Why mad inventors don’t survive the Dragons’ Den

The hit BBC show reveals the bean-counting cautiousness and lack of entrepreneurial spirit of today’s capitalists.

Dragons’ Den, the BBC2 programme where budding entrepreneurs seek investments from a panel of self-made millionaires, first hit UK television screens over five years ago. Unlike many of the business pitches on the programme, Dragons’ Den became an instant success, with ‘and for that reason, I’m out’ – as ‘the dragons’ declare to entrepreneurs whose ideas aren’t up to scratch – entering the pantheon of TV catchphrases.

As with other entertainment programmes involving judging panels, such as The X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, the dragons’ no-nonsense, straight-talking and abrasive feedback is a refreshing antidote to the therapeutic mores that permeate the UK’s thin-skinned cultural life. There is also something daring in a programme that promotes competition and capitalism by seemingly arrogant men and women in shiny, expensive suits. It’s enough to make radicals throw copies of No Logo at the TV screens.

Appearances, though, are deceptive. Far from espousing daring risk-taking, Dragons’ Den - which returned two weeks ago for its eighth series - perfectly captures the Thatcherite slogan TINA (There is No Alternative) and her ugly sister, Instrumentalism. Each week, genial host Evan Davis tells viewers that ‘only the best will survive the dragons’ den’, as if the panellists are paragons of excellence. Don’t believe a word of it. The collection of property speculators, share-jugglers and watch-selling spivs who make up the panel have only one thing in mind: to make the biggest buck in the shortest available time.

Fair enough, you may think, and good luck to anyone canny enough to acquire a fortune through business. But time and again, Dragons’ Den exposes the backwardness and structural limitations of British capitalism to the extent that you wonder if this programme is in fact damaging ‘UK plc’. Far too often, it is the ‘mad’ inventor, the technical genius, who gets knocked back for a) not being PR-friendly enough and b) not proposing an obviously profitable business venture.

In an early episode of the series, a 24-year-old engineering whizz showed off his invention: a mechanical device that turns off taps automatically to prevent bathtubs from overflowing. This simple but effective gadget could save people millions of pounds in damages. Despite its obvious social benefits, the dragons dismissed the product because, they said, it would be purchased only once per consumer and therefore had limited return on investment.

Last week’s show featured an inventor who had already spent some £900,000 on developing a temperature-controlling storage box for food deliveries. A very clever and practical idea with obvious benefits, but none of the dragons wanted to invest because the profits were once again marginal against the huge investment needed to get the business up and running.

What was particularly aggravating was the ridicule that was poured on the inventor for spending so much time and money on a ‘non-profitable’ invention. To Scottish entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne, it seemed ridiculous that anyone would carry out this level of research and development for its own sake, to take risks in solving a manifest problem and potentially revolutionising the food-delivery industry in the process. The imposed instrumental criteria of short-term gain exposes just how blinkered and small a social system capitalism can be.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that this food-box business could take off in any meaningful way, but the failure to experiment in the first place would be the biggest failure of all – and one that the likes of Bannatyne seem more than happy to cheer on. When it comes down to it, short-term profit is king.

During the first and second industrial revolutions, entrepreneurs were motivated by the idea of human progress as well as by profit-making. They were influenced by the broader ideas and visions of the day, of using science and reason to improve humanity’s lot. By contrast, the Dragons’ Den hot shots are preoccupied with environmentalism, health and safety, and avoiding risk all together. None of the dragons has any broader vision of improving how society is run, even by the limited terms offered by the free market.

In many ways, the omnipresence of TINA since the late Eighties has had a debilitating effect on capitalism itself: instrumentalism has triumphed over exploring ideas for their own sake. This is why the philistines’ A-level, Business Studies, is generally considered good coin, while the social sciences and humanities are dismissed as being ‘dodgy’ for not being responsive enough to the needs of the economy. But a society that is cut off from abstract free-thinking is unlikely to develop or appreciate fantastic, innovative business ideas.

So the two big success stories of past series of Dragons’ Den, Reggae Reggae Sauce and iTeddy, are simply twists on already existing products. The dragons are keen on novelty items that will sell quickly, but they can’t stomach long-term investments in genuinely innovative goods. A quick glance at the five dragons’ CVs will explain why this is so. Four of them - Deborah Meaden (leisure and holidays), James Caan (recruitment), Duncan Bannatyne (nurseries, care homes and fitness clubs) and Theo Paphitis (retail) – made the bulk of their fortunes wheeling and dealing in sales and services rather than through producing innovative new products. Only telecommunications giant, Peter Jones, got rich through hi-tech investments and commodities.

The character Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 hit movie Wall Street summed up this form of capitalism when he said ‘I don’t make anything, I own things’. This is even more true for British capitalists today. And in fact, many of the deals seen on Dragons’ Den actually fall through once the dragons impose unfavourable terms on the entrepreneurs and thus force them to withdraw. So much for the spirit of free enterprise.

Defenders of the private sector would say that ‘rugged individualism’ is a good thing and surely better than welfare-state dependency. True, but we’re setting the bar pretty low if Dragons’ Den is supposed to be private enterprise’s saving grace. In truth, the cottage industries patronised on the show reveal how labour-intensive and financially unrewarding self-employment tends to be. It may give the appearance of dynamic individualism, but it’s a very poor substitute for the benefits that a concentrated division of labour can bring to individuals and society.

In the absence of movements for social progress, there’s nothing wrong with chancing your arm and making a fortune through business as the dragons have done. But there’s something empty, small and deeply depressing about the idea that flogging novelty retail goods is as good as it gets. Far from launching us into a brave new world, Dragons’ Den’s carpet-bagging capitalism reinforces the dead hand of presentism and bean-counting instrumentalism. The entrepreneurs on the show cannot see further than next month’s bank balance and have all the patience of a five-year-old. The mythical dragons supposedly breathed fire, the metaphorical ones on BBC2 can just about manage some hot air.

Neil Davenport is a writer and politics lecturer based in London. He blogs at The Midnight Bell.

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