On Thursday, 22 October 2020... we entered the Den.
And just look at us! WHO IS THAT LOVELY COUPLE?
We nearly didn't look half so fabulous because I had been told I had to do my own makeup and hair due to covid restrictions 😬. Those who know me - and my extremely limited ability to make myself up - will understand my enormous relief at finding a super friendly pair of hair and makeup artists waiting on our arrival!
We were part of the second to last day of filming, with one more day the following week, and we just got in by the skin of our teeth. At midnight on the 22nd Manchester was moving from Tier 4 to the brand new Tier 5 lockdown - essentially full lockdown Mark II.
We were initially scheduled to be on first, so had an overnight hotel for the Wednesday. This was changed to roughly 12:30, so we had a few extra hours in the morning to practice the pitch again and revisit our figures. We were basing our projections on gaining the £50k investment from a Dragon and £50k from our other main investor, so an operational budget of £100k, which would have given us a decent head start on customer acquisition (marketing spend) and customer retention (continuous production of new episodes) and allowed us to move into a subscription service by the third quarter of 2021. I got cold feet on some of the projections though and started revising them over breakfast. The Dragons can smell bullshit a mile off but nonetheless, friends, NEVER change your figures on the day of the pitch...!
We checked into the studio at 11am. All of our equipment had been dropped off in its boxes, perfectly new and untouched for covid security, the day before. 12:30 came and went and I hadn't been in makeup yet. Eventually I was in the chair for the hour it took to get my hair to calm down and the lovely side braid to go in. Ras got to visit the control room to check the sound techs were clear on what they needed to do for our entry, and saw a Dragon asked to repeat a reaction with more emotion, which made us curious about how staged the filming would be.
I had tried to take a few selfies to capture the braid, and gave up, complaining that even with professional hair and makeup, I was awful. Ras immediately snapped this photo. It was so good, and our only photo from the whole day, so it was such a shame it had the sink and a toothbrush in the background!
By around 3:30, when we were finally called, I was getting really anxious about the delay. As we left the green room area, we discovered the two businesses waiting to film after us, having been through hair and makeup and been on set for several hours as well, were being sent home. I was mortified for them - every single email and document from the production team stressed in bold that our filming was provisional but I could imagine the huge disappointment of being literally ready to go in, knowing Tier 5 was coming the next day, jeopardising the last film date, and being sent home. I was so grateful we were going in; I was also concerned, because I knew it was common to film 10 hour days and we were nowhere near that. We wondered if the day was being closed up as quickly as possible.
Ras and I were given our mics then taken onto the set to tech check our entry. I have to say, we were grinning wildly when the smoke poured in and red, white and nuclear sign lights strobed away while Neil Wease's Dramatic Voice Over boomed into the set. It was fucking cool. I think we both felt good at the point - the tech team loved the audio sample and putting together the entry and everyone on set seemed excited about it (the BBC Dragons' Den account made a GIF of it that night!).
We then had the pre-pitch interview, where Ras was cool and confident and I was really honest, saying we had huge vulnerabilities in our business case and so we were realistic about actually getting investment, but were hoping the Dragons would at least be interested in our idea and being on the show would bring us a new audience. The interviewer was relieved he didn't have to prompt us to get decent material - as always, when you put me and Ras in a conversation together, the only issue is shutting us up!
We then had a long wait in the corridor set, outside the main set. It felt so long, and we messed around to pass the time and try to allay my anxiety. I got cold, probably from nerves, and Ras held and breathed on my hands to warm them - footage of which surprisingly turned up on the trail promoting our episode. We didn't have our phones or watches so we didn't know the time but I believe we went on around 4:30pm.
I held Ras' hand all the way into the 'lift' (which is just a set piece, the entire set is one floor) and into the Den. He was so incredible, I don't think I could have done it without him, he was so calm and reassuring. And he had so much faith in me.
The lights and klaxons started up while we were in the lift - we both smiled. We were proud of the audio pitch, and we were sure the Dragons' would appreciate such an original entry.
The doors opened! Neil's DVO announced
Imaginactive system over-ride initiated.
All Dragons, please take a pair of headphones to receive further instructions.
You'll find a volume controller next to the cable.
The Dragons looked bemused and puzzled but obeyed. So far so good! OUR Dramatic Voice Over in the Dragons' Den! It was so exciting...
...and then our stomaches dropped.
We had been instructed to bring headphones, headphone stands, and volume controllers, so that the Dragons could adjust to their comfort. The headphones and stands were just in front to the right of each seat. The volume controllers, however, were out of eye shot, behind their right shoulders.
AND THE TECH TEAM DIDN'T SOUND CHECK THE HEADPHONES.
We had handed over the phones and volume controllers unopened in their boxes, as requested.
Ras and I were standing a few steps inside of the lift, maybe 10 meters away from the Dragons, and we could hear the audio sample through their headphones as though they were being played out loud.
The Dragons were not impressed. Audio was BLARING at them, and they couldn't easily find the controllers. They weren't listening - they were trying to work out how to turn it down.
We were sharing mutual looks of HORROR.
We'd banked so hard on that surround sound audio wowing them and it had backfired spectacularly - at no fault of our own.
It was a terrible start, our pitch was derailed before we said a word.
We plunged on with the pitch anyway. I forgot to put in the ask, and had to be prompted by Touker at the end to tell them what it was. I had never missed it once in dozens of practices.
Tej started with clarification questions about what we were pitching. We were pitching Imaginactive, a company that makes audio fitness adventures, of which Apocalypse Survival Training was our proof of concept - and not the Apocalypse Survival Training app specifically, since it was basically unsalvageable. Not the most straightforward, I know, but we knew we couldn't pitch the app itself. When they were happy with that, Deborah said the audio opening was a mistake, and I should have done exercise instead. I explained there are hundreds of exercise apps, whereas our USP is the use of audio drama and surround sound binaural processing to create a super immersive exercise experience, and so that was what we wanted them to experience, rather than me doing a circuit. No, they agreed - the audio demo was a 'wall of sound' (no shit, they were deafened with it), I should have exercised instead.
This led to every Dragon except Tej telling us, at length, how they like to exercise, and therefore why they would not like to exercise to audio drama therefore they were not interested. One of them finally asked us a useful question - what was our target market - and while I tried to explain, I was continually interrupted by the Dragons arguing with each other. I kept trying to steer back to the topic and was told by Touker that while I was a good pitcher, I talked too much. Theo agreed. I mean - I pretty much thought Ras and I were there to talk, and no-one was listening, so if I hadn't kept trying to speak up, there would be so segment at all to edit!
Theo, who was replacing Peter (who had been contact traced and had to self isolate), proceeded to tell Ras and I about his and Deborah's first investment together, FitMix Pro. Now I'm a fitness instructor, which, if they'd asked us anything about ourselves, they would know, but they didn't, so we heard all about how the only thing people want to work out to is original artist music they know. I did try to point out I teach fitness classes to original artist music for 10 hours a week and am totally aware of that, but they probably thought I was talking too much because no-one listened. I also tried to explain that FitMix is Business to Business and we're Business to Customer but clearly that wasn't important.
Theo wanted to know whether Ras had done hours of original composition for Apocalypse Survival Training just to avoid paying licence fees for original artist music. I was a bit shocked by that question, and reiterated that we were making audio drama workouts, which meant continuous dialogue, which you would never put lyric based music behind - instead you write acoustic music to drive the story emotion and the workout and give emphasis to the dialogue.
Tej finally got to the tech. By this time we still hadn't had a single question on finances but at least we were back on topic. The tech has always been our achilles heel but we didn't have to reveal anywhere near how badly before he was already out. We explained that we were moving to a white label app and web platform, which he agreed sounded like a good idea.
We finally got to revenue projections - our current revenue was never broached. Ras replied with what we had been planning to say until I'd lost my confidence and re-calculated (down) that morning and I was stupid enough to automatically try to correct him, only to fall over myself. Yes, I totally messed up the figures, the one thing EVERYONE warns you not to do! But it didn't matter because the Dragons all rubbished our figures, saying we were dreaming about our forecast cost of user acquisition and marketing spend, and that the business required hundreds of thousands of pounds of investment and would still have several loss making years ahead of it before even breaking even - IF it broke even.
They weren't cruel at all. They were factual. I knew all of it. I knew it when we were auditioning and I knew it when we were preparing. I've known it for a long time. The online fitness space is now dominated by companies spending hundreds of thousands JUST on customer acquisition. They were just the first people to say it to me square.
Sara said she had enjoyed our opening (hallelujah, thank goodness ONE of them did!) and although she hated yoga, she would try our yoga, and she wished us well, but she was out.
Touker told us he loved working out in his own gym to Frank Sinatra, that our numbers were off, we would never have enough money, but that we pitched well and he wished us luck, and was out.
Deborah said she knew the fitness industry well and it was all about original artist music, that she would hate to have a voice talking to her all the time, and that even £100k wasn't nearly enough money as it was a customer acquisition game, so she also wished us well, and went out.
Theo had given us such a hard time to that point that in my head I thought he was already out. We thanked the Dragons and went to leave, when he protested that he had not gone out! Fortunately my genuine surprise at this, and reply that he clearly intended to go out, were laughed off. He then did what, to us, was a 180 turn, saying he liked us and he liked the idea of audio fitness adventures! But he warned that we were only at the beginning of our tech issues (and I was like are you serious? After everything we've been through?? And then remembered they didn't know half of what we had been through) and that although it was a good concept, it was an unproven concept. His advice was to stop everything, wait until the white label app platform was ready for our needs (which was still a few development sprints away) and mostly, not to take anyone's money. Wait, try the new platform, come back next year.
I laughed at this and asked whether they really wanted us back? A really friendly, supportive couple of minutes followed this, in which the Dragons all agreed we were great, passionate, we pitched well, and that we should come back another time, but I should do some push ups in the next pitch.
As we left, Sara, who had smiled so kindly as us throughout, said she was looking forwards to trying Apocalypse Survival Training. I asked her to email me after to tell us what she thought, and she gave me the eye-to-eye 'I gotcha girl' gesture. I could have hugged her.
And it just like that... it was over! We were straight into the post interview, with no time to process what had happened. We'd had no questions about ourselves, about why we were trying to make audio fitness adventures, about how long we'd been doing it, what our future plans were, our vision, and they never really let me explain who we were making it for... it really felt rushed, and as though a lot of the standard questions you see on the show, to build connection between the entrepreneurs and the Dragons (and audience!) were not asked. It was over so fast, in less than 40 minutes. Bear in mind that we had gone to the set at 3:30 and in at 4:30, and filming the two business before had taken from 9am, so a good 3+ hours each.
The interviewer seemed surprised at how it had gone too, and particularly that we'd had such a positive roundup after being pummelled out so fast. In the interview, Ras was up beat and assertive but also frustrated that the tech team hadn't checked the headphones and had deafened the Dragons. Ras is, amongst many other things, a sound engineer, so he was both personally outraged that his hard work had been wasted and professionally outraged that our demo had gone wrong in such an unnecessary way.
I was still quite shocked - firstly that the audio pitch had gone so badly and derailed the pitch from the outset, secondly that so much the defence we had prepared was not needed because really basic questions weren't asked, and thirdly, that so few questions were asked in the first place. We had been game-planning financial and tech defence for weeks with 'yes but we have learned and now we will do X instead' statements to keep control of the narrative. But there WAS no narrative. And certainly we had had no control!
We were then given all our kit back to pack up quickly and were basically bundled out of the building as fast as possible. By 5:30, we were standing outside deciding we were too fraught to drive back home, and trying to find first a new hotel for the night and then an uber. We debriefed in a restaurant. Ras was angry, I was sad. I'd been so close to shutting Imaginactive down in the summer, given how hopeless the Apocalypse Survival Training app was, and then the way the Dragons' Den invitation had come along, and we'd jumped all the hoops and then just snuck in filming before Tier 5... I hadn't expected an investment, but I was really thinking that after 6 years of struggle, this was our break.
It was a break alright. It just wasn't the breakout we were hoping for.
Thank you for reading! Tomorrow, the last blog in the series... the show edit, airing and consequences.