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Deborah Meaden on what makes a good entrepreneur

19th June 2009

The Dragon and multi millionairess Deborah Meaden has spoken to Management Today about what she looks for in an entrepreneur. Deborah isn’t just a career entrepreneur; she also spends her working life listening to other entrepreneurs, in the Dragons’ Den. So she’s better qualified than most to tell us what makes a good one - and what's guaranteed to raise her hackles.

Deborah is convinced there’s definitely a type: ‘They’re all very different, but there are some key common elements: they’re perceptive, competitive, able to take risks... But good judgement is one of the most important elements. It’s no good getting passionate about the wrong thing.’ No surprise then that common sense is the theme of her new book, which she defines as ‘good judgement without specialist knowledge’.

She is also a big believer in good timing. Not only in terms of whether your business will work in the current climate, but also whether the entrepreneur's personla situation is right. ‘You’ve got to think: am I fighting fit? Am I in a position to give this business what it needs to get it off the ground?’

In her book, Common Sense Rules: What you really need to know about business, Deborah talks about Britain being a nation of ‘potting shed entrepreneurs’. So does she think we’re better inventors than businesspeople? ‘An inventor is someone who’ll think I need something that does that, and I’m going to come up with the answer. The entrepreneur is the person who says, hmm that’s good, I’m going to make that, here’s the market and I’m going to sell it. Sometimes that can be the same person, but it’s quite rare. So a clearer understanding of the difference is very important.’ But she still thinks that British public have some great new ideas: ‘I get sent 100 ideas a week; some of them are crazy, some of them are brilliant. But they’re ideas, and that’s fantastic.’

The good news for entrepreneurs with a workable idea is that they should find plenty of business angels keen to invest, given the relatively measly rate of return they’re getting if they leave their cash in the bank. Since bank loans are hard to come by, it’s perhaps no surprise that business has been brisk in the latest series of Dragons Den (which she's currently filming). ‘I’m seeing better business opportunities than I have for a long time,’ says Deborha.

So what's the key to a successful Den pitch? Well, to impress Deborah, go easy on the snake oil. ‘I don’t like over-slick pitches – what I’m seeing is a good salesman.  I’m looking for someone who can convince me that they know so much about their business that there’s not a question I can throw at them that they can’t answer.’ Predictably, that means Deborah is distinctly unimpressed by people who are hazy about their numbers. ‘You don’t have to be brilliant at numbers, but you have to understand the basics, or you won’t have a clue what’s going on in your business.’ And your answer will almost certainly be followed by a prompt and slightly irate: 'I'm out'.

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