Advice from a dragon
British investor and former owner of the Bombay Bicycle Club, Sarah Willingham, 41, has appeared in the likes of The Restaurant with Raymond Blanc and is currently in Dragons’ Den.
The married mother-of-four talks about starting in business before her teens, her advice for burgeoning entrepreneurs and what it’s like to be a Dragon
IS IT TRUE YOU WERE ONLY 11 WHEN YOU GOT YOUR FIRST JOB?
Yes, I delivered 171 papers for £1.71 and it took me about five hours while my parents would follow me in their car to make sure I was safe and I thought, “This is definitely not the best way to earn £1.71”. Then at 13, I got my first real job working in a restaurant. I was a waitress at a cafe in Stoke, serving tea and sticky buns. Since then, I’ve always had a pound in my pocket.
WHERE DOES YOUR PASSION FOR BUSINESS STEM FROM?
I don’t know actually. I’ve always been fascinated by business. I’ve loved it ever since I was little. My friends still remember my fascination with how Coca Cola had gotten into all of our fridges. I couldn’t get my head around it and of course I had no concept that it was actually a business.
HOW DID YOU FEEL ABOUT BECOMING ONE OF THE DRAGONS?
It was quite a big decision because we filmed it in Manchester, so that meant being away from home for six weeks, but it’s really cool now because the kids can see what I was doing while I was away. It was a great experience, I’m very privileged and my brain’s never been as sharp.
HAS YOUR EXPERIENCE ON PROGRAMMES SUCH AS THE RESTAURANT AND THE APPRENTICE HELPED YOU PREPARE?
Not really, no, because Dragons’ Den is not at all produced. The products are completely covered up when you walk into the studio, so you haven’t got a clue until the person walks through the door and starts talking.
WHAT ARE THE OTHER DRAGONS LIKE?
They are great; we had so much fun, but there was also a lot of mutual respect, even inside the den when we’re competing for a business. I’ve made some really good friends.
WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FOR WHEN PEOPLE PITCH?
You really look at the person, and you think, “Can I work with this person? Are they the right person to be running this business? Can they adjust to your suggested changes? Are they driven and focused?” So really it’s a combination of things.
HOW DIFFICULT IS IT TO BE A “MUMPRENEUR”?
I think that it’s very easy for us to find reasons why we can’t do things, but there’s always a way. It’s just not the one staring you in the face. It’s often thinking outside the box. For example, I thought I’d have the Bombay Bicycle Club for years, but investing helps me because nobody is actually reliant on me getting up first thing in a morning apart from my four kids. It was me just finding a way to still be in business, be a mum and love both sides of it.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE BUDDING ENTREPRENEURS?
Firstly, surround yourself with great people, and get advice to make sure you go in with your eyes wide open. Don’t let your legacy be the person who came up with a great idea but never did it and don’t take unnecessary risks. There are ways of starting businesses whilst you are still doing something else. Don’t risk everything; your life is not worth it.