Lessons from the Virgin Money Dragons’ Den

Last Friday, I spent the day at Google offices for the final of the Virgin Money & Start UK #BeTheStart sustainable business competition.  Misfits, the ugly fruit snack business I’m starting with my friend Mike, was shortlisted along with four organisations out of over eighty entries.

The competition sought to find “the best, brightest and boldest sustainable start-up and new product ideas.” Needless to say, we felt privileged to have been shortlisted.

Prepping for a dragons den style pitch felt a bit surreal, and it wasn’t really until we were in front of cameras, having our hair & make-up done, mics and ear pieces hooked up, that I thought to myself: “Wow this is for real”.

If you watched the event, you’ll know Misfits didn’t win. But there was still much fun to be had and many lessons learnt. Here’s what I can share:

  • 3 minutes is no time at all. Having three minutes to pitch your business idea can seem long but it’s also very short. Then again if you can’t sell your business in 3 minutes, you probably need to rethink it. We picked three main points we wanted to get across and everything we said revolved around that. I think that worked quite well.
  • Watching and hearing yourself ‘live’ is distracting. There is no way to get around the fact that watching yourself on camera whilst you’re pitching and hearing yourself with a tiny delay is weird. Just get used to it.
  • Smile. More. You may think you’re smiling but you’re not. Before pitching, I was very conscious of needing to smile as were the other contestants. Yet when I watched ourselves, we all did very little smiling. Maybe there’s a need to slightly exaggerate facial expressions so they come out more on camera. That said, you don’t want to end up looking like a grinning idiot either.
  • Know what to do with your hands – whether you put them in your pockets, behind your back, gently brush them on the front side of your legs, or use them for getting your points across.  Know what you will do with them and think about it before going on camera.
  • The teleprompter is not your friend. If I had to do it again, I’d get rid of it. I felt like it was a distraction and it didn’t really allow me to be me. I always rehearse or at least plan out what I’m going to say when I present but having to stick to something word for word felt unnatural. And even if I wanted to improvise, seeing the original text rolling in front of my eyes prevented me from being able to think of anything else.
  • Always have a plan B. If you followed us on the day, you would have noticed that the second part of the hangout (feedback & results) was delayed and that was because of technical problems. No matter how prepared you are, you always have to be prepared to deal with something that you’re unprepared for. Some contestants had to present with a piece of paper when the teleprompter broke, and the technicians ended up having to pull out plan not-B-but-Z for the final hangout… using a good old laptop & webcam.
  • Google employees are very spoilt when it comes to food. I have massive work canteen envy.

The day itself wouldn’t have been as fun if it hadn’t been for everyone involved – from Start UK, Virgin Money, Google and of course the other contestants:

  • Will and Makaela from The Edible Bus Stop who transform forgotten sites across transport networks into valuable community growing spaces.
  • Harriet from The DoNation, a sponsorship site that replaces money with actions, aiming to revolutionize the way we tackle behaviour change.
  • Andrew and Abdel from Project Beeswax, aiming to improve pollination outcomes for fruit and crop growers globally by locating scarce beehives in the mathematically optimum location to ensure best fruit set.
  • Edwin from GiveMeTap who sells reusable water bottles enabling everyone to get free tap water across a network of cafes in the UK, and simultaneously provides clean water in Africa.

photo (12)

Edwin was the lucky and very deserving winner. But we are all the start of something new, that is (slowly but surely) creating positive change in the world.

I wish we could have all won and used the money to create a giant Edible Bus Stop, populated by Project Beeswax bees, growing food for communities and using all ugly fruit to make Misfits, whilst being a GiveMeTap water provider, and a space for people to create DoNation challenges. Now there’s an idea.

(If you missed the pitches but you’re keen to watch them, they’re available on youtube).

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