DRAGONS are supposed to be scary, but in real life Deborah Meaden is warm and approachable. She is surprisingly open about her weaknesses too: “Well, I never imagined I wouldn’t set up a business,” she explains. “Not least because I don’t take instruction very well,” she laughs.
“I wasn’t academic. I didn’t like school, but I was bright enough to be able to turn it on when I needed to,” says Meaden. She left school at 16 with O-levels and headed to Brighton to study business. “This probably isn’t a good message for students, but I probably just went because I wanted to leave home to have some fun.”
After graduation, she still knew she wanted to own a business, but had no idea how to get one. “I got a job as a fashion model, I hated it, but I stayed for a while because the person who gave me the job had been good to me.”
“I was desperate to get on with it, but I didn’t have any cash. How do you start a business with absolutely nothing? You at least have to have enough money to cover the rent for a little bit.”
She eventually packed her bags and left for Italy. “I just thought: if I stay here doing the same thing, nothing will change.” Meaden had no money and no idea what she planned to do. “I managed to convince these four Italian companies to let me be their agent for their products in the UK.” But it didn’t last long. The companies began bypassing her and selling directly to the UK stores. “I had them all under contract, but I thought life is too short to waste my time fighting them.”
“I actually think that’s one of my secrets of success. I know when to call it a day. That, and I presume I can do things until proven otherwise,” she says.
That logic certainly gave her a break. She came back to the UK and convinced Stefanel, a clothing company, to let her set up a franchise at low cost. “I literally bounced into Stefanel in Knightsbridge and asked if they were interested in franchising. They said ‘funny you should say that, we are.’” She tracked down a business partner and premise and set up shop in Somerset.
“That was the first business I made money on. I sold it to my business partner for £10,000. Not a fortune, but enough to get going on my own.” And that’s how she got into the leisure businesses that lead her to the limelight.
“It started with a bingo concession at Butlins,” she explains. “It taught me more about business than anything else I had done until then because I was so close to the customer.” After three years she sold it back to Butlins for a profit.
“There were just so many businesses between bingo and Weststar Holidays [Meaden’s biggest business]. They were all retail and leisure though. I feel most comfortable with them because I’ve done most of the jobs within them myself. I’m very hands on.”
Now she’s a full-time investor, breathing fire into the UK economy.
Meaden is promoting the Local Business Accelerators initiative, an incubation scheme that supports start-ups (details below).
LOCAL BUSINESS ACCELERATORS | NEED TO KNOW
What is it: £15m of free advertising will be given to the very best fledgling businesses across the UK who will also receive mentoring support from local business leaders.
How does it work: Each regional newspaper taking part will select up to three businesses to receive free advertising and mentoring, so around 1,500 business are expected to benefit from the scheme.
Open to businesses that are:
● Active in the local community
● Between one and three years old
● Full of potential
Visit www.accelerateme.co.uk for more information on the scheme and how to enter. Entries close 14 November 2011.