The huge marketing opportunity offered by the internet means businesses are continuously attempting to make their commercial propositions sociable, but it struck me that the companies featured on last night's episode of Dragons' Den flipped that challenge around. At the heart of all four pitches was a sociable proposition, which they all attempted (with varying degrees of success) to make commercially viable.
Former children's entertainer Vicki Edmunds presented EatWithALocal.com, a website that enables authenticity-seeking tourists to arrange an informal dining experience in members' homes. The idea went down well, but Theo Paphitis suggested that the £30,000 Edmunds sought to market her website was not enough to generate the number of hits it would take to make the company profitable.
I'm not sure I agree. It's true that a budget of that size will not pay for an above the line campaign - but that kind of advertising is generally only viable for mass market websites anyway.
At my company, Make It Cheaper, we see sites such as Go Compare and Money Supermarket plunging huge budgets into national television campaigns - and although we offer a very similar service to those companies, we wouldn't see similar returns on the same kind of activity. This is because the fact that we save money for businesses rather than the general public means our target market is much smaller.
EatWithALocal.com has similarly limited appeal - but thirty grand would surely give Edmunds a chance to create smaller, more targeted campaigns, develop her social media activity and start to build strong partnerships with influential companies.
Still, the Dragons had a bigger issue with the company's ability to yield significant revenue - as they did with two other 'sociable' companies that failed to secure investment. For EatWithALocal.com, dinner-hosting members are able to choose whether or not they charge a fee to diners, so the only current revenue comes via a one-off sign-up fee of ten pounds (plans to host advertising and sell merchandise notwithstanding).
Shazia Mustafa and Yusuf Chadun's Third Door gives freelance workers the chance to hire office space on a flexible basis while their children attend an Ofsted-approved nursery in the same building. Why bother, argued the Dragons, when you could make more money by scrapping the educational USP and just rent out more office space?
Andy Robertson of Dirty Beach, meanwhile, demonstrated an ability to draw a crowd and create buzz with his impressive sand sculptures, but the Dragons felt his plans to build a bar-based business around the artwork were not sufficiently thought-through.
The only pitchers who received investment (which came from Theo Paphitis and Hilary Devey) were Colette and Geoff Bell, who proposed that children's bath time should be embraced by parents as an opportunity to socialise with their sons and daughters.
Their company Shampooheads facilitates this with a range of hair care products featuring fun, aspirational characters such as Awesome Annie and Busy Bob. The products had already received orders from Boots at a healthy margin per unit and the high street retailer had forecast big sales in the future. Plans are also in place to produce books and other merchandise based on the characters. All five Dragons ended up competing to offer the Bells the £75,000 they asked for, which showed just how compelling a sociable idea can be when there's a strong business model to go with it.