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Theo Paphitis: “I turned down Dragons’ Den at first - now I’m passionate about helping small businesses"

Theo Paphitis talking to Evening Standard editor Dylan Jones at SME XPO  (Annabel Moeller)
Theo Paphitis talking to Evening Standard editor Dylan Jones at SME XPO (Annabel Moeller)

Theo Paphitis turned down the chance to be on the Dragons’ Den when producers first called: “I [blew a raspberry] down the phone and said, ‘I’m not going to go on television!”, the retail tycoon admitted today.

The small business champion, who owns Ryman, Robert Dyas and Boux Avenue, eventually joined the hit BBC show in 2005, staying for eight years and becoming one of its biggest stars.

“But when they called and asked me to go for an audition, I responded, ‘I can’t do an audition - I’m not an actor!’,” Paphitis told a packed audience at SME XPO, the Evening Standard’s annual event for start-ups and scale-ups.

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“They came to my office, though, stuck a microphone on my desk and we just talked, and they offered me the role.”

At the time, Paphitis had just handed in his notice as chairman of Millwall Football Club: “I thought, I’ll give it a go - what could go wrong? But as it turned out, everything bloody well did!”

Paphitis - interviewed by Evening Standard editor Dylan Jones - said that his first season “was a disaster. They changed the director, producer, there was some friction between Dragons - I won’t mention who. They sent us home as they didn’t like the set, and scrapped it all to start again.”

Paphitis said he had “zilch expectations” of the show. “I was in China when it was aired, and I hadn’t told anyone I was doing it because I didn’t think it would air an,d if it did, no one would watch it.”

SME XPO (Annabel Moeller)
SME XPO (Annabel Moeller)

The show went on to be a huge success, and Paphitis added that he’s now “very proud of Dragons’ Den - I’m thrilled that I was involved.”

It wasn’t easy in the early days though: “at the start, all my investments were lousy, and it was quite prickly - [the investors] would fall out [over deals] and not talk for days on end - there were proper strops, it wasn’t play-acting, but very competitive.

“But I worked out my criteria: investing in people I want to work with. A good person with an average idea is right for me, rather than someone I didn’t really like who had a great idea. I’ve always stuck with that.”

Paphitis offered frank and useful advice to his SME XPO audience. “When I first started out, it was me, and a young lady who I hired from the local job centre as a secretary - I couldn’t afford her, but I’m dyslexic, and it would have been impossible for me to start without her help,” he said.

“Back then, I was a small business, so I know how hard it is to break through, and the loneliness we all feel as part of a small business.”

That’s what inspired Paphitis to launch #SBS Small Business Sunday, his networking group for founders. “It came about as we all sat together on the set of Dragons’ Den creating our Twitter accounts, and had a competition to see who’d get the most followers.

“By the time I got home, I had 50,000 followers, and I said ‘blimey, if I’d had this when I started out, it would have been amazing, all those potential customers.’ So I asked six people to tweet me with their business, for me to retweet. My phone went nuts. Now we have 4000 people in our SBS business network - I love spreading the word about small businesses.”

Join us today - 23 April - and tomorrow, 24 April, at SME XPO, the UK’s leading event for ambitious founders and decision-makers looking to scale. FREE tickets at smexpo.co.uk