Where it all began
It was a rainy day in March 2017 when the BBC emailed me asking if I would be interested in participating with the wheelAIR on Dragons’ Den. Before this, when people asked me whether I would ever participate in such a show, my answer had always been “No, I’m not sure if that is really me.” Perhaps it was because I felt flattered, but for some reason I overruled my previous apprehensions and decided to reply “yes, I am very interested in participating”… If only I knew what I had gotten myself into!
In June 2017, I pitched in the 15th Season of Dragons’ Den for a £75,000 investment in return for 10% equity, and walked out £75,000 richer, having sold 30% equity which would drop to 20% once the Dragons had made their money back. A higher stake than what I bargained for, but in exchange for the most unbelievable feeling. Four Dragons were fighting to invest in wheelAIR and I walked out with Deborah Meaden and Peter Jones in my corner. Safe to say I whooped with joy several times in my rental car on the way up from Manchester to Glasgow.
So why did I do it? Making a wheelchair product is one thing, but making wheelchair users aware of the solution to their problem is another. Wheelchair users don’t all just read mobility magazines, or just hang out in places with other wheelchair users. We needed a larger platform at a price within our start-up budget… We also needed investment to start manufacturing, so the time was right.
It wasn’t actually until I stood in front of the Dragons, ready to pitch, that I realised what I was about to do. I have experienced plenty of high pressure situations in national pitching competitions. However standing in a brightly lit studio with not only a whole television crew watching, but five high profile (and highly critical) investors, was quite something else.
The pitch went ‘pitch perfect’ according to Peter Jones, and all the Dragons were really engaged when our brand ambassador Michael Kerr spoke about his overheating and wheelAIR experiences. I’d be lying if I still remember the exact details of everything we talked about – ranging from IP, idea, product stage, market to future development, amongst other things. Two hours passed and we moved on to the numbers. Now this is where the episode took a turn for the dramatic…
I forgot to eat anything all day in the excitement of it all. I think that, and the heat of the lights, is what led to me to feel so faint… And of course the pressure. I first started sweating profusely, then became very nauseous and while I said “I’m sorry.. I am going to pass out”, everything just went black.
In reality, I had spent a lot of time preparing my numbers and when asked had no problem delivering what I had prepared. However, Peter Jones wanted to hear what they would be for 3 years combined, without my extra products in the pipeline. Safe to say, attempting to do that calculation in my head didn’t go well, whilst I was already sweating and feeling unwell. Eventually I said: “I’m sorry, I just don’t know because I didn’t do them like that,” and we moved on to the next subject.
However, the clever old BBC edited the narrative to make it appear as though my number troubles were what made me feel faint. The cheeky rascals!! To be fair, if I was in charge of editing I’m sure I would have presented it the same way, because it did make for great TV.
After using the wheelAIR to cool me down and eating every biscuit available, I knew I had to go back in and bring the pitch home. There was a life-changing opportunity in my sights to win the money needed to get wheelAIR off the ground, and I wasn’t going to let anything stop me! The Q&A continued, and 45 minutes later I received four offers. After asking all four how they would contribute value to the business and what strengths they would be offering, I decided to go with Deborah and Peter. This was both for Peter’s electronics manufacturing connection and Deborah’s knowledge of the mobility market. Success!
Watching the episode Sunday 14th of January was more nerve-wracking than the filming six months earlier. The business had changed significantly over that six month period, I had no idea how they would cut 3 hours down to 15 minutes and was hoping the faint wouldn’t be that big of a deal.
It was. Even though they all rushed to me in concern, the BBC crew must have been seeing gold when they wheeled me out of the Den, eating a banana. I barely remember that moment, but it was one of the funniest things I’ve seen on TV. I was of course extremely embarrassed, but luckily the offers later on more than eclipsed the horror.
On a personal level, appearing on national television has brought with it complex emotions. The euphoria from the positive feedback is, unfortunately, so easily overshadowed by the negative. And I have to admit that hearing the public’s reaction to the BBC’s edit of my pitch has been as much a challenge as a delight.
Amongst the feedback of the wheelAIR being an innovative, life-changing and fantastic idea there was some negativity about the price as well as comments on my personal appearance and conduct.
Pricing the wheelAIR
Our backrest cushion retails at £650 for many different reasons, which weren’t properly explained in the episode. Instead, it sounded like we pocket 85% margin on a sale. I can assure you that this is not the case. In reality our manufacture and component cost prices are not inline with the forecast numbers shared with us prior to the show. The Dragons didn’t take into account our route to market that is commonplace in mobility, where we utilise distributors, dealers and retailers. This leaves us with a smaller and more realistic margin, in line with the industry norms.
To further address the reasoning behind the price, I wanted to stress that I designed the wheelAIR with the highest quality materials. Right now, high quality is our main priority because we want the most effective product for our end user. The wheelAIR improves posture and it takes away heat and moisture. It can be a key tool in speeding up the process of rehabilitation. It can prevent heat stroke whilst exercising. Ultimately, it enhances life quality. We want wheelAIR to change people’s lives.
Let’s change focus
To tell you the truth, it was saddening that for a select few, my appearance was more important than my wonderful new innovation. As a young female entrepreneur this experience has reinforced my belief that progress is still needed in society to bolster gender equality.
Just 20% of SMEs in Scotland are owned by women. If women started businesses at the same rate as men, this would contribute an additional minimum contribution of £7.6bn to Scotland’s economy. Clearly, women are a considerable untapped resource. I worry they will remain so if focus continues to remain on our appearance rather than our minds.
Despite this, going on Dragons’ Den was an invaluable experience. It gave us unparalleled exposure on a national level. It has taught me where we should be more transparent as a business as well as how to better cope and recover under extreme pressure.
In the weeks following filming, we have been extremely lucky and successful and won several monetary awards, allowing us to decline the Dragon’s investment and start manufacturing. wheelAIR is now fully manufactured and ready to take the market by storm, both nationally and internationally. Now we are one step closer to achieving our aim of being the centre of expertise in cooling and heating solutions for the mobility industry.