A Conversation with Touker Suleyman of Dragons’ Den

We were delighted to host seasoned entrepreneur Touker Suleyman, also known as a Dragon on Dragons’ Den, at our most recent CIMR event for students and alumni. Touker shared his inspirational entrepreneurial experience and counseled three students who presented their businesses/business ideas to him in three minutes. It was a very insightful and stimulating session, delivered by a team of CIMR students, alumni, and staff. Jenna Davies chaired the event, Muthu De Silva moderated the interview with Touker, and Melina Padayachy and Doyin Olorunfemi organized the event and facilitated the Q&A session.

Touker’s Entrepreneurial Journey

Touker discussed how he has always had a desire to be an entrepreneur and began his career at the age of twenty. He became chairman of two public companies at a very young age. He has been an entrepreneur for 48 years, referring to entrepreneurship as “the machine room on the ground.”

Touker highlighted the importance of the three Ps when it comes to entrepreneurship success: Passion, Purpose, and Plan. He remarked that there will always be roadblocks along the route, and failure as an entrepreneur does not mean the journey is over. Additionally, he stated that no entrepreneur can claim to have been successful their entire life.

Touker believes that there has never been a better moment to be an entrepreneur. He emphasized that we live in a world that enables young people to become entrepreneurs by making it easy to connect globally, raise money from VCs or angel investors, and make income in a day through platforms like Amazon.

Spotting Opportunities

When asked how young entrepreneurs can best identify entrepreneurial opportunities, Touker recommended them to follow their passions, as entrepreneurship demands a great deal of dedication and hard work. “Today, you do not have to be a genius to be an entrepreneur,” he continued. ” All you have to do is take an existing concept, see how it works, and improve it.” He noted that numerous successful businesses promote traditional products with the use of new technologies.

Touker stated that he believes he has not missed any possibilities as an entrepreneur because he has worked in manufacturing and real estate and is currently investing more in technology. He did emphasize, however, that time flies and that youth is one’s greatest advantage. “You know you can’t buy your energy, your drive,” he stated.

The Rise of a Fashion Brand from a £1 Acquisition

Touker acquired Hawes & Curtis in 2002 for the symbolic amount of £1.00. The company owed £500K and was on the verge of going into administration. When asked how he accomplished such an achievement, Touker explained that he examined the records of every shirt business on a high street and discovered that Hawes & Curtis had lacked investment for several years and was saddled with significant liabilities. He offered to purchase the business and take on the debt. After acquiring the company, he spoke with the creditors and settled all outstanding debts.

Then, he rebranded and repositioned the company around three strong pillars (great quality, great design, and great value), and started manufacturing shirts using his contacts in Turkey. He began with one store and quickly expanded to twenty. Rather than entering into company branch agreements (CBAs) with creditors, paying off all debts enabled the company to grow through a unified strategy across all branches.

Touker emphasized that success in the fashion sector requires a unique design, sound sourcing, effective marketing, and a detailed knowledge of one’s clientele. He stated that many years ago, most department stores would not even consider having small brands. Designers and entrepreneurs, on the other hand, can now create brands and engage with department stores after establishing a customer base through the use of technology and social media.

How to Raise Funds for a Startup

Touker urged companies in their early stages to seek financial support from family and friends in order to avoid giving up too much equity in the beginning. If an entrepreneur gives away too much equity before their business reaches the proof-of-concept stage, it can result in a significant difference in the company’s valuation. Touker has observed that many entrepreneurs begin with 40% to 50% ownership of their company and end up with 5% equity when they raise more capital to grow their businesses. He recognized the significance of being in control of one’s own journey, of one’s own company.

Touker also recommended entrepreneurs to raise money only when they need it, emphasizing the importance of knowing precisely what they intend to spend the money on and the expected return on their investment. It is relatively easy to approach professional investors after an entrepreneur develops a spending and growth model for their business.

Following the Investment

To illustrate, Touker described how the Dragons proceed with the businesses they invest in on Dragons’ Den. They conduct due diligence on the entrepreneur as they are essentially investing in the person. Touker has a team that works to determine how they can bring value to the businesses, whether it’s by opening doors, helping with sourcing, or assisting with design. They assist businesses with warehousing ideas, staffing, and export processes. Touker’s policy is not to stay a passive investor; he is more hands-on and only invests in businesses where he and his team can add value.

Touker stated that the first criterion he uses to evaluate businesses is the entrepreneur themselves. The entrepreneur’s integrity, attitude, and discipline are critical since they demonstrate if investors can cooperate with the entrepreneur. Additionally, he stated that it is critical that the investor’s and entrepreneur’s visions align.

Following the interview, students and alumni from Birkbeck had the opportunity to pitch their business ideas to Touker and receive advice. Samuel Maina (BSc Business) presented his venture in the healthcare recruitment industry. Annabel Ola (MSc Culinary Innovation Management) pitched her business idea in the modern luxury patisserie market. Finally, Alexander Mitchell (MSc Business Innovation alumnus) pitched his online matchmaking technology solution. Touker provided very positive feedback on all three pitches. He advised budding entrepreneurs on commercialization, proof of concept, sustainability, scalability, and intellectual property.

Muthu De Silva then sought Touker’s advice for international students and graduates interested in pursuing entrepreneurial careers in the United Kingdom. Touker emphasized that regardless of who you are, where you come from, or what colour you are, the United Kingdom offers opportunities to everyone. According to Touker, if an ambitious entrepreneur from a foreign nation has a unique local product that they can repackage, develop, and import to the UK, they will have a significant edge.

Professor Helen Lawton Smith, CIMR Director, introduced the event is explaining that it is part of CIMR’s demonstration of relevance to broad communities of scholars, entrepreneurs, policy makers, professionals and to our current students and alumni. The event was closed by Deputy Director, Dr Federica Rossi thanked the speakers and organizers and closed the event by informing everyone of our exciting programme for the spring term and how we can be contacted.

The recording of the event is available here

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This post has been contributed by Ayse Seyyide Kaptaner and Isobel Edwards