Q&A: Evan Davis, Dragons' Den & Business Nightmares

You're currently presenting a new show called Business Nightmares. Why focus purely on people who have failed? Is this car-crash TV?

The people who make decisions inevitably make mistakes. Radical, innovative and ambitious entrepreneurs will make more mistakes than those who make cautious decisions. But we don't want people to be uniformly cautious. That would be boring. I was very keen to make sure that we didn't mock the people who had made mistakes on the show. That said, there are bits that make you laugh.

What's your favourite Business Nightmare?

I like the examples where the companies learn from their mistakes. Do you remember the Rabbit Phone? It was launched back when mobiles were expensive, yuppie tools for businesses and bankers. The Rabbit was sort of a poor man's mobile. In essence, it was a cordless phone that you could use outside if you were standing near a Rabbit Point. A bit like a more limited version of todays wi-fi. It failed of course because everyone started using mobiles.

But there is a happy ending to this nightmare. The peope who introduced Rabbit became the company behind Orange. They weathered their mistake, they gained expertise and they already had database of users, so they gave all their Rabbit Phone subscribers Orange contracts. Mistakes aren't always fatal.

Business has crawled out of the back pages and into the public consciousness. Do you think The Apprentice and Dragons' Den brought about the change?

I do think that The Apprentice and Dragons' Den have raised the profile of entrepreneurs but that's not the whole story. These TV shows came along as interest developed. It's all been part of one slow cultural shift.

The trend started with the dotcom boom; all those paper millionaires creating things from scratch. That all collapsed in 2000 but the seed continued to grow.

We're a more apsirational society than we used to be. Political and cultural changes over the last 20 years have accelerated this evolution.

Just look at the import sector: overseas manufacturing has allowed people to launch businesses without needing a bricks-and-mortar production facility in the UK. The virtual company has been born.

Is this trend set to continue?

This is definitely the decade of entrepreneurship. The last decade was the starting block, the preparatory phase. TV and culture has responded to that. We have discovered through programmes like Dragons' Den and Business Nightmares that business can provide the material that TV loves: the stories, the characters. Entrepreneurs are fascinating and interesting people. There are big egos and strong personalities. That's what's captured the imagination of the public.

The ninth series of Dragons' Den is currently in production. Has the format run out of steam?

When you tire of Dragons' Den, you tire of life. All the characters that come into the Den are fascinating, there's no end of great stories and interesting businesses. Also, there's a new Dragon this series, which will inject a bit of freshness into the show and change the Dragon dynamics. I'm not involved to quite the same level in series nine, however. I simply have too much on.

You haven't defected to The Apprentice have you?

No. I wouldn't join The Apprentice. It has lots going for it but if you push me, i'd say you get more actual business on Dragons' Den than on The Apprentice. I, personally, find it more interesting.

Both series have some business fibre and some business sugar. The mix is just slightly more fibrous on the Dragons' Den side than on The Apprentice side.

If I have a worry about The Apprentice it's this: we don't want to present a one-sided view of business, all testosterone and brutalism. This is what makes business TV populist and interesting, but it mustn't be the only picture of enterprise on TV. We want there to be multiple dimensions, other faces and the kinds of characters you get on Dragons' Den.

After all your years on Dragons' Den, are you not tempted to start a business?

I've learned an awful lot of lessons during my time presenting Dragons' Den. While I'm absolutely clear on how to avoid aggregious mistakes and I understand the actual process of starting up a business, the point about being an entrepreneur is that following the rules, sticking with the textbook, the actual science of the job is only one small part of doing it. That's the bit i'm not confident I have.

Being an entrepreneur is like being a sculptor; you need all the basic craft skills (how to work the clay or the brass) but you also need the vision, the other bit that no textbook on brass or clay will tell you.

Watch Business Nightmares with Evan Davis

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