I have always believed there is a special place in hell for the producers of reality TV shows — almost certainly deep within Dante’s 8th Circle. But I must admit I’m now addicted to one, namely Dragon’s Den.
The program originated in Japan in 2001 and has since spread to more than a dozen countries worldwide, with a U.S. based version called “The Shark Tank” trying to get off the ground this year. My favorite is the UK version, now in its 6th season. Each program is a cavalcade of entrepreneurs and inventors looking to fund their life’s dream with money from smart, successful and unforgiving angel investors. However, while it technically is reality TV, it doesn’t suffer from all the BS that so many others do: the contrived living arrangements, the hormone-driven hard bodies, the so-obviously juxta-opposed racial and class backgrounds, and the inevitable infusion of alcohol.. aaarrrrrrrg! Rather, it’s chock full of earnest folks who believe in their ideas but who need to sell the investors through their pitch.
The pitches range from inspired to naive to downright embarrassing — but all are sincere. Relatively speaking, the businesses are not complex and the stakes are small — i.e., typically between 50K and 250K pounds sterling (about $75K – $375K in US dollars). Each of the Dragons is worth in the range of between about $150M to $800M, a respectable fortune by most measures (and certainly worthy of this would be entrepreneur’s respect.) And while the business ideas run the gamut from brilliant to absurd, what is striking is the consistent themes that emerge from the questions posed by the Dragons. Because of the (relatively) low stakes and the occaisional bizzaro pitch, it would be easy to write off the program as an entrepreneurial amateur hour, the Gong Show of angel investing — but that would be a mistake. The themes that emerge are virtually 100% consistent with what I’ve witnessed and learned over the past handful of years of entrepreneurial pursuit. Whether analyzing a market, writing a business plan, developing a product or pitching investors, there are basic lessons that emerge from Dragons Den that transcend the particulars of industry vertical, product category, market size and capital structure. This is not to say that there are not additional complexities and strategies that accompany increases in scale; this is just to say that there are fundamentals that apply startup fund raising across the board. The similarity in the application of these fundamentals is what fascinates me.