Tej Lalvani: ‘Nearly everything is possible’

In this episode of Small Business Snippets, Anna Jordan meets Dragon Tej Lalvani and entrepreneur Sam Jones

Welcome to Small Business Snippets, the podcast from SmallBusiness.co.uk. Today’s guests are Dragon Tej Lalvani and entrepreneur Sam Jones.

We discuss pitching in Dragon’s Den – from both sides.

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Tej and Sam’s podcast interview transcript

Hello and welcome to Small Business Snippets, the podcast from SmallBusiness.co.uk. I’m your host, Anna Jordan.

Today we have Tej Lalvani and Sam Jones – one is CEO of Vitabiotics and Dragon on Dragon’s Den and the other is an entrepreneur who, according to Touker Suleyman, gave one of the best pitches he’s ever seen in the Den.

Sam went into the Den looking for £60,000 in exchange for ten per cent equity of his internet browser company, Gener8. Wowed by the pitch, Touker Suleyman and Peter Jones teamed up to invest in the entrepreneur, leaving Tej and Deborah Meaden with cash in their pockets.

Tej sought out Sam after the show, becoming one of a group of high-profile investors to back the firm.

After four years on the show, Tej will be stepping back from Dragon’s Den this year to focus on growing Vitabiotics.    

We’ll be talking about making a pitch – from both sides of the Den. 

Anna: Hi guys, how you getting on?

Sam and Tej: Hi Anna, how are you?

Anna: Yeah, doing really, really well. Thanks.

Sam: Awesome. Good to be here this afternoon. Thanks for having us on.

Right, we’ve got quite a bit to get through, as you’ve heard in the intro. I’ll start with you, Sam, talk us through the process of going on Dragon’s Den and anything that stood out to you particularly.

Sam: Well, wow, I mean, what an experience. It’d be hard to put that into 30 seconds. But really quickly, I start with what’s happened since and then I’ll jump back to what happened during so.

Since Dragon’s Den, the reaction has been incredible. The pitch went viral. With about 20 million views on Facebook and other five million views on LinkedIn, we were averaging a new download every ten seconds for about seven or eight weeks. Off the back of that, more than 30 different press outlets wrote about us. We used this momentum to raise a modest round of funding, which we were super fortunate to be able to include. Of course, Tej Lalvani and bringing him on board alongside people like Tinie Tempah (the rapper) and Harry Redknapp (the football manager). It’s been a whirlwind since Dragon’s Den, which is amazing.

Going back to the pitch – God, I mean, this was a hell of an experience. I think that we all know, from watching it on TV, that when you walk through those doors, and you come out of that lift, anything can happen. Of course, from the entrepreneur’s perspective, you hardly sleep the night before, because you’re just so nervous. So, you’re standing there in this lift, light-headed and the butterflies are multiplying in your stomach and you’re trying your best just to hold it together. But then your head’s getting noisier – you can’t even remember your opening line – and you’re just trying to tell yourself to breathe. And then there’s that moment where the doors open, and you walk out to the left. It’s total silence. You see the Dragons sitting in front of you, just like you do on TV. You even hear the echo of your own footsteps as you’re walking out to that mark on the floor to start your pitch. I think that’s tough no matter who you are. That’s tough. But that’s how all of the entrepreneurs start on Dragon’s Den.

That’s amazing because you looked so cool and calm when you were on the TV. It’s hard to believe that all of this was rushing through your head at the time.

Sam: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think you’re standing in front of these five incredible characters that we’ve all seen on TV for so long. And of course, you know what each one of those investors can bring to your business. So, I think the real art is being able to calm your mind, take that breath, and then go in and communicate your pitch really clearly.

Yeah, absolutely. And talk us through the stages before that, because I’m sure people who are listening or watching might be thinking of, maybe someday, going on Dragon’s Den.

Sam: Sure. In terms of preparing, well, the thing that I did really simply was I just practiced the pitch, probably 100 times – probably more than 100 times. I knew it inside out. Of course, I watched a lot of Dragon’s Den as well. I imagined answering every question, but then more than that, I just knew my business. I know why I started Gener8, I know what we want to achieve. And then really the challenge was just keeping that mental clarity so I could communicate that to these guys when I was standing there.

What about you, Tej – what were your first impressions when Sam walked into the Den?

Tej: Well look, as an investor, as a Dragon, you look for a couple of things in terms of what they’re pitching and the entrepreneur themselves. When you’re investing, obviously, the pitch is important – to understand the clarity of it. And sometimes, you know, entrepreneurs don’t communicate what it is. And of course, what Sam presented is not an easy thing to try and grasp in layman’s terms. He did a great job of doing that.

Then secondly is the opportunity you see in the business. It seemed a very strong opportunity to potentially disrupt certain things. You ask questions to the entrepreneur and you see how they respond accordingly. So the questions I asked, he responded very quickly, promptly and dealt with the issue, because sometimes entrepreneurs may deflect the question if they can’t answer it. He took on board some of those points or concerns I had, and very clearly went through them and said, ‘Okay, that’s a potential risk’, ‘this is a problem and this is not the solution for it’. That impressed me. I think just the space as well, the tech space I was interested in. So really, there’s a couple of things that you look at, and it sort of ticked all the boxes in my head as a potential investment. I thought it was a fantastic pitch, yeah.

Amazing. Do you have anything to add to that as to what other entrepreneurs who may consider going on Dragon’s Den can learn from Sam’s pitch?

Tej: Well, as Sam said earlier, one is about practicing and watching Dragon’s Den. So few people actually come and really watch the episodes because everything is pretty much there. And you can see how sometimes you can go completely on a tangent because other entrepreneurs have not prepared, they’ve not been transparent. You could get a complete grilling versus having four or five offers sometimes. I think that that is important, preparation. Of course, nerves hit you, and some people can manage them better than others. The Dragons will be lenient if you do forget certain things, because there is that pressure on national television. However, it’s how you deal with it. And this understanding – have you been actually prepared?

The other important thing is understanding the full aspect – all of your business, the ins and outs of it. Sometimes, the entrepreneur says, ‘I don’t really do that, that’s not my role’. But it is your business. You’re an entrepreneur, you need to understand everything about the finances, to the marketing, to the competitors.

That is very important as someone who wants to pitch to Dragon’s Den. Be clear for what you want and what you’re asking for. They just sometimes come on and say, ‘I want this amount of money’. What are you going to do with that money? How’s it going to work? And what do you really want from a Dragon? The clearer the entrepreneur is – the better, the more concise – and really try and explain your business in simple terms. And very quickly, people just someone’s got one for now and you like, and half the time is the questions about trying to understand, ‘What does your business do’? So really, that is an important part. Get that sorted out and use the other time to try and get the investment and negotiate the deal that you want from the Dragons.

Yeah, and sometimes it’s not even on the show, because you’ve got the due diligence to go through afterwards. Off camera, of course.

Tej: Yeah. I mean, that’s a different process altogether. But I mean, in the Den, the idea is you have an intent to do a deal with the entrepreneur. And of course, during due diligence, certainties can probably pop up. The BBC can only do a certain amount of due diligence. As an investor and as a shareholder, there are things about shareholders agreements that you need to look at – the bank, the finances – is it correct? Is there more debt than what was given in the show? By the time you do a deal, it could take three or four months, and the situation may change for an entrepreneur as well. They’re all aspects that get involved. But by and large we try and do every single deal that we agree in the Den.

Great. Sam, coming back to you, when you were having your discussion with the wall, what was that like? What was going through your head?

Sam: To be honest, I think that was quite a surreal moment, because I’d spent so much time, effort and energy in preparing to try to get to that stage. But when that happened, there is this kind of rush of emotion and adrenaline, where I think I was so pleased that when I asked to go to the back, I think you can see on the piece that is broadcasted on TV, I have this big grin across my face, because I’m there thinking, ‘Blimey, what a great place to be,’ and reflecting kind of momentarily on the journey up until there. Before then, of course, thinking, ‘Okay, what are the offers in front of me? How should I go back and handle this?’ So yeah, it was a fantastic moment, really.

It must have been nerve-wracking for yourself, Tej, because you’d put forward an offer. You must just be sitting there in that moment thinking, ‘Well, what is he going to decide? Is he going to take it? Who’s he going to go with?’

It must have been nerve-wracking for yourself, Tej, because you’d put forward an offer. You must just be sitting there in that moment thinking, ‘Well, what is he going to decide? Is he going to take it? Who’s he going to go with?’

Tej: Absolutely. I mean, it’s, it’s always a tense moment. And that’s the fun of the show because you are competing against other Dragons genuinely for investment. And it’s about communicating what value you can add as an entrepreneur to help the journey and grow the business at the same time. It’s important from the entrepreneur’s side and trying to communicate that at the same time.

And of course, then you have the flexibility of percentage investment, whether you offer more money for the same percentage or whether you prepared to take less equity for the same amount of money. Those levers are there. And then you just see what happens. Of course, ultimately, the entrepreneur decides – they make the decision. You win deals and you lose deals all the time.

Yeah, it must have felt like that on this particular occasion you missed out.

Tej: Yeah, well, it felt like was I should have provided free office space!

Anna: Touker finally shifted it!

Tej: Of course it was disappointing. But equally, I believed in Sam’s vision and what he was doing. We did reach out afterwards, got in touch and and subsequently made the investment because I thought I could add great value to the business. I thought this was a great opportunity. And so it worked out that way.

Great. You say that you’ve never sought out an entrepreneur that’s appeared on the show before – how did you go about seeking out Sam?

Tej: Previously, if I’ve lost deals in the Den, or they haven’t gone through, then usually I just didn’t get it for a particular reason. I just leave it. But yeah, I thought that was an important decision. And at the time, Sam chose two people. The more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a great opportunity. So, I contacted Sam, and, obviously the other Dragons, Touker and Peter, who invested. They were very happy to have me on board as well. We had a discussion and worked out a deal that was great for everyone.

Talking post-pitch, what’s in the future for Gener8, especially in terms of managing customer expectation around what kind of rewards they can get, for example?

Sam: Right now, the future is really exciting. We’re growing incredibly fast still. So, 1000s and 1000s of new users are downloading Gener8 all the time. We’re scaling the team. When Dragon’s Den aired, there was just four of us. Now we’ve tripled to about 11 or 12 of us. There’ll be 15 of us once we finish this hiring spree. Increasing internal capability is a key thing here.

Additionally, we’re working on our mobile app to get this developed, out in the world. We’ve got over 50,000 people on the waiting list for the app already, which is fantastic. From our side, it’s full steam ahead. We’re chasing down these opportunities. I mean, it really feels like we’ve captured the Zeitgeist in empowering people to control and learn from their data. We’re just running full speed ahead with that, really.

How do you scale up at such a rate as you are without over-expanding or taking any of those kinds of risks?

Sam: It’s amazing to have people like Tej, Peter and Touker – and some of our other shareholders too – who have also been in in similar fast-growth businesses. These guys have gone through it before. There is a tried and tested playbook. Particularly if I look at one of our investors, who is the former CEO of Spotify, he’s been there with the explosive tech growth. Asking our shareholders and our board is always a great area to get guidance from.

The other thing as a result of explosive growth is that, as you’re saying, you need to scale up to meet your consumers’ expectations. There’s always a little bit of a time lag in there. It’s a positive problem. Of course, it is a teething pain that you need to get through. To give you some context, we can receive over 1000 emails, DMs (direct messages) or messages every day from users and new users who are getting in touch. On Friday, when I left the office, we were down to zero in our inbox. On Monday when the team came back, that’s today, we’re at over 1700. Of course, there is this period where we need to put in place structures and capabilities and manpower that will enable us to respond quicker and more efficiently and more effectively. We’re getting there. It’s exciting, as you can imagine.

Yeah. Tej, I can imagine your unique insight has been invaluable here as well, in terms of scaling up in a sustainable way.

Tej: Yeah. What we like to do is work with Sam and see all the all the things he needs for the business to help grow it and we provide it essentially as a wish list. And whether it’s opening doors or contacts or help on strategy or advice, we’re available here to be able to help with the business because we all believe in the mission equally, too. It’s a movement, as Sam was talking about, and it’s a lot more important than just monetary. It’s actually changing the game, people are able to control their data and monetise.

Great. Coming back to a more general topic. Tej, you are very active on social media and you often ask your followers for tips and what their priorities are, what their business goals are. Have you ever seen an example of a bit of business advice or a mantra that’s been presented to you that’s made such an impression on you that you’ve adopted it yourself?

Tej: With social media, I enjoy interacting with all the followers and I try and give bits and tips of advice that I’ve learned along the way. There are many that can apply to different people. And it’s great to hear feedback from how it’s helped change people or given them the push they needed to set up their business. To take decisions that need to be done that may be difficult.

So, in terms of advice that I think they will follow is that there are a couple of principles in my life.

One is that, as a person, I always want to learn and grow all the time. Number two is that if you want to do something, set up a business, you just have to get started and do it. A lot of the time people try and wait for the perfect opportunity or the perfect idea. That’s really hard to do, because it doesn’t exist. What usually happens is, when you come up with an idea, what you end up with is quite different to what you started with. I think it’s always an evolving thing of business. If you have something, just go for it and see what happens. People have that hesitation.

I believe in today’s world, when you’re selling a business, it’s always important to focus on a niche, because there’s no point in trying to be everything to everyone. You’d rather be great at something in particular which no one else can beat you at, then trying to provide something for everyone that’s slightly better than everybody else. So, there are the essential principles.

As for quick tips, I’d say, when it comes to setting up a business. A lot of the time when people start businesses, they imagine how it’s going to be, but it’s a lot of firefighting, a lot of problem solving throughout the way – as long as you’re prepared for it. My wife set up a business recently as well and I told her that, and she realises that that’s exactly what it is. There are always issues, always challenges. That could be small, it could be big. But if that’s what your day is, and it’s about, despite all that, how do you grow? How do you exponentially build your business at the same time?

Yeah, that’s also why as far as again, you should be working on your business, not in your business so that you can help drive it forward. And a similar question to you, Sam – what’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever been given?

Sam: Oh, I’ve been given so much amazing advice that it’d be difficult to select one piece now. But something that I can tell you, or tell the listeners, which I think might be helpful. If they’re ever looking to pitch for investment, or go on Dragon’s Den, I think the biggest variable that will impact the outcome is how you think about yourself when you go into that situation.

What I mean by that is that you need to start by reminding yourself that you’re not singing for your supper. Never stand hat-in-hand, asking for money, because that’s the quickest way to turn someone off. Instead, I think that you’ve got to believe that you’re sharing a secret with the investor. So, you’re telling them about an opportunity that they’re not aware of, you’re pulling away the curtain and unveiling a hidden truth that’s been in front of their eyes all along. And if they’re lucky, you might be willing to invite them on the journey with you. Now, how much more exciting is that? So, the tip that I would give is remember that you’re sharing a secret, you’re not singing for your supper, anytime that you’re meeting with investors or asking for investment.

Tej: I think it was Henry Ford who said this quote: ‘Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.’ Because really, it’s in a belief in your mind. And if you think you can’t do it, then you’re right, you won’t want to do it. But if you think you can, and you want to do it, nearly everything is possible.

Anna: Well, that seems like a great point to end. I’d like to thank you both for coming on.

Tej: Thank you. It’s been great. Thank you for having us. Hope it was useful.

Sam: Thanks so much for having us.

Anna: Thanks, guys.

You can find out more about Gener8 at gener8ads.com and about Tej at tejlalvani.com. You can also visit SmallBusiness.co.uk for articles on perfecting your investment pitch. Remember to like us on Facebook @SmallBusinessExperts and on Twitter @smallbusinessuk (all lower case) and subscribe to our YouTube channel, linked in the description. Until next time, thank you for listening.

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Anna Jordan

Anna is Senior Reporter, covering topics affecting SMEs such as grant funding, managing employees and the day-to-day running of a business.

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