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  • Nick Bonney

I've got 99 problems but are they real consumer ones?

I’ve really been enjoying Dragons Den this series. The addition of Steven Bartlett to the show feels like it’s freshened up the format and changed the dynamic between the dragons in a positive way.


New Dragon Steven Bartlett (Image courtesy BBC)

Last night’s episode (Warning: spoiler alert) was fascinating in the way that two potential investments in particular polarised opinion amongst the notebook-wielding investors. Firstly, much to the amazement of her fellow dragons, Sara Davies chose to invest in a wearable technology which promised to analyse biometrics to help desperate parents predict the best time to put their children to bed.


This was swiftly followed by Steven Bartlett investing fifty large ones in the indoor dog training solution, Piddle Patch, with his fellow dragons looking on open-mouthed. Indeed, long term (and long-legged) investor, Peter Jones, went so far as to say that Bartlett had “just spent fifty grand on a patch of grass”.


The six investors in the Den may all come from a diverse range of backgrounds but they share at least one thing in common; the ability to build a successful business. So why is it then that they had such differing views on these start-ups and their product ideas? Predictably, the difference stemmed from whether or not they believed c the entrepreneur was trying to solve a genuine consumer problem. Sara Davies empathised so strongly with the problem of getting children to sleep at night that she was able to put to one side the concerns other dragons had over the tech capability of the entrepreneur or the opaqueness of the IP within the business. Similarly, as the owner of French Bulldog, Pablo, and living in London without a garden, Steven Bartlett was able to see the potential for the product in a way which other dragons could not.


It remains to be seen whether either of these are sound investments but, as I watched last night, I was immediately struck by how central the concept of empathy was to the whole process. As in any business decision, we are led to believe that the dragons are hard-nosed investors looking for the best ROI from their money. Yet, in reality, the deeply emotional construct of whether they empathised with the problem the product was trying to solve was central to whether they saw fit to part with their cash.


In the alternate reality of a TV show, convincing just one decision maker that an idea will or won’t fly is more than enough; you can descend in the industrial lift with your chest puffed out knowing that you’ve just succeeded in transforming the potential of your business. In a traditional business context, however, getting support from just 20% of the board is unlikely to see your project get the off the starting blocks let alone gain the investment it needs to succeed. It’s in this context that research surely still continues to have a crucial role to play; the ability to weave together both data and human stories to convince those who might not have an immediate connection with the idea this this is a problem that needs to be solved.


If the last two years should have taught us anything, it’s that our own experience simply cannot be projected onto everyone else. We have all been able to see the different challenges friends and family members have had through lockdowns driven both by circumstances (working status/ lifestage etc) but also by attitudes and emotions. One of the reasons the furore over Downing Street’s various shindigs will simply not die down is not just because of the perceived lack of fairness but because it demonstrates just how out of touch those making the decisions were with those who had to live with the consequences.


It’s refreshing to see that, for the first time in god knows how many quarters, the latest IPA Bellwether report record positive growth in research spending. We shouldn’t though fall into the trap of thinking that getting this right is the dominion of big brands spending big budgets. Through a combination of good desk research, qualitative observation and the new generation of agile tools, it’s possible for even small start-ups to build a solid understanding of their target market.


Taking the example of Piddle Patch, how many other dragons may have been convinced if they had a good grasp on current market dynamics ( e.g: 1 in 3 households now dog owners, Fastest growth amongst younger working adults and, according to GWI, 43% dog owners are now under 35 - more likely to be living in smaller accommodation without gardens). What if this had been coupled with qualitative/ observational insights showing the product in action (as indeed Steven Bartlett himself did straight after the episode was broadcast)? These sorts of insights can be obtained easily and cheaply very early in the product cycle before committing to a more robust programme of research. For anyone in a smaller business stumped on ideas for where to start, Mark Ritson did a great piece before Christmas on how small brands can punch above their weight.


Sadly, I’ve witnessed too many good ideas falter because the product owner was convinced that the stakeholders would simply ‘get it’ rather than using research to build a compelling case. Similarly, we can all think of bad ideas which get launched simply because the CEO projects their reality onto their target market. I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions but it would be nice to think that, for the marketing profession at least, building a genuine sense of empathy with our target segment would be a great place to start…