They ask penetrating questions and can sniff out a good business proposition in just a few minutes. Jerome Monahan looks at what the business dragons found in one school's ideas
It began with champagne and ended with balloons. In the middle there were dragons. Five of them - the entrepreneurial sort, capable of sniffing out a good business proposition at 1,000 metres and strutting their steely stuff on stage at Warlingham School, Surrey. They were led by major local employer Ann Summers's chief executive Jacqueline Gold. They were all there to perform a forensic examination of five sets of young people's commercial propositions. The deal was that they would back any they liked to the tune of pound;500 maximum apiece. "I use the BBC Dragon's Den programmes a great deal in my teaching," says Marcus Dilley, head of business studies and business and enterprise co-ordinator at Warlingham. "But it was one of the governors that suggested we arrange our own version of the show as a way of encouraging our young people's budding business acumen. It was a big challenge requiring us to get the BBC's approval, find some Dragons and then sort out the legal ramifications if any of them did indeed decide to back one or more of the business ideas with cash."
The project was completed in record time, with entrants getting the go-ahead only a month before the event. Each then had to hone their idea into a coherent proposal and pass through a vetting process before being shortlisted for the public third degree in front of the Dragons. "It's been frantic for those that have got through," adds Marcus. "For days my office and the business centre has been crammed with finalists all desperately trying to get their PowerPoint presentations ready for the big night. It will be good to get my desk back."
"We received 20 applications and, of those, just six managed to prepare an initial presentation to show the staff team," explains business centre manager Melanie Filmer. "What is gratifying," adds business studies teacher Jason Thomas, "is that not all applications came from business specialist students."
For headteacher Alison Woodhouse, welcoming a sizeable and expectant audience, the occasion was a golden opportunity to celebrate the school's first year with specialist business and enterprise status.
Before the event, the Dragons were clear about the kinds of ideas they would be interested in. For Simon Ricketts, managing director of a specialist paper manufacturer, any scheme displaying an environmental concern would be attractive. Jacqueline Gold was looking for something more generic. "It's passion I need to see in any budding entrepreneur," she explains. "The passion derived from a combination of self-belief and justified confidence in their idea."
In the end, what they got were a specialist fashion airbrush design proposition, a gift-buying scheme, a garden storageseat invention all on wheels, an idea to corner the sale of flash hard drives for computers into schools and an "experiences-for-sale" offer involving a range of increasingly luxurious carflight combinations.
Each individual or group went before the Dragons, setting out their ideas using a mix of direct address and PowerPoint. Then they had to field the Dragons' questions, many of which were exceedingly tough, forcing the young people to move beyond the comfort zone of learned business studies concepts - something most managed to do impressively. "What was a relief," says Marcus, "was how entertaining it turned out to be."
There were many moments of hilarity, such as the Dragons' worries about the wheel and axle strength of Oliver Thomas and Robbie Kenning's "Garden Helper" as it steadily acquired more and more functions during the presentation and subsequent QAs.
The identity of Don NoNo1 - the stencil artist whose services 17-year-olds Bianca Parente and Suraj Ghumra were already using as part of their fashion business idea - was also a source of intrigue. Not being a Warlingham student he had not been allowed to participate. In the end there were prizes for all -though of varying value.
One of the biggest winners was Alex Wallman, aged 17 - a flying enthusiast with his eyes fixed firmly on a pilot's licence and a career in the Royal Air Force. His case for his Classic Flights enterprise clearly possessed the kind of passion and conviction that would impress Jacqueline Gold. She supplemented the offers of investment by all four of her fellow Dragons with an invitation to Alex to visit the Biggin Hill headquarters of her family's Gold Air business.
Bianca and Suraj's Kryme Cartel fashion scheme also won backing from three Dragons - all won over by the fact they were already doing a roaring business in t-shirts and trousers revivified by mystery man Don NoNo1's designs. "It was a hugely time-consuming project," says Marcus, "not one to repeat every year - but an enjoyable and productive one nonetheless."
For young entrepreneur James Nicot it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and "a bit sobering, too".
For Bianca - the only girl participating - the sole downside was the reticence of her fellow female students in taking up the Dragon's Den challenge. "I am so glad I gave it a go - there was such an adrenaline rush beforehand, but then I ended up enjoying it. Now I can say - 'I did that'."