This Day (Lagos)

7 October 2008

Nigeria: Ideas Meet Opportunities at the Den

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Lagos — The corporate dress and businesslike approach of the participants bespeaks it all. They come to the 'Den' ready with their business proposals to face starry-eyed business executives well prepared to pooh-pooh what they have.

The Dragons Den, the brain child of United Bank for Africa Plc, is reputed as a place where good business ideas meet great opportunities. It is a fertile ground for aspiring young Nigerians to actualise their dreams and probably, earn their breakthrough on a seemingly rigid business turf. It is a form of the towering bank's corporate social responsibility to the teeming army young professionals aiming to stand on their own, according to the communication strategists of the bank.

The panelists on the Dragons Den comprise successful business executives and are expected to interrogate as well as provide the much needed direction to the participants. These suave personalities include Messrs John Momoh, Femi Tejuoso, Chris Parkes, Alexander Amosu, Ibukun Awosika and Ms. Tokunboh Ishmael, among others. As people who have been through the terrain, their queries are direct, well thought out and could destabilize any ill-prepared person, who happened on the scene. In all fairness, they needed to exude such character so that well prepared feasibility studies are nurtured to life and also, avoid wasting resources on the ones that are not viable.

In this context, the panelists in the Dragons Den do not suffer fools gladly. For your proposal to have any chance of support, which must be unanimous by the Dragons, it must be carefully laid out. It has basically been difficult for a number of the participants to scale this hurdle because of inconsistencies which the scrupulous panelists easily detect from the tough "interrogations" the participants are subjected to. Very few have escaped the hammer so far. Presentations must be succinct, brutally frank and clearly spelt out from the introductory aspects.

A typical interface in the Dragons Den in one of the episodes is set thus: An entrepreneur, Joshua Bright, needed 8.8 million naira in exchange for 85 per cent equity in his agricultural business, where he would deal in livestock and crops.

"I have 8 years of experience in farming, and I understand the language of animals ", he said enthusiastically and passionately about the business. Bright, however, flunked when huge disparity in figures were observed in his business plan in contrast to the figures he had used in his pitch earlier.

In addition to that, Bright wanted to compete with his present employer who happens to be his father - and his smart strategy was to poach two of his father's best workers who also happened to be his brothers to come work for him for free for a period of one year. "I'm not going to pay my brothers for a period of one year " he had stated meekly.

"So, why would they leave your father (their present employer) who pays them to join you who wouldn't pay them?" Femi Tejuoso asked.

The dragons declared out!

Another entrepreneur, Mr. Ogundele, came to the Den with an idea that could help sanitize the environment, ridding our land and waters of chemical and industrial pollutants. He believed his potential clients and customers would comprise of the federal government and the big oil firms currently operating in the Niger Delta. However, his pricing was outrageous to the Dragons. According to him, 10, 000 barrels of crude oil cost about 1.35 million US dollars, while cleaning 10, 000 barrels of crude oil will cost the customer 20 million dollars.

"Why should I clean up 1.35 million dollars worth of crude oil with 20 million dollars?"

After a brief debate, the Dragons all opted out.

In another case, Chidebe Ronsi came to the den to ask the dragons to invest 6 million naira in "Creative Change Channel" - a documentary drama (to be recorded) on audio and video discs which will help people determine and choose the sex of their unborn babies. He was ready to part with 20 per cent equity.

He played an audio CD that sounded as if it was produced in a hurry during his presentation. The Dragons' ears did not welcome this sound, and they politely implored him to stop the disc and continue his presentation. After which he was bombarded with questions he wasn't prepared for. "What are you going to do with this product?", "is it a movie you're trying to produce here?" These were some of the questions that got him stuttering and out of breath, clearly revealing to the Dragons there was no business in his idea.

They opted out, before this entrepreneur was able to drop what many would consider his most articulate and brilliant statement in his short-lived time in the den: "I want you to understand that so many atrocities have been committed because of male-child preference; a lot of our doctors (and nurses) have turned into child-swap contractors". Too late and this was because the entrepreneur failed flatly on delivering his punches as succinctly as possible.

As the programme continued in subsequent weeks, the Dragons waited for an opportunity to sincerely help a young Nigerian with his/her business plans until they encountered another entrepreneur, Onari Georgewell. She came seeking 5 million naira in exchange for 20 per cent equity in his charcoal export business, and according to him, "the business of charcoal is very huge on the international market". It was on this premise that he commenced his presentation, seemingly exciting the Dragons with his financial projections, and passion for the business.

The introductory part of his presentation was well thought-out. But when it came to responding to questions from the Dragons, the cracks began to appear in his business plan. "Do you have purchase orders already?" Tejuoso asked, and Georgewell replied, "We're working on prospects". Tejuoso declared to this entrepreneur that he was interested in this business, and thus the need for his very probing scrutiny. But a snag presented itself during this probe, when it came to the issue of the mode of transacting this business, and the reputation of the entrepreneur to elicit the confidence of the international buyer.

It was also uncovered that the entrepreneur had not thought about the procedures involved in the inspection of the products before export. However, Tejuoso was undaunted by the present invisibility of these documents; he went on to invest 2 million naira for 35 per cent equity in this business. Parkes threw a tempting bait at this entrepreneur by asking him if he would consider ceding 80 per cent of the business if all the Dragons offered him the full 5 million naira he came asking for (considering the risk involved in getting the business on the roll). But this entrepreneur broke into a temporary cold sweat, pondering on this offer, and somehow ended up not accepting it. He was left with Tejuoso's 2 million naira offer, but according to the golden rule of the den, the entrepreneur must get the full amount he requested for, or he goes home with nothing.

3 million naira short and no other Dragon 'financially' committed to investing in his business. Georgewell went home with nothing, despite the fact that he came very close to an investment.

The seventh entrepreneur, Ms. Alsu Odemwingie, was confident, brutally honest, and very relaxed in the presence of the Dragons. She had a strong personality that seemed to be on the cocky side. She was looking for 3 million naira (for 10 per cent) to invest in a business she called "Start-Up Sity", a company that would guide and mentor start-up businesses, and start-up professionals through the challenges of starting a business. She presented impressive statistics on the number of start-up businesses that fail within their first year of operation; statistics that Ibukun Awosika noted were almost accurate.

Awosika also identified the need for what she was trying to do, but failed to see the business sense in it. Amosu seconded Awosika's point-of-view, opining that it was going to be difficult to get someone who was starting up a business to part with #80, 000 in order to receive guidance. At this point, after Amosu, Awosika, and Tejuoso had opted out, this entrepreneur went into an emotional overdrive in a subtle manner, where she revealed that part of the reason why she was in the den was to experience first- hand what start-up companies and entrepreneurs go through when they go in search of investments, and secondly, she confessed that she was in the den for the publicity her appearance would give her business. This revelation did not settle well with Amosu who opined that this entrepreneur was manipulative, and expressed his disapproval to being used as an experiment. But Ms. Odemwingie stood her grounds, and this character trait must have impressed the duo of Momoh and Parkes who invested 1 million naira for 10 per cent equity, and 2 million naira for 20 per cent equity respectively. She got a deal, shook hands with two new successful business partners and she went down in the history of Dragons Den Nigeria as the first lady to slay the dragons.

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