By Claire Heald
BBC News Magazine
Dragons' Den is back but how good are the dragons at spotting a business opportunity? One woman whose board game idea was rubbished on the BBC Two show has just signed deals to produce games for Warner Brothers and Disney Pixar. That's quite a miss.
Eclectic editions: London, Paris, Portsmouth...
She was told she didn't know her market, had little financial knowledge and didn't even understand the difference between gross and net profit. Basically Rachel Lowe was roasted in the Dragons' Den.
But the mother of two has shown that sometimes even the most successful entrepreneurs can fail to recognise a good idea when it is right under their noses.
Her board-game series now has a turnover in the millions and she has just signed two huge deals for a Harry Potter and a Disney Pixar version.
Just like her game Destination, she has proved the journey might have its ups and downs, but you can still get where you want.
The 29-year-old was driving her taxi through the streets of a rather unglamorous Portsmouth when her brainwave struck.
As she tried to survive the shift, take fares, obey the rules of the road and return to the rank before fuel ran out, she came up with the idea for her board-game series.
Packaged in its primary-coloured box, with two taxis on the front, the game has 15 different editions and now deals with Warner Brothers and Disney Pixar mean more are in the pipeline.
But it was a struggle to make it a success and involved a savaging on the BBC Two programme Dragons' Den, where people pitch their business ideas to a panel of successful entrepreneurs hoping they will invest.
In 2002, Ms Lowe was driving taxis to support her two young daughters when a university lecturer "fare" persuaded her to return to college. She enrolled to do law with business.
Her small business idea for the game won a grant in a 2003 competition at the University of Portsmouth and she used the cash prize to make a prototype of Destination.
She got local sponsorship and a business loan to produce it herself and by late 2004 she felt ready to face the cameras and the TV investment panel.
Her appearance was a disaster, but it did help to boost business.
"I went in to the first series not knowing what I was getting into," she says. "I went up these steep intimidating steps, into the den. You can't take in your business plan, you didn't know who they were going to be - it was an alien environment.
HOW TO PLAY
Playing piece is a London taxi
Collect fares to famous places
Survive the shift
Keep your licence, avoid traffic light and speeding fines
Not run out of fuel, make the most money
Return to the rank
"I did a three-minute pitch and, at the end, I stood there all chuffed and smiling. Then one started laying into me about my forecasts, and I'm really rubbish at numbers. I'm not good at geography either. One didn't think I knew my market. They all said I didn't know the difference between gross and net profit."
Despite the mauling, Hamleys launched the game for Christmas 2004 and sold 2,500 copies, making it their best-selling product that year.
When the episode screened in early 2005, Rachel was at a toy trade fair.
"Everyone kept coming by the stand, customers were saying, 'you proved them wrong, you go girl'. The dragons did me a favour, without the slating I wouldn't have got the public and trade support."
She admits some of the barbs were fair comments and they sharpened up her act.
Two years on, Destination has an unusually eclectic list of versions - London, Paris, New York, Portsmouth. Nine new products are also due for launch this year.
The biggest deal comes in a tie-up with distributors Cards Inc for Destination Hogwarts, from the JK Rowling books and Warner Brothers films. Also, Destination Animation, featuring characters from Disney Pixar - behind films Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Monsters Inc.
In 2007 she hopes to shift 500,000 copies of the Harry Potter game, which retail at £19.99, 10 times the 50,000 copies sold across all versions last year.
Far from the dragon's rubbishing, she hopes to make a £2m profit, achieve a stable footing for 2008 and pay off refinancing. But it has been a struggle.
"I didn't want to sell shares in the business," she says. "I was borrowing from friends and family (£115,000 of her £180,000 debt was from them) and ended up in a right pickle because of the cash flow being seasonal.
The Dragons spat out Rachel's business plans
"I'd listened to business advisers who said borrow from friends and family. Don't, because £25,000 in business is nothing but if it's your life savings, it's your life savings. The thought of not being able to pay these people back, you can understand why people top themselves."
At a 2005 toy fair she struck a deal with Debenhams to stock Birmingham and Cardiff editions, took other orders and refinanced to avoid financial collapse.
The secret to making it, she says, was to separate herself from the business. Before the deal her house was on the market, the debt to family weighed heavy and she feared investors' influence.
"Now, I'm not as precious about it," she says. "I've learned to separate RTL Games from Rachel Lowe and the investors have a say, but do not have control over me as a person."
And just as everyone believes they have a novel in them, or an entrepreneurial business idea, she has words of experience for board-game creators.
A game needs a clear place in the market - Destination taps the souvenir and tourist niche - but also a traditional objective, start and middle.
"My game involves a little bit of strategy, luck with the dice and it's informative because it teaches you about destinations. And it must have a proper finish - when all the cards are gone from the pack and you get back to the rank."
Dragons' Den returns to BBC Two on Wednesday, 7 February at 8pm.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
I saw the program with Rachel Lowe on it and thought she had a great idea. The Dragons' Den judges are quick with the insults which in many cases are severely demeaning. I wouldn't do business with them.
Katerina Papas, London
Not sure how original this game is... I remember playing something very similar as a child involving driving a London cab around London. The game was called Cabbie I think.
Why not let panels of "real" people have opportunities to invest too, and provide them some business guidance from one of the government-sponsored schemes that exist? That would foster increased entrepreneurial spirit (which UK plc needs) and - dare I say it - be a little more public service minded! (And yes, I'd like my chance to invest!).
John Cooper, Wokingham, England
This concept that British entrepreneurialism should be mocked, stifled and laughed at worries me. We have a very deep rooted vein of innovation, invention and eccentricity (by way of example: see the EggXactly; last series) when it comes to invention. OK, so the "eggman" need not be the face of modern British entrepreneurialism, but it serves to underline the heritage of innovation in this country.
Paul Doran, London
I would like to see these success stories in a series or TV show that includes comments from the Dragons. I believe it would make gripping viewing.
David Brooks, Swindon
I'm delighted this game took off. I remember the episode in question and thought Rachel was given very short shrift considering how great her idea was. I think the Dragons are driven as much by ego as by common sense, and this is just the wake up call they need. Rich they may be, infallible they are not.
Rupert Breheny, London
Well done Ms Lowe! It's always nice to see a small business take off in this way. I wonder how the Dragons feel about the business now?
As an ex-retail buyer I initially enjoyed DD but as it progressed realised that these risk-taking entrepreneurs were exactly the opposite. The demands of knowledge they expected from the contestants were unreasonable, these skills were what they should have been providing. They are obviously in their comfort zones now and have forgotten how raw they were when they risked all to get a foot on the ladder. I have seen some really good ideas turned away.
Harry Dale, Swindon, UK
Dragons Den used to be brilliant, however the editing last year was awful. The last candidate always gets the investment, the first one is always close but makes a fundamental mistake and one in the middle always gets an offer but turns it down.
Let's hope the format has been changed for the new series to add an element of randomness to the edit as to who gets the investment.
John Waterson, London
So, in 2006 she sold 50,000, now she's banking on 500,000 units this year. A 10-fold increase. Get real! And you wonder why the dragons didn't want anything to do with this.
Without making excuses for the Dragons, games are a notoriously difficult thing to evaluate. Monopoly was initially rejected by Parker Brothers as having fundamental flaws.
Julian Nicholls, Lymington, UK
As an ex-cabbie myself, I can see the appeal of this game immediately. Clearly the Dragons miss the charm of taxis from the heights of their private jets! However, I understand the reluctance of the Dragons given the naivety of this lady's business and financial knowledge. This is more a story of successful determination than it is of missed opportunities.
Gary, London, UK
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