Michelle Rodger: Arm yourself with answers before facing the Dragons

HOW many of you watch Dragons' Den? And how many of you cringe with embarrassment as the wannabe entrepreneurs stammer and stumble and eventually crumble in front of the Dragons?

'Cos it's easy, right? You stand up, talk about your business, ask for some money, pocket the cash and walk away. Job done.

But the truth is that pitching for investment is a skill the majority of entrepreneurs just don't have. And yet it's something we all need to grow our businesses, whether we're asking the bank for an overdraft, stalking SE for grant funding, or indeed pitching to venture capitalists or angel investors for the money we need.

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The Scottish entrepreneurs behind Tree of Knowledge faced the Dragons last week and not only lived to tell the tale but share the valuable lessons they learned from the Den.

They asked for 100,000 to develop their business, providing motivational training tools and resources for education and business across the UK.

Despite failing to win investment from the Dragons - and, it must be said, Peter Jones looked absolutely gutted that he wasn't able to make a deal - the support they received after the show aired last Monday has both amazed and inspired the team.

"It's been incredible," says MD Gavin Oattes, "The phone hasn't stopped ringing. We'd definitely recommend the experience to other businesses."

But the Tree of Knowledge team made it look and sound much easier than it really is; their slick performance was the result of months of hard work, researching, preparing and practising for the presentation in the Den.

Oattes and the team ensured they knew their figures and had an answer for every possible challenge.

His advice to others is simple: be calm, confident and know your idea inside out. Never "wing it". And also make sure you show your humour, personality and passion for your business.

The latter is advice that's backed up by investor Shaf Rasul, who appears in an online version of the BBC's Dragons' Den.

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IT and property entrepreneur Rasul clearly has an instinct for a deal - according to the recent Sunday Times Rich List he has amassed a wealth of 80 million - but more than that, Rasul wants to know about the people involved in the business. He's looking for someone who is serious about their business; someone who is driven, and who inspires him with a great idea.

People are key. But ultimately the business has to allow investors such as Rasul the opportunity to realise a quick and significant return on his initial investment, which in the changing economic conditions is much harder to achieve.

"Investors also now want a lot more equity before they invest," explains Rasul. "Perhaps I would have settled for 10 per cent a year ago. Now I want 30 per cent or more.

"But crucially, you have to have integrity, know what you are talking about and know your numbers."

While it's important the investor has a rudimentary understanding of the product/service, really what they want to know is what problem you are going to solve, how your product will improve somebody's life.

Then they invariably want to know how much money you want, how you are going to spend it and where it will take the business.

The fundamental part of the equation is the final question: what is it going to return to the investor and how is he or she getting out?

That, says Cameron Thomson, is the part that's always missed. And it's usually the investor that has to put it on the radar.

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As a regional director of Angels Den, a network of more than 3,000 business angels and 10,000 registered entrepreneurs, Thomson sees more investment opportunities than most. He also sees more deals fail to go through because there is no exit for the investor.

This isn't a job for life for the investor, says Thomson: if he or she can't see a way out, whether that's through buying the investor back out, selling to a competitor or to a supplier bringing the resource in-house, or even an IPO (which is rare), there won't be a deal.

"If I've got money in the bank, I know how I get it out," says Thomson. "I take a withdrawal slip, hand it over and get my money. Investors need to know where the withdrawal slip is for the business."

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