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Easy-going duo Ben ‘Benno’ Muller and Andy Jefferies from Dock & Bay might not look like the typical entrepreneurs who appear on Dragons’ Den, but having wowed the intimidating investors with their slick pitch (and, of course, travel towel product), the pair walked away with a sizeable return. Here’s what they had to say about their experience…
Culture Trip: Congratulations on winning investment in the Den! Not many people get that. How are you feeling about it right now?
Thank you! Since the show aired it’s been crazy. We sold over 3000 towels in 24 hours in the UK, usually we are looking at no more than 200 a day this time of year. Deborah [Meaden] has been on Twitter non-stop supporting the cause and keeping the buzz going. Customers cleared out our warehouses! Legends.
The whole experience has been very surreal but we’ve been preparing for over a month now. We had a sleepless night after it aired, with all the adrenaline rushing through us. Deborah, Ben and I were all still emailing each other at 1am! But the big test is now how we make the most of the opportunity once the buzz calms, so that we can become a truly global brand.
CT: Your business was already a big success. Why did you go into the Den?
So we actually applied in May 2016 when our business was still very early days and we were in need of investment. When we heard back in January, we were still very short of money. Ben put his £15k wedding fund into the business over Christmas to get us through the winter months. Don’t worry, he managed to get it back just in time. Ben and I only paid ourselves £8000 each salary total for the first two years. So the need for investment was definitely there.
But when we finally filmed in May 2017, business was really rolling after a successful Australian summer and the Easter buzz. The desperate need for money had reduced (although money is always required for growth) but the need for an established mentor had not.
In the end, pitching in the Den to a room of successful investors worth close to £700m is a once in a lifetime opportunity. A real test to the business and an opportunity to get in front of millions of viewers, while you talk about the brand. The pressure to do well is very high. But that’s part of the fun. Make or break is what got us here.
CT: What was it like watching it back on the TV, and how hard has it been to keep it quiet?
So, I [Andy] rented out a cinema and bar and invited all [my] friends, family and those that had worked on the project over the last few years. I love public speaking and talking in front of people but that falls down the pan when you are in front of your friends – it’s so nerve wracking – and I got very anxious before the show went on. That said, everyone was extremely proud afterwards even though they did have a good laugh at our expense throughout.
Keeping quiet – impossible. We’re not very good at secrets and so it definitely slipped out a few times to people.
CT: You mentioned you were working in banking together before starting the business… what was the tipping point for you to leave that world behind?
We worked in the digital division of a retail bank but definitely wouldn’t call it ‘banking’, that most would think of but just your London corporate job. The corporate world just wasn’t quite for us. Ben and I were all about living life to the fullest, being who you really are and making the most of everything that life presents you with. And of course, we love to travel! It’s where all our earnings went. Corporate world just didn’t quite tick those boxes and having a good salary just showed us that there is more to life than money. You want to enjoy every minute of what you do and a good salary won’t make you feel any different about a job that doesn’t motivate you.
Although a great learning experience, to get ahead in that world, you have to fit a mould. And that was never something that interested us, we didn’t want to be the next director! We just wanted to have fun, run our own lives and be in control of our own destiny, as cheesy as that sounds. So, we started a Tuesday brainstorming every week after work. A bottle of vodka, a curry… and the ideas started flowing.
Six months later, we had a business that had started to grow quickly in the UK. We both knew that if we didn’t quit and have a go at it full time, we might lose the opportunity and someone else could take it. Ben moved back to Australia and I took out a £26k bank loan to invest in the business and flew over there myself for four months to build the business over there. It was a now or never type approach.
CT: How did travel help you come up with the idea for your product?
Travelling the world with a backpack is incredible (Culture Trip literally makes us sad we can’t visit all these places at once but inspires us even more to get out there) but there are definitely some real struggles from living out of a bag that’s always smelly, full to the brim and a complete mess!
When we started brainstorming, the big topics were dating and travel. Ben was single (that changed quickly) and both of us loved to travel. Apps were too daunting so we started looking at how we could improve our travel experience. Towels seemed to be a key focus. Traditional cotton towels were big, bulky, would stay damp and collect smells but look great. Microfibre towels were compact and convenient but always dull and small. So we decided to re-invent the traditional towel, simply because no-one else was doing it.
CT: Tell us about your journey from there to entering the Den.
Ben and I came from a world completely different to what we are in now. We began with no knowledge of the retail space or contacts to live off. Which is why we created a stand out yet simplistic brand that would catch people’s eye. The design was inspired by the classic Brighton deck chairs.
We used the power of the internet to learn everything we needed to and even got our logo designed for 20 dollars by a freelancer when we first started. The real lean start up approach. We work across 30 or more tools at any one time to simplify our business and allow it to be run at the core by just three people, although we work with over 20 other hires around the world that keep the business turning.
And then we just pushed and pushed and pushed. In the first six months, we invested £60k of our own money and have now managed to pay the majority of that back, selling over 200,000 units worldwide in the first two years, working with seven warehouses across 12 markets including America, UK, Japan, Australia, Germany and New Zealand. It’s been crazy but we’ve had a lot of fun and we never take it for granted. We’re always looking to the next phase to become bigger and better than ever before! We’ve reinvented the towel. It’s a proud journey for us.
CT: As keen travellers yourself, exactly how does your towel help people on the move?
Dock & Bay towels are made from a unique microfibre material that has endless benefits over your traditional towel, including being quick drying, highly absorbent, compact when folded, sand free and won’t collect damp smells. Some might call it perfection. We kept the towels high end in look but affordable to stick with our backpacking roots and making them attainable for all. [They have] all the benefits you’d want from a towel when moving around and not having much of a chance to give it a good old clean.
CT: What feedback have you had from travellers about your towel?
Early on in our business a really special moment was when one of Andy’s friends was backpacking on the Whitsundays in Australia on a boat tour. They found two other couples from the UK on that same boat who all had Dock & Bay towels. It was that moment that we realised that our vision was coming true; other travellers were buying a stylish travel towel and taking it with them abroad. And they loved them!
Our feedback has been unimaginable. We’ve had over 1000 five-star reviews around the world and people are excited to see what is next for the brand.
CT: You mention you have other ideas in the pipeline… anything you can tell us about? Or any other areas of travel you think need improving?
We try and keep our new products on the down-low a bit to stay head of the game, but our biggest aim is to start making new products from 100% recycled plastic bottles. We have an exciting range planned for Summer 2018, which again we hope will change the market. And yes, in the future we hope to be synonymous for our towels whilst offering complementary unique products that make your travels better. Being innovative is key for us.
CT: What are you immediate plans for the investment you got from Deborah?
We are building an online first brand and so are really keen to grow our brand identity online through heavier digital marketing and getting the world talking about us. This will be a big focus for us with the money Deborah has invested, as well as purchasing new ranges for next season and keeping our new awesome employee Lizzie happy.
CT: What are you most looking forward to from your working relationship with Deborah?
Probably going backpacking with her through the Himalayas, discussing future cash flow strategies as we climb. But on a serious note, there is so much potential to working with Deborah. She has a wealth of contacts that will open doors for the business as well having experienced the highs and lows of business growth. This mentorship will allow the business to grow ten times bigger and become the Havaianas of towels!
She may even join us one day for our signature Tuesday brainstorming sessions.
CT: Did you have an upper limit as to how much of your company you were willing to give away in The Den?
We had both said 15% was our limit although it made us feel uneasy. Ten percent was the level we felt comfortable at and so when Deborah, our favourite Dragon, put that offer down, we were over the moon!
CT: Finally… were the flip-flops really a good idea?
They were comfortable. We built a brand so we could be ourselves. How you dress doesn’t affect who you are or what you can achieve. We’d have looked even more silly promoting a travel brand in a suit. We dared to be different and we hope it will inspire others to step away from the norm.