Sara Davies finally made it to the den at the second time of asking at the age of just 34, overcoming fears that she was too nice. In fact, as she tells Nick Martindale, her natural demeanour has proved to be a secret weapon

Sara Davies MBE first appeared on Dragons' Den as the latest addition to the panel of investors in April 2019, where she injected a much-needed dose of youthful energy and zeal as its youngest-ever judge. But, despite being just 34 at the time, this was not her first experience of the programme, having been invited to apply as a contestant back in 2006.

"It was the year I started up," she recalls. "I was in my final year at university and I got a phone call from the research team asking if I had heard of Dragons' Den. I certainly had; as management students we would all get together on a Wednesday night and hang off their every word!"

The only stumbling block was, due to the success of her Crafter's Companion business, she felt she had no need for any money, so the application wasn't taken any further. "In this current series there was a couple who owned a care home in Wales and they said they had the money to fund the product they had developed but they didn't have any experience in manufacturing, so they just needed a dragon, and they just asked for £10,000," she says. "It just took me right back to my experience, and that's what I should have done 15 years ago." She ended up investing in the Flip Top over-chair product; one of her four significant investments to date.

Unusually, it was Davies - or a friend, more accurately - who approached Dragons' Den, rather than the other way round when she finally did join the line-up. "We were having dinner round my house one night and he said I'd be really good on it," she recalls. "I said I'd love to do it but you don't just ring up the BBC and ask to be on Dragons' Den. The next morning, unbeknown to me, he rang up and spoke to the research team, who said they were casting a new female dragon."

They had an initial interview, which went well, but there was an issue. "The executive producer at the time said they thought I'd be brilliant but I was too nice, so I had to be more dragon-y for the proper onscreen interview," she says. "I remember walking in there thinking I could be anything I wanted for the interview but I would then have to keep that up through the filming and that would be the ‘me' that is out there. I couldn't not be true to myself. I spoke to them at the end and said that was me, and it was either right or it's not. But they decided to hire me."

In fact, being ‘nice' - she's keen to stress she's not soft - has already paid dividends in the den. "I have a lot of empathy for the contestants; as they come through the doors I can imagine what they're feeling and I'm the one who will look up and smile at them, or whisper to them that they're doing great as they hand the products out.

"I often wondered why people would choose me over Peter Jones or Deborah Meaden in that first series when no one knew anything about me, but just being able to strike up a rapport with them in the couple of hours we have while they're pitching has been enough for people to choose me over the other dragons in a few cases," she adds. One example is Tancream, when Peter Jones made an offer alongside Davies, and founders Gillian Robson and Katy Foxcroft chose to go with the incumbent dragon. The firm is currently in the process of expanding in the US, she adds.

Investment portfolio

Aside from Flip Top and Tancream, Davies has to date invested in chilli paste firm Mak Tok, run by William Chew, and Teirnan McCorkell's Pipe Easy product, designed to help tradespeople and DIY-ers cut surfaces around pipes. "Will just needed a bit of support and mentoring and I've been able to let him use the people in my business to help him get a head start," she says.

"Pipe-Easy was one where the other dragons couldn't see any potential, but I could see there was a great entrepreneur there that just needed some support. He needed help with his manufacturing, and we now use a local manufacturer to get the products turned round quickly rather than being made out in China."

Davies says she's been careful not to get too involved in any of the businesses she has invested in, and has declined the opportunity to sit on their boards. "I'm there for support but I don't want them to feel they have to run every decision by me," she says. "I'm letting them do their thing but any big decisions they have to run through me."

It's an eclectic range of products she has invested in, but that's merely a reflection of what matters to her when it comes to deciding whether to invest. "It's all about the people," she says. "You can have a mediocre business do well if it's headed up by a fantastic entrepreneur but you could have the best business idea in the world and a pretty average entrepreneur and it will never take off. There's a special magic about people who are really successful entrepreneurs, and it's all about having the right drive and enthusiasm. You can't breathe that into somebody; they're either wired that way or they're not."

Davies admits she was worried about having a higher profile, but has been pleasantly surprised by the reception she now gets, particularly in her native north-east. "I have two young kids and my husband was worried about people coming up to us in Tesco and how the kids would react," he says. "This might be a north-east thing but what's been really nice is that people go out of their way to say how proud they are of me. It's the whole local-lass-come-good thing. That's been lovely."

She's also been pleasantly surprised by just how welcoming the other dragons were to her, despite the intense competition that sometimes plays out on our television screens. "They all want the new dragon to do well because they want the show to do well," she says. "They would all take me to one side and give me a bit of advice, and taught me the ropes over the first couple of weeks."

In the blood          

Davies, though, has never really been short of confidence. Born into an entrepreneurial family - she recalls her Dad running a range of businesses before the family set up its own wallpaper-and-paint shop - she always felt she would end up running her own business. "My Dad always instilled into me from a young age that if I was going to work hard I might as well work for myself," she says. "I just didn't know what that business was going to be in, although I always knew as a fallback I could take over the family business."

It was on a year-in-industry placement while studying a management degree at the University of York that things became clearer. "I went to work for a tiny arts-and-craft company," she recalls. "Because I was doing a management degree the owner let me have free rein. I'd be doing product development, marketing, payroll and the management accounts, so it was brilliant business experience for me. It opened my eyes to an industry that I didn't know existed. I didn't know there was an industry for people making hand-made cards as a hobby, and I fell in love with it instantly."

She quickly realised that it was something of a cottage industry, where businesses were built out of a personal hobby and would often rely on trade fairs for customers. "I thought there would be a huge opportunity if I applied some basic business thinking to it and developed products that the customers tell you they want," she recalls. "I remember going to the owner of the company at the end of my year and saying I had lots of ideas for more products and she was very dismissive of them. She'd listened to me talking about business all year but I was now entering her territory."

One idea in particular stood out for Davies; a tool which would allow crafters to fold their own envelopes, rather than having to use pre-packaged ones. "I thought there might be some legs in it and I rang the TV shopping channel which was selling a bit of craft, and asked if I could sell it on their channel," she says. "They gave me an opportunity to go on, so my Dad's friend who was a joiner in the village made some out of MDF and I went on the Shopping Channel and launched my envelope-folder. We sold 8,000 envelopers that evening and that was how the business parachuted into the industry. We couldn't make them fast enough and that made us a household name."

She admits she had no idea if the business would take off but by the time she finished her university degree it was turning over £500,000 and she had employed a friend's mum to help her run it. "I graduated, moved back home and decided I was going to give it a go," she says. Her Dad converted a spare shed at the back of the wallpaper-and-paint shop, and the growing business later took over the upstairs of the office. "We went on from there until we were turning over about £10m, and we had to move into bigger premises," she says.

Growth curve                   

Today, the business turns over £40m, and employs around 230 staff. Around half its turnover comes from the US, which has finally taken off in recent years after a long struggle to build up the brand. "I decided when I was still at university that I wanted to see what the opportunity was in the US," she says. "I went out to a couple of big trade shows and at first we used a third-party logistics warehouse in Florida to give us a base. Then after three or four years we bought another smaller company over there, which was quite similar to us and based in California, which was ideal for us because we needed warehousing on the west coast.

"That gave us a base to grow from, but it was about six or seven years of really slogging it out in the US and not making any money. After seven years the economy turned around, and we had a hockey stick type growth. Last year the US business turnover was bigger than it was in the UK, but it was years of that not being the case." The business has also expanded its offering beyond its craft base, entering the larger art market and, around five years ago, the sewing sector.

"About 60% of our business is still papercraft but about 10% is sewing and 30% colouring, and we know those other markets are much bigger so as we develop more of a foothold we will hopefully be able to replicate the success we've had in papercraft," she says. "We're probably the biggest papercraft supplier in Europe now and we'll be looking to use that as a model to build on with the other disciplines."

Recently, though, the business has had to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic. It has, says Davies, been a tale of two halves, with the side of the business that supplies high street stores "falling off a cliff". "But the direct-to-consumer sector really took off as people were at home and were home-schooling and looking for craft ideas," she says. "Every time a recession hits people seem to go back to that make-do-and-mend mentality so we're seeing a real growth in the craft industry.

"We've done a lot of online video tutorials and we're live on YouTube for four hours a day, plus the shopping channels we deal with are seeing massive growth as more people are at home," she adds. "The challenge for us now is how we continue trading the positive half of the business as strongly as we have been, while the high street reopens and we reintroduce the other side of the business."

Balancing act                   

As well as her Dragons' Den commitments, Davies - who was awarded the MBE for services to the economy in 2016 - is also active in mentoring and developing entrepreneurs, and regularly gives talks to other business owners near her Teesside home.

"I'm very lucky that my business has been really successful and I've been able to grow and continue to develop that, and it's really nice to share that story with other entrepreneurs," she says. "I can watch people taking bits from lessons which maybe I have learned the hard way, and they can have the benefit of my experience. That's the most rewarding part."

Her main advice for anyone looking to set up, though, is to make sure they understand the commitment. "Once I had the kids I would get other mums saying it must be brilliant running my own business because I can fit hours around the family," she says. "But if that's your attitude you'll never make it. People from the outside see the nice side of it but they don't see you having the weight of the world on your shoulders, and how you have to live, sleep and breathe the business. It's not a job; it's a way of life, and the ones who succeed are the ones who go in with that attitude."

As for her own future, Davies is looking forward to combining her role at Crafter's Companion with her various investments. "I love my business and I wouldn't keep doing it if I didn't," she says. "I'm very much a figurehead; I head up the new product development team but I don't get very involved in the day-to-day running of the business. I also enjoy being in the Dragons' Den investments, but just at arms' length. I can have all the ideas but I'm not the one having ultimate responsibility and sleepless nights. That's the big appeal of being an investor."

"But I've really enjoyed the TV side of Dragons' Den too, so I can see me doing a lot more of that, but I don't see me stepping back from Crafter's Companion in any way. I have a young family with two young boys so I need some work/life balance as well. It's time to work hard and play hard."