Enter the Dragon: best business tips from Alison
Entrepreneur Dragon's Den star Alison Cowzer — co-founder of biscuit company East Coast Bakehouse — has some brilliant business advice for would-be entrepreneurs.
What's the main challenge facing businesses, especially start-ups?
Many businesses in the start-up phase consist of just one individual. That can be a major challenge, because there are so many things to do. You have to validate your business idea, find the market for your product or service and then make it happen. So during that stage, you should make sure you surround yourself with experts who can fill in any gaps in your knowledge or experience. Unfortunately, entrepreneurs are too often delayed on their path to growth because they can't afford to expand their team.
So if resources are tight, how can they square that circle?
Don't feel the pressure to go out and recruit straight away. You can find the type of expertise you need, either in an advisory basis or on a contract basis, by building networks. Finding imaginative ways to get expertise into your business from the beginning is hugely important.
What attitude should entrepreneurs have towards financial support?
For a new business, growth is crucial. There's no option to sit back and live on existing revenues. But growth eats cash. Some small businesses I've looked at grow far too quickly, and then their working capital becomes a major problem. Then there are others that don't grow because they don't have the ability to look beyond the working capital issue. So there's a conundrum. For many businesses, this is the time to seek better equity investment. They have a credible plan in place, after all, and know they can fill their order books. It's just they don't have the working capital requirement to do it.
How important is it to develop resilience?
You need a significant amount of resilience to drive through adversity. But you also need resilience to see you through your wins, because the reality is that you're only as good as last week's profit figure. The dynamic nature of so many markets and businesses means that things are constantly changing. A business owner can't afford to sit back and think they've cracked it. If they do, they'll be left behind very quickly.
What should an entrepreneur's approach to risk be?
You have to be open to risk in order to grow. The challenge is to measure that risk. In the start-up phase, when there isn't enough cash in your business, you need a fairly healthy attitude to it. Work out what you can afford to risk and what you can't. Personally, though, I wouldn't be in favour of putting it all on red in a casino in Monte Carlo and hoping for the best...
What's your approach to networking?
In one way, networking is about going to expensive conferences where you stand around introducing yourself to people you've never met before. That can be terrifying or boring, depending on your point of view. Then again, it's a way to help you find your 'tribe': those people who are going through the same challenges as you or who have been through them already. That's the benefit of getting yourself out and about at those type of events.
What has been your experience of Dragon's Den?
It's been incredible to see the breadth of entrepreneurial spirit in Ireland at the moment. I've done two seasons so far and meeting entrepreneurs and hearing their stories has been fascinating — and to be able to work with the ones I've sealed the deal with is really exciting. The most interesting thing for me as an investor has been to see the appetite for growth and big-scale ambition. I really enjoy it. And it's complemented my work with my day job at East Coast Bakehouse because we're a start-up, too — albeit a slightly larger one.
What kind of entrepreneurs are you looking for on Dragon's Den?
The sweet spot is to find someone who has a great idea, a real handle on the market, and an ability to execute their plan. But it's also about finding someone who you believe can do it. And there's no science to that.
What's the best business tip you've ever received?
Surround yourself with the best people — and get the best advice. Asking for advice is crucial and most entrepreneurs are very generous with it and will give you the benefit of their successes... or their failures.