So, Sara Davies, newest and youngest Dragon on the BBC’s long-running business beauty contest, Dragons’ Den, is it really your money you’re spending when, on the basis of a pitch lasting barely longer than an hour, by people who are strangers to you and your bank manager, you pledge an investment of, oooh, £150,000?
‘Everyone asks me that!’ she shrieks. ‘Nobody ever thinks it is, but it is! Which is why I’ve really got to believe there’s something special in that business idea before I hand it over. To quote [former Dragon] Theo Paphitis, it’s my grandkids’ inheritance I’m spending out there.’
Even so, I bet it feels like Monopoly money, the sums being so large and the set-up so artificial and game-like. She pauses and narrows her eyes — a headlight-like glare that suddenly whisks you straight into the Den, all tense background music and zooming camera lenses. ‘It’s not a game. When you’re in there and you’ve got them coming in on a hamster wheel, it can feel a bit like that, but we’re really competing to invest. And then at the end, you do have to sit down and write them a pretty big cheque.’
Sara Davies, 35, (pictured) revealed how she built her millions ahead of her debut on BBC’s long-running business programme, Dragons’ Den
When I meet her, Sara, 35, whose County Durham-based company Crafter’s Companion is worth £34 million, has just finished filming her first series.
And it’s fair to say she’s made a bit of a splash. In the first episode we see her refusing to blink first as she plays hardball with old hands Peter Jones and Touker Suleyman. In teetering baby-pink heels and dramatic polka-dot dress, she is instantly a bigger presence than cautious Tej Lalvani, or headmistressy Deborah Meaden.
And, boy, does she flex her purse strings.
The first millennial Dragon and the first from the North East of England, she relaxes into her battered leather chair and immediately outspends all of them, to the tune of more than £500,000 across the series. (We’re sworn to secrecy on the details, but that figure does include one whopping investment of £150,000 to a single fledgling company.) ‘I absolutely loved it,’ she says now, laughing.
‘It was so exciting. I thought I’d spend a few days learning the ropes and finding my feet, but on day two of filming, two girls came in with an amazing product that was right in my space, and about ten minutes into their pitch I thought, right, I’m having this one.’
At which point out came the saleswoman in Sara, and boom, the other dragons were left for dust.
‘What I bring to it is empathy,’ she says. ‘I know exactly what it feels like to be an entrepreneur with everything riding on a sale. You see some of them trembling up there as they make their pitch, and I so want them to be at ease, to feel warmth from me.’
She tells me producers were worried she was ‘too nice’ for the Den after her first audition to become a Dragon and wanted her to beef up the fierceness.
And yet, honestly, fluffy is not the first word you’d use about her. ‘As much as anything,’ she says, flashing the edge of steel she undoubtedly possesses, ‘once [the pitchers] are relaxed up there and you’ve established a rapport with them, it’s much easier to get under their skin and find out whether the business is actually any good.’
Sara (pictured) began Crafter’s Companion at 21-years-old, from her bedroom at York University, after work experience at a small crafting firm
Sara made her money by spotting an under-served market — the millions of hobbyist crafters, largely women, who like to make greetings cards.
A large part of her success, indeed, lies in refusing to under-estimate the power of those middle-aged women leading quietly productive lives around their kitchen tables.
‘I’ve been under-estimated myself quite often,’ she says, ‘and in some ways I quite enjoy it. It’s always good when you prove people wrong.’
She started the company aged 21 from her bedroom at York University, after work experience at a small crafting firm taught her the fundamentals of the industry and demonstrated a curious missing link in the DIY card-making process. Envelopes. No one had ever bothered to put serious thought into a tool for crafters to make envelopes. So Sara set about inventing the ‘Enveloper’, a template board which does just that.
‘I did all the research and it was going to cost £30,000 to have all the tooling made to make them in plastic,’ she explains. ‘Which was fantastic, except I didn’t have £30,000 and I couldn’t get a loan for it. There had to be another way.’
With help from her engineer father, she got a local joiner to make them in MDF, and, although they weren’t as profitable that way, crafters bought them in their tens of thousands.
The entrepreneur (pictured) has gained huge success in the U.S. with regular appearances on TV shopping channels
‘So eventually I had enough money to do them in plastic, and by then I had my sights set on the next product’ — her best-selling ‘Ultimate’, a carry-case containing ten different crafting tools, and there are dozens of YouTube tutorials, all featuring Sara, on how to embellish, emboss, make boxes and bows. ‘That’s how I did it, organically. I’ve got a business that employs 200 staff that’s growing exponentially in the States and I’ve never had any outside investment.’
In fact, Crafter’s Companion is a bigger business in the U.S. than the UK thanks to her regular appearance on TV shopping channels, where her fast-talking, having-a-natter-over-a-cuppa shtick pulls in U.S. buyers.
‘I’m much more self-confident than I used to be,’ says Sara, who was awarded an MBE in 2016. ‘When I was younger, I used to power dress — I’d wear black and grey and suits all the time, to make it feel like I belonged.
‘But that’s not really me. The real me likes to wear bright colours. I spend a lot of time in male-dominated business environments, and in this sea of grey suits I’m wearing purple or bright blue. It makes you more memorable, but it’s also about staying true to yourself.’ More stressful than running the business, she says, is raising two children.
‘Our Charlie is two, and Oliver is five. And I take my hat off to mothers who launch businesses when their kids are small. Bringing up little kids is incredibly demanding, not just time-wise but emotionally, too.’
Sara (pictured with her son Oliver as a baby) revealed that she compartmentalises, ensuring that when she’s with her children, she’s 100 per cent there
Husband Simon, 41, who came into the business in 2008, takes on the lion’s share of the childcare: Sara is at Crafter’s Companion’s U.S. headquarters in California six days a month, and often in mainland Europe for a few nights, too.
In a particularly rich air miles bonanza, she once flew home from America just to take Oliver to the park, before flying to Germany 18 hours later.
‘No mother ever gets away from mum guilt. But my aim is to get women to let it go a bit. I know I’m a good mum, my kids idolise me, and not being there seven days a week doesn’t change that fact. Rather than chastise ourselves for all the time we’re away, we should try to pat ourselves on the back for all the things we do well. I got to sports day this year. That’s a win.’
Her other top tip is to compartmentalise. ‘I can’t be with the boys all the time, but when I’m there, I’m 100 per cent there. I’ve never wanted to be one of these women who are answering emails while pushing the swing.’
And yet still the reason most women start their own companies is for the flexibility they gain when they start families.
Mother-of-two (pictured) was part of an all-female investing group before becoming the newest Dragon
Female entrepreneurs have it tougher than men at every stage of their business journey, especially when it comes to money.
If Sara is one of a new breed of female angel investors, the way in which her company began — with far more ingenuity than money — is not untypical.
A third of new companies are founded by women, yet all-female firms get less than one per cent of total UK venture capital. On average, women launch businesses with 53 per cent less capital than men.
If the problem lies in a start-up landscape where men don’t give money to female-led business, the solution lies in increasing the number of female investors from its current lowly 14 per cent.
‘I do think we have to start doing it for ourselves,’ says Sara, who was part of an all-female investing group before becoming the newest Dragon.
‘We definitely bring something different to investment. Women have a natural nurturing streak which means we’re good at mentoring. You see it in the Den.
Sara (pictured) says people look at her and assume that she’s nice and soft because she’s in the crafting industry
‘Some entrepreneurs need an arm around their shoulder as much as a bit of money in their back pocket and women are especially good at that. We tend to have an emotional connection with a business.’
Whether such stereotypes are useful or not, her presence on Dragons’ Den will certainly serve to broaden the concept of what a highly successful British entrepreneur looks like. ‘I like investing in women, but ironically some of the investments I’ve make in the Den are in male-dominated types of business too. That suits me fine.
‘People look at me and see a woman in the crafting industry and think I’m all nice and soft.
‘And then they find out I’m the majority shareholder in the injection moulding company that makes the Ultimate and I have an excellent understanding of tooling manufacture, and they do a bit of a double take.’ She laughs. ‘I like that. When you earn someone’s respect, it’s worth so much more than if it’s just given to you because of your gender.’
The female dragons: How they made their millions
Rachel Elnaugh, 54
Rachel Elnaugh, 54, (pictured) who made her debut on Dragons’ Den in 2005, made her millions from gift business Red Letter Days
Dragon from: 2005 (the show’s first female investor)
Worth: £25 million from gift business Red Letter Days — until it went into administration in 2005 and was sold to Peter Jones and Theo Paphitis.
Motto: ‘You’ve really got to love what you are doing with all your heart.’
Deborah Meaden, 60
Deborah Meaden, 60, (pictured) starred on Dragons’ Den from 2006 to 2019, she made her millions from Weststar Holidays
Dragon from: 2006-2019
Worth: £40 million — from Weststar Holidays, a chain of holiday parks she sold, plus investments she’s made from her time on Dragons’ Den.
Motto: ‘Don’t expect anything from anybody. Work hard, be good at what you do and good stuff will happen.’
Hilary Devey, 62
Hilary Devey, 62, (pictured) appeared on Dragons’ Den from 2011 to 2012, she’s worth £100 million
Dragon from: 2011-2012
Worth: £100 million, from the freight distribution company Pall-Ex she founded in 1996. Three times divorced with one son, she made her first million at 40.
Motto: ‘A manicured fist can smash any glass ceiling, just as well as a hairy one.’
Kelly Hoppen, 60
Kelly Hoppen, 60, (pictured) who appeared on Dragons’ Den from 2013 to 2015, made her wealth from her interiors company Kelly Hoppen Interiors
Dragon from: 2013-2015
Worth: An estimated £50 million from her interiors company Kelly Hoppen Interiors. She was awarded an MBE in 2009.
Motto: ‘Believe in yourself. How can you expect anyone to believe in you and your ideas if you don’t believe in them yourself?’
Sarah Willingham, 45
Sarah Willingham, 45, (pictured) who was on Dragons’ Den from 2015 to 2017, made her millions from running a successful Indian restaurant chain
Dragon from: 2015-2017
Worth: £12 million, after turning loss-making The Bombay Bicycle Club into the largest and most successful Indian restaurant chain in the UK.
Motto: ‘To say no to things that were taking up my time — that was a real tipping point for me in terms of getting a balance.’
Jenny Campbell, 57
Jenny Campbell, 57, (pictured) appeared on Dragons’ Den from 2017 to 2018, she sold YourCash for £50 million in 2016
Dragon from: 2017-2018
Worth: The mother of two sold her ATM business YourCash — which she bought from her previous employer Royal Bank of Scotland in 2010 — for £50 million in 2016.
Motto: ‘There is no such thing as glass ceilings, only sticky floors.’
Dragons’ Den starts on BBC2 on Sunday, August 11