Dragons’ Den star Sarah Willingham talks to ME & MY MONEY

Taste of success: Sarah sold The Bombay Bicycle Club for £10million when she was 32

The multi-millionaire investor and entrepreneur Sarah Willingham once lived on such a low income that she cried when she realised she’d accidentally blown her budget buying an expensive lettuce. 

Sarah, a former Dragon investor on Dragons’ Den, tells Donna Ferguson that she went on to sell her first business for £10 million at the age of 32. 

After making a vast fortune investing in the hospitality industry, the 49-year-old is judging the Extraordinary Entrepreneur award at womenswear retailer Pour Moi’s second Uplifting Women Awards. 

Nominations are open to the public until April 5, and winners will receive £5,000 cash prizes and £500 Pour Moi vouchers. 

To nominate yourself or someone else, visit pourmoi.co.uk/upliftingwomennominate.

What did your parents teach you about money?

To look after the pennies, and the pounds will look after themselves. I still live by that. I hate all wastage, whether it’s throwing away food or just frivolous spending. My parents had it quite tough and are from working class backgrounds. My dad was the first person in his town to get A-levels. He became a manager at the pottery manufacturer Wedgwood – he worked his way up until he ran the supply chain – and my mum was a maths teacher. We were a normal suburban family.

Have you ever struggled to make ends meet?

Yes. I went to university in France and then worked in Paris in my early-20s, initially as a translator. At one point I was living on £50 a week, in a flat that was infested top to bottom with cockroaches.

I remember sobbing when I got home from my supermarket shop and realised I’d bought really posh lettuce for £1.50 instead of the cheap lettuce for 20p. It sounds so silly, but at the time I couldn’t afford to make mistakes like that. That wasn’t the life I wanted and I promised myself that wouldn’t be my story.

How did you make your first million?

When I sold The Bombay Bicycle Club [an Indian restaurant chain]. I sold it for £10 million when I was 32.

I had to sell it. I am very maternal and I knew I wanted a big family. I realised I couldn’t run this big business with hundreds of employees and be a mum. I wanted to have control of my diary. I knew that I would need to dip in and out of business for a period of time when my kids were little. And that’s when I started investing.

What was the best year of your financial life?

It was 2016, the year I left Dragons’ Den to take our four children out of school to go travelling around the world. It was my best financial year not because of what I earned, but because that trip was the best money I’ve ever spent.

We ran a budget of £400 a day for the six of us, and that had to include all flights, accommodation, car rental, insurance and meals.

The kids, who were aged between five and ten at the time, helped us stick to it.

So they learned that if we stayed somewhere really cheap, we could go out and have a nice dinner. But, if we wanted to stay somewhere nice for a week, for example in an Airbnb that cost £200 a night, then we’d cook with groceries from the local supermarket every night. They also learned that a tank of petrol costs far less in the US than it does in Canada.

It was an amazing financial lesson for them. They started to really understand not just how to manage a budget and the relative value of money, but also the economics of different countries. That was really important to me.

How were you affected by the pandemic?

Going into lockdown as an investor in the hospitality industry was an absolute nightmare. One of our investments was a chain of cocktail bars, The Cocktail Club. It was terrifying. But later, during the ‘eat out to help out’ summer, people went crazy. I saw that human beings are pack animals and you can’t lock us up.

That’s when my husband Michael and I realised we had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Hospitality businesses had taken on a lot of debt, but actually their profit and loss accounts were strong. We phoned the brokers and said: ‘We’re going to float a company, raise equity and buy up loads of late-night bars and cocktail bars.’ They said: ‘You’re absolutely barking mad.’ There wasn’t any vaccine at that point. We were going against the flow.

But I knew this industry and was confident it would bounce back. So we started our company Nightcap successfully that summer. We’ve gone from zero to £60 million turnover in two years.

It’s an exceptional story – and my husband and I own nearly 20 per cent of that business.

Are you a materialistic person?

Not at all. I drive a really clapped out old Mini. I don’t really have any jewellery. I don’t spend much money on clothes or shoes. My jeans cost £40 and I wear Nike trainers. I have very simple tastes.

What was your best investment on Dragons’ Den?

The Craft Gin Club. I invested £75,000 in the company and it’s got to be worth £40-£50 million now. I own 12.5 per cent of it. There were a couple of other companies on my first series on the show that I would have loved to invest in. But the business owners seeking investment didn’t pick me, they picked Deborah [Meaden] or Peter [Jones].

In my second series, it was much better for me because people started to know who I was. For example, all five Dragons competed for the Craft Gin Club and I was the one who got it.

Starring role: Sarah on the BBC's Dragons' Den in 2017

Starring role: Sarah on the BBC’s Dragons’ Den in 2017

Do you think it is hard to be a female entrepreneur?

I think we’ve moved on since the 1990s, which was back in my day. But not enough – and without a doubt, I still live in a very misogynistic world.

So I do everything I can to support women in business. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get involved in the Pour Moi Uplifting Women Awards. They lift up and highlight women who are brilliant.

Do you invest in a pension or the stock market?

I do the basic opt-in to a pension, but my future is my own business ventures, investments and properties.

I invest a little in the stock market, but I don’t day trade. The stock market is not where I’d put my next £100,000.

Do you own any property?

Yes, three. Our family home is an 11-bedroom house in Brighton, right on the seafront with sea views, which we bought last summer. We also own a gorgeous little two-bedroom garden flat in Primrose Hill, which we bought 20 years ago for £710,000. It is worth more than £2 million now.

My husband is Danish, so we also own a little flat in Copenhagen. I don’t know the finances of that one.

The one little luxury you treat yourself to?

I’m an absolute sucker for posh chocolate from the food halls of Selfridges and Harrods. How can one chocolate cost £2? It’s wrong on so many levels. But if I’ve had a really long day, that’s my little treat.

If you were Chancellor, what is the first thing you would do?

I would give as much support as I possibly could to small businesses.

I would also educate children better about basic finances. I think the education system fails a lot of our kids because they don’t come out understanding debt and equity, and the basics of running a household.

What is your number one financial priority?

I am driven by freedom and always have been. It’s the most important thing for me in every aspect of my life.

Freedom is why I became an entrepreneur in the first place and that’s what drives me to make sure I’ve got money in the bank.

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