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TV Interview

Theo Paphitis ('Britain's Next Big Thing')

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Theo Paphitis on Britain's Next Big Thing

© BBC

Theo Paphitis might be best known as one of the rather scary Dragons' Den panellists, but now he's got his own BBC show! The businessman is hosting Britain's Next Big Thing, which follows potential suppliers as they pitch their products to buyers at Liberty, Boots and Habitat. We gave Theo a ring to chat about the show, 'crushing people's butterflies' and Dragon's Den...

What's Britain's Next Big Thing about?
"Basically it's borne out of all the times that I'm sitting there in the Den or in the high street where people approach me and say, 'Mr Paphitis, it's not your money we're after, it's your contacts in retail.' People are constantly moaning that they've got the best product in the world that everybody would love to buy but they can't get to see them. So I thought, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could get three of the nation's iconic stores to lend me their buyers for a day and open up the doors and allow the Great British public to pitch to them directly?' So you can get a quick, 'Get lost, no chance', or, 'Here's an order for £1m, go fulfil it'."

Were you surprised how many people turned up for the open days?
"Just a bit, yeah! We learnt a big lesson from Liberty - that was the first one. I said to the guys at Liberty, 'Maybe we'll get 100 people turning up, maybe 150... We'll clear the furniture from the top floor and we'll make a holding pen for 200, and then we'll sit the buyers round tables'. We all thought that was a brilliant idea, so on the Saturday I was in a car and I said to my driver, 'What's all the commotion over there?' And he said, 'I think it leads all the way to Liberty'. There was a queue that went round the whole block of Great Marlborough Street, round the whole building into Carnaby Street and Great Marlborough Street again."

How many people turned up?
"Over 1000. Not only were they going all around the block, but they went up the stairwell and through the holding pen. It was unbelievable! We did promise that everyone would get seen and it took until about 11 at night. Some got told, 'Thanks but no thanks', some got orders, some went to try and fulfil those orders and as you'll see, some managed and some didn't."

Did you have any favourite participants?
"It varied as it went along, as my frustration and my patience started wearing out! It did change. I had some to begin with and then they changed to others as I got a bit more frustrated with some of them."

Were there any disasters among the suppliers?
"Oh yes!"

Can you give us any details?
"No, because that will be giving it away! You have to get the journey and see if you can spot them. Some actually got told no and we followed them on a different journey and that was interesting as well. Because they got told no by that particular retailer doesn't mean they weren't successful elsewhere or fell flat on their face."

Is the show more about the buyers or the suppliers?
"It started off about the buyers. As we went along we were having a lot more fun with the suppliers to be honest with you, because it was interesting. The buyers are quite structured and rigid. My job wasn't to give advice, my job was just to ask different questions and let the viewer make their own decision about whether people would make it or not and whether they're being fair or they're not or whether they're going to do the right thing or not. As we went along I got frustrated because I felt like grabbing some of them by the arms and giving them a good shake."

Did you find it hard to ask the difficult questions?
"No, I found it bloody hard not to tell them what to do!"

Do you think the current economic climate meant there was more interest?
"Yeah. A lot of people want to start their own business, and there is help required from banks and from government. It's bloody marvellous how the good old BBC, bless their cotton socks, although they're not always written about in a positive light if you look at Dragons' Den, The Apprentice and now Britain's Next Big Thing, they're actually helping small businesses get going. They're becoming educators and without the show those particular suppliers that made it would never have made it. They're small businesses now standing on their own two feet making money and empowering people. Is it right that a TV show [helped] them? My view is the more the merrier, so I don't have a problem with it. I would just like more of it."

Why do you think shows about business are so popular?
"Because everybody wants to run their own business. My mail bag is mainly kids, and it shows what popularity there is as far as these shows are concerned and how if you educate kids at an early age, hopefully, with a bit more effort all round, we can skew those failing statistics that are quite horrendous. About 50% of all small businesses fail in the first two years. Bearing in mind that half of UK PLC's GDP comes from small business, if we skew that to 40% just imagine what a great state this country would be in."

Are you a fan of The Apprentice?
"The Apprentice is very different to Britain's Next Big Thing and it's very different to Dragons' Den. It gives people challenges which are money-making. I'm not sure I like the living in a house together [thing] but I do like the fact that they give them challenges that make money. I think that's good."

Have you started filming the new series of Dragon's Den?
"We start in May."

Are you looking forward to working with new Dragon Hilary Devey?
"I've never met her! The poor lady - she's still got that pleasure of meeting us all [to come]."

What do you think you'll do when you first meet?
"We'll probably go, I don't know, dancing or something. I gather she's big on salsa dancing."

Do you ever feel bad saying no to people on Dragons' Den?
"Yes, course you do, because there's some really nice people. But in fairness you don't because you're doing them a favour. For the vast majority of them you're telling them not to bother and someone should have told them a long time ago."

But do you never feel like you're...
"Crushing their butterflies? You try not to unless they irritate you! But you're not being fair now, because you see three minutes. We could be there for three hours. And after three hours when you've said the same thing ten times you do tend to lose a little bit of patience. And if it's the only way to get it across to them you're still doing them a favour."

What do you make of the feud between James and Duncan?
"A feud? Oh, it was handbags."

Are they speaking now?
"Do you know, I don't know. I did see Duncan last night because we had the launch of my new retail business Boux Avenue... so he popped over last night. But he never mentioned anything."

Finally, why should people tune in for Britain's Next Big Thing?
"Very simply, because they'll find it incredibly interesting. They've got to follow through and see actually, if you're persistent and you're passionate and you believe in something, just saying, 'I can't get to see the buyer' is not the reason that you've failed."

Britain's Next Big Thing begins on Tuesday at 8pm on BBC Two.

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