.

It’s where all the popular TV shows are recorded and where you go to be part of studio audiences. I arrived at 6pm and spent the evening standing in front of the mirror practising my 120-second pitch — no more, no less, as dictated by the BBC.

My audition was at 9.30am the next morning, where I was taken into a small room painted white throughout — very clinical — and asked to make my pitch without note or prop. Just me standing in front of a camera! I was in and out in just 25 of the 60 minutes they had set aside for me. Six weeks passed and I’d heard nothing, and then I got it…an email from the producers! ‘Hi Dom, we’d love you to pitch to the Dragons. We need you at the filming location in Manchester in a couple of days.’

I travelled to Manchester and checked into a hotel the night before, as we were due on set the next morning at 6.30am. Upon my arrival at the studio, I was greeted by BBC officials and six other entrepreneurs. Everything was secret. TV, internet and mobile phones — banned!

You could feel the tension in the room. It was weird; a totally alien environment with all the security doors, producers everywhere, red lights and ‘do not enter’ signs, and all of us pacing around, reading our notes and muttering to ourselves.

Filming did not take place in sequence. First, we had to do the walk into the Den, but instead of actually doing that you are told to walk towards a camera until you reach a wall.

Then you are asked to stop and turn around. In fact, what we were actually doing was the entrance and the exit scene to the Den.

I was captivated by it all. There were no less than 25 people involved. Just in this part there were about five cameras, each with two operators, additional sound technicians, dress people, props people and other staff. We eventually all finished our entry and exit scenes after three takes each — and all for just 20 seconds of film. Then it was back to the Green Room to wait our turn for the main event.

At 5.15pm it was suddenly my turn! I got up as the producers came towards me, but instead of uttering the words I was expecting they informed me that the Dragons were all leaving as they’d overrun that day. I should go home and wait for a phone call to re-schedule my shoot. The following morning I receive a call: ‘Someone has dropped out and you need to get back to Manchester tonight to be on set for your pitch tomorrow’.

So here I am again, in the green room, but this time I’m there for only 20 minutes before I get the call. OMG! This is it! I head out and I am taken down for a props meeting where I meet the executive producer for the first time. Here they must approve your props, not too big, the right colour and not too many logos.

At the top of the stairs there are two people waiting for you with headphones and radios on. They’re waiting for the go-head from the Den. ‘Bring him down’, I hear them say. They lift the barrier and tell me to walk down the stairs where I will find my props. ‘Walk down, remove the sheets from your props, find the marker on the floor and start your pitch,’ was the instruction. So that was it. I walked down. I felt sick. I could just see Duncan Bannatyne on the far left. He looked up at me, did not smile or have any facial expression whatsoever.

I looked over to my far left. I could not believe what I saw. 40-plus people all sitting there with at least eight cameras and their operators, all pointing at me and the Dragons!

My mouth is drier than the Serengeti, nothing could have prepared me for this. “Hi, my name is Dominic Ricciardi. I am here today looking for an investment of £100,000 for a 10% share of my business…”

What happened next…

Dominic Ricciardi asked for a £100,000 investment in return for 10% equity in his Caterquip UK franchise business, telling the Dragons that individual franchisees would have a territory of around 3,500 customers, each of which is estimated to spend about £5,000 on their catering equipment.

However, things quickly took a turn for the worse when Deborah Meaden took objection to the fact that should Caterquip sell all the regional territories, the enquiries that came through its office would eventually be filtered down to the franchises anyway, thus potentially undermining the status of the existing mother business — and any potential investment in it.

Fellow Dragon, Theo Paphitis, was also unconvinced, branding the investment opportunity “ridiculous”. He barked: “Sometimes in life, after you have been in business for a very long period of time, you have a gut instinct, and when somebody offers you 10% of a new business with all the risk in it you automatically put the barriers up and think negatively of that opportunity.”

Duncan Bannatyne, whose business interests include hotels, health clubs and spas, also weighed in: “I have got over 60 kitchens and when one of my facilities requires secondhand equipment they use a local person that comes in and does all that,” said Bannatyne. “Why would they want to buy a franchise? They can just set up and just start doing it.”

Ricciardi argued that as well as secondhand equipment, franchisees would be providing new catering equipment, sundries, chemical supplies and oil filtration products, but it still wasn’t enough to convince any of the Dragons’ to part with their money.

Ricciardi’s encounter with the Dragons certainly hasn’t put him off pursuing his franchise plans, however. After selling his first territory in Plymouth, a second franchisee is close to opening in Cardiff and plans are afoot for a third in Norfolk.

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