'I refused Dragons' Den offer despite setting my heart on two dragons'

Dragons' Den entrepreneur tells the dragons 'I'm out' of the deal

Entrepreneur Richard Marles with his dog Penny in Dragons' Den
Entrepreneur Richard Marles with his dog Penny in Dragons' Den. (BBC screengrab)
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  • Entrepreneur Richard Marles tells Yahoo why he made the difficult decision to walk away from Dragons' Den despite getting offers from Peter Jones and Touker Suleyman.

  • The aspirational businessman was joined by his dog Penny in the den. He asked for £150,000 investment for a 5% share in his all-natural dog treat brand Park Life.

I wanted two dragons: Steven Bartlett and Deborah Meaden.

Steven has got lots of digital knowledge and would really help the ecommerce sales. Then Deborah has got experience of investing in a pet brand. You want 'smart money', meaning money from the right people. Those two dragons would bring really 'smart money' to the table. That's what I had set my heart on.

When I went in the den, I did get offers from Peter Jones and Touker Suleyman - which are again two fantastic dragons who would make great business partners. But since I started this business, I've put every spare minute of time that I can into it. I've worked so hard to build a brand that people love, we have got five star reviews from everybody who has purchased on our website.

Peter wanted 30% of the business - and while Touker wanted 20%, he was only offering half of the money which is equivalent to 40% of the business. What would I have left at the end? If I had to go for another round of investment, there would be no point and I would have nothing left to show for all my hard work.

When they gave me the offers, I really had to stop myself from instantly saying no because I wanted to make sure I heard everybody out. Then I went to the back of the room to have a think. I knew then I was definitely going to say no. Knowing I was going to have to haggle, I asked for £150,000 for a 5% share of the business. I thought maybe I would get away with 10 but at most I was willing to give away was 12.5%. I agreed this with myself before going into the den because otherwise it would be like going into a casino without a budget.

Steven Bartlett is one of Richard's heroes.
Steven Bartlett is one of Richard's heroes. (BBC screengrab)

In the den, I considered I could give away 15%. I thought there was no point in my haggling because they asked for 30% and 40% of the business. So even with a good haggle, I'd get them to 20% and then it would still be way beyond what I was willing to give away. My thoughts at that point was say no because you are not going to win.

I tried saying something a little bit like Love Island where you don't know whether I'm going to say yes or no until the end of the speech. So I gave a spiel about how much I appreciated the offers and how much I needed the investment to help grow and scale the business. But then I said it is too much of the company to give away. I had spent too much time away from my family, worked too hard to give away that much and I thought I would say something like, 'For that reason I'd respectfully decline your offer.'

But the words came out and I said, 'For that reason I'm out.' I wasn't expecting to say that. The dragons were absolutely wetting themselves laughing. I can't remember if everyone found it funny but definitely Deborah thought it was humorous. Steven had his knees to his stomach, curled up on his chair because Touker was like, 'You can't be out because I'm not out yet.'

If I had accepted the deal, who knows what the dragons could have brought to the table? But since then, the business has doubled. I've hit all the numbers I said I would hit. Everything I said I would do in the den I have delivered on. We've just landed a deal with Sainsbury's. There were so many things in the den six months ago where I would be saying, 'I'm in discussions with' and the dragons were saying, 'It's not set in stone.'

Peter Jones was intimidating on Dragons' Den. (BBC screengrab)
Peter Jones was intimidating on Dragons' Den. (BBC screengrab)

Peter was probably the most intimidating because he's an original dragon, plus I look up to him and respect what he is saying. He went to town on me. A lot of people don't realise you might only be on air for eight minutes but you are grilled for an hour and a half - some people even longer. I've seen Dragons' Den enough times to say it doesn't matter how good your business is, if you don't know your numbers you lose credibility. It is human nature to feel under pressure because it's question after question after question. Although I knew the answer to everything, there were certain things like Peter was really pressing on the value of the business and sales. There was a lot of discussion around what you've done versus what you're going to do.

I think if I had gone into the den and asked what I had asked for with the numbers I have got now, I'd be confident they would all put an offer on the table. But I am glad I said no and stuck to my guns because I managed to do it on my own, without a dragon.

Touker Suleyman on Dragons' Den
Touker Suleyman was the least intimidating dragon on the show. (BBC screengrab)

Touker was probably the last intimidating of the dragons. There was a point where I feel like I put him back in his box because he made a comment saying something like, 'Oh it's safe to say you're operating at the bottom end of the market' because I said we're in Lidl. I shop in Lidl personally and it's not downmarket. There are good quality products in Lidl. Peter backed me up, drawing parallels between Lidl and ASDA because Touker has had a lot of work with ASDA. I hope that airs on the show!

It feels like I've watched Dragons' Den all my life. Honestly I think I applied Dragons' Den probably about 10 years ago with some rubbish idea that wasn't even a business yet just out of university. I put two and two together and assumed they must have had me on a list and seen my business when the BBC got in touch.

Going into the den was a dream come true. To stand in front of the dragons, it was such a surreal experience - and to meet the people that I've been watching for years and some of my heroes including Steven. Even though Steven and Deborah didn't invest, they both said that I'm highly investable and thought that I had great business acumen. To get that feedback from people that you really respect and admire was really fantastic.

I was quite nervous going into the den. Literally up until the moment before you go in, they would ask you to make tweaks to your pitch. I'd been rehearsing this and then they were asking me to change something. Penny was a great security blanket. My first thought was I wouldn't bring Penny into the den because she's quite an anxious dog and I didn't think she would travel well. I got a stuffed dog that's in the kennel from IKEA thinking that will be my surrogate Penny. But last minute, I thought I can't go there and stand in front of the dragons with a treat brand inspired by Penny and not have her with me. In the end, I kitted out our VW caddy van with a bed and made it super comfy. It took eight hours from our home in Ireland and on the way we had time to stop off at a gorgeous beach.

One of the highlights in the pitch was when I got all of the dragons throwing the Fris-Bix. At first, Penny missed all of them. But she ran after them and gobbled them all up, so at least it showcased how delicious they are because she ate every single one. In the end, Steven thankfully threw a good one and she caught it. There will be a good shot of Penny catching a Fris-Bix.

The one moment that really threw me was when Penny laid on the ground and decided to have a snooze waiting for a belly rub. Laid on her back with her legs in the air, Peter said: "She's definitely the most relaxed contestant we've ever had."

Deborah Meaden gave some great feedback. (BBC screengrab)
Deborah Meaden gave some great feedback. (BBC screengrab)

And I said to her that would be the Fris-Bix she had backstage before she came on. It was great she was so relaxed because naturally she's an anxious dog. She was a security blanket because you know that moment you walk into the room beforehand and there's all the pictures of the dragons on the wall? Most people go in with somebody else and they can have a bit of a chat before you go in there. I'd have just been stood in there solo looking like a numpty. So it was great to have Penny there for a bit of moral support!

We fell in love with Penny when we adopted her in 2018. She had been returned, an unwanted Christmas present. It felt so nice to be able to give her a home when someone else wasn't able to take care of her. We took her absolutely everywhere with us - every dog friendly cafe, pub, hotel, restaurant we could take her to. Our lives changed to evolve around her but one weekend we decided to go somewhere that wasn't dog friendly and we asked my mother in law to look after her. It was a lovely weekend but when we returned home, Penny looked all bloated and swollen to the point where she looked pregnant. I asked my mother in law, what have you been feeding her? She pulled out a box of a leading brand of biscuits that I won't name. On the packet it had a list of ingredients including cereals dogs are really not supposed to eat.

I thought with dog biscuits being so popular, there has got to be a healthy dog biscuit out there. But all I could find were really expensive or artisan looking with boring, brown packaging. No one was doing anything that was fun, playful and affordable in the healthy space. I thought there's absolutely a business opportunity here. My wife and I started baking biscuits at home for Penny and she absolutely loved them.

We may be a small company but we've got the European licence for Disney. We've been in discussions with a number of leading European retailers so the potential for Disney is absolutely huge. Our range of biscuits and dental sticks called Mickey Bix and Mickey Stix. The pack design looks phenomenal. Disney and Mickey really elevates the brand.

And since going on Dragons' Den, I have fast tracked a lot of our product innovation to make sure it's ready in time for when the show airs. So we've got some lovely new products including our Cake-Bix and Gravy Bix. It's really given me a deadline essentially to get these ready.

Next week we're gonna be at Crufts. We were at Crufts last year for the first time with a stand to test it and we got so much positive feedback. We had thousands of dogs come and try the products, with our sales on our website doubling overnight.

This year we're moving to Hall Two, stand 53, we've got a bigger stand. We will have a full range of products and a special show deal. If you come down to the stand, sign up our newsletter that we'll give them a free product Cake-Bix for their doggy's birthday!

Richard Marles told his story to Lily Waddell.

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