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Meeting the Dragons in the Den: Marie Sawle's Story of Success with Business Partner Deborah Meaden

Deborah Meadon with Marie from Billy Margot
Series: 

everywomanNetwork Member Marie Sawle of Billy + Margot started her business because of a dog. Not just any dog, her pet Labrador, Billy, who had a taste for ice cream. As a frequent guest at her previous workplace, Billy was often treated to many an ice cream by her fellow colleagues. Because of her background in nutrition, Marie quickly realised this sweet treat wasn’t good for her beloved,  so quickly adapted an animal-friendly version, a dairy free ice cream treat for dogs, hence Billy + Margot began.

Within weeks of launching, Marie picked up a very famous business partner, Deborah Meaden, after her successful appearance on Dragon’s Den and from there, Billy + Margot has become a household brand. Billy + Margot is now stocked in 250 shops around the UK and earlier in 2012 picked up the best dog product of the year only months after its debut.


TELL US ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE ON THE DRAGON’S DEN.

My experience was so nerve wracking – it was very different to what I expected. I was hoping to get more questions around how I got my idea and my background. The first question was by Peter Jones who didn’t really even give me the chance for an introduction; rather, he delved straight into production figures. This opened up small cracks in the business which was rather scary at first. I quickly turned it around however which did give me more confidence. I was in the Den for just over an hour and before the end, I had received two offers. One was from Hilary Devey and one from Deborah Meaden and although Hilary’s offer was technically better (she wanted 30% of the company), Deborah’s vision exactly matched mine so I chose her as a business partner. Sometimes it’s not all about the money up front. It is also about what the person will bring to the company.


MARIE'S TOP BUSINESS TIPS FOR PITCHING:

Prepare a good business plan. Know where you are and where you want to go very clearly.
Do your research, make sure you understand your market. Then you can approach an investor or a bank.
Have confidence with your idea, and do your research.
Make sure you use all of your available resources to the best of your advantage - for example, my partner Andrew is very business savvy, so every day we took our dogs for a walk and my partner would ask me a question, but first introduced the question as my name is Peter Jones.
Practice - I put the faces of the Dragons in front of me and practiced. Walking down those stairs to meet the Dragons was very intimidating, but I made sure I knew the pitch inside and out. I don’t think you can ever be too prepared.

 

HOW EASY WAS IT TO START UP YOUR BUSINESS?

Not easy at all. Billy + Margot offer dog ice cream, so with it being frozen, it is not very easy to transport. Trading standards were difficult as well and we were given a hard time as the product falls between human food and animal feed so they were unsure what category it fell under. A manufacturer was also difficult to find as I didn’t know how much product we were going to make in the beginning. We ended up opting for a smaller manufacturer and now because we have grown as rapidly as we have, we have had to move to a larger manufacturer instead. There have been many times where I have thought what on earth am I doing?  I did have times where I needed to remind myself. But I am not one to give up.

 

HOW DO YOU STAY MOTIVATED WHEN TIMES GET TOUGH?

I am definitely a person that is possessed and never stops, so I’d like to think I am naturally motivated. You can have a day where it can be really bad, and then the next day I wake up and think to myself ‘that will never happen again’. I’ve always been like that.  I always want to be the best at what I do, and I always wanted to have my own business.

 

SINCE OWNING YOUR BUSINESS, HAVE THERE BEEN TIMES WHEN YOUR CONFIDENCE WAS AFFECTED?

I’ve had my moments. Confidence comes from knowing your stuff.  The only area where I lacked confidence is knowing the market as well as I should have. When you speak to buyers or bigger chains, if they ask you questions and you don’t know your stuff, it may knock your confidence. Peter Jones asking questions around the market did knock my confidence on the show. But it just made me realise that it was an area I needed to brush up on so to avoid situations like that again.

 

WHAT TIPS WOULD YOU GIVE WOMEN TRYING TO START THEIR OWN BUSINESSES?

I make sure I take my iPad with me everywhere I go - I cannot live without it. I also write everything down and bullet point it and work through the list.  After I finish, I put a big cross through it. If by the end of the day, not everything on the list is crossed out, then I make sure I write it down for the next day.  I’ve just taken on another full-time member of staff who does both my marketing and is my PA – she really is a lifesaver and gets me through doing a lot of tasks I wouldn’t have time for. This is definitely worth investing in if you just don’t have the time to do everything. In terms of PR and marketing, I was very lucky as I have a product which is so unique and different to everyone else. I have spent less than £2k on PR. I hired a graphic designer to help me create materials to send to the press. We decided to use empty ice cream tubs filled with sweets to help promote the brand. We also sent out business cards with a direct link to the website which proved to be quite successful.

 

WHAT'S NEXT FOR BILLY + MARGOT?

Since giving up my consultancy work in September 2011 and launching Billy + Margot in March 2012 we have been so busy – I feel so lucky to be where I am today. I have two new retail points, a line of venison products coming out and also enquiries from abroad including North Ireland, Germany, South Africa and Asia. Setting up a business is hard but I really encourage all women to do it – it takes hard work but it’s definitely worth it.