It’s been a year since my trip to television studios Manchester to film for Series 20 of BBC Dragons' Den, so much has happened since and the PODS ships sails on with some exciting things always on the horizon.
I can remember first applying for the Den 9 years ago when the product was in its early stages. This was a time when candidates had to make their way to BBC centre in White City, London. I can remember doing a pitch with the prototype of PODS, pulling a suitcase through the underground on a warm summer’s day. I remember having a video camera fixed on me, my throat as tight as can be with my pitch thrown out the window with a request to ad lib to the camera. Looking back, both the product and I weren’t ready, so much has evolved with the product, bringing more immersive elements into our adventure portals to increase the play quality and heighten the sensory experience for imaginative play and relaxation time. Several years and many happy customers later brought with them valued feedback and resulting improvements.
It’s been nearly 10 years of developing the product, bootstrapping the whole process by investing every pound earned into product development, prototypes, testing, marketing, attending exhibitions and all the other hats a business owner has to wear to get stuff done.
Through this decade we’ve seen social media explode exponentially and with the awareness of neurodisabilities and also the effects of COVID on the younger generation with huge rates of anxiety within children.
COVID was a turning point for PODS, more than ever children needed their very own space to call their own, to calm themselves from anxiety and just be. At this time it was mainly focussed on schools, respite centres, charities and organisations who had a budget for child wellbeing and sensory equipment. Throughout the years I had numerous conversations with families with children with sensory needs, they loved the product but it was either too big for their space or it was out of their price range unless they really saved, got help through the DLA (Disability Living Allowance) or sourced a grant or charity funding.
With COVID making my other company, in event structures (Optix Structures) almost totally dormant until 2022. Optix was usually another loan and source of funds for marketing and development for my PODS Play company. Without my main income I had to get a full time job, one that I really enjoyed and one that I learned a lot about sales, marketing and creating content. PODS was then an evenings and weekend project, taking annual leave to attend exhibitions and attending focus groups. By 2021 I had enough capital saved to try a redesign that would be cost effective and still have all the amazing features that makes PODS an unrivalled sensory aid and play tent.
With several attempts at perfecting the new product (PODSpop), I applied for Dragons’ Den, the 20th anniversary series.
I went through all of the initial videos to send, preliminary interviews, due diligence and then was so excited to get the confirmation that I was invited to Manchester in June of 2022.
Above: Back stage at the Dragons' Den set, Studio 1, Manchester Studios.
The day before filming I popped into the studios to drop off my equipment and then headed to some local charity shops to buy some props to soften the environment from the dark yet intense backdrop of the warehouse themed set. I’ve always loved set design, I’ve previously blagged my way onto film and TV sets as an onsite carpenter for several gigs but this was a bit of a fanboy moment for me. I used to watch the program as a teenager with my parents, I think it really got me into wanting to start my own businesses, the feeling I got whilst watching pitchers talk passionately about their life’s work and the risk they've gone through to get where they were in that moment, I loved it, I still do! I used to quietly shout at the screen, willing them on to success.
Unfortunately, the new prototype wasn’t finished and in the UK yet so I went with the original product as a showcase piece with videos and images of the penultimate prototypes.
The day came and I was supposed to be on 2nd in the running order, so would have been on the M6 by midday, however the call order switched and I was to be last on a very hot Friday in June.
The production team from BBC were absolutely amazing, incredibly passionate and really made you feel at home in such a far from normal setting that you wouldn’t often put yourself through when going in for investment, but it’s all for TV baby!
After almost 6 hours of going over my pitch and numbers with the lovely make up lady and production team I think I had it nailed. I spent next to no time in my dressing room, opting to be chatting with the other people pitching, finding out about their products and who their target Dragon would be? After filming each entrepreneur gets spirited away so as not to divulge any information to the next in turn.
Above: Me back stage in my dressing room. Lab coat ready to go.
With three pitches down, it was my time to enter and stand in front of the Dragons. Navigating a quick two corners made of stud panel and brick slips, a pulley system mimicking the lift sliding doors separating me and the Dragons (Yes I have just spoiled the illusion of the lift) and I was through, in my best Professor PODS lab coat ready to present.
The pitch went really well, I didn’t stumble and I was pretty happy with it all. The biggest relief was when the Dragons got out of their seats,entered the PODS and got to experience what a child does when they play and relax in the product.
I was expecting brutal questions and generally being torn apart for my invention and business. The harshest thing that was said was Steven Bartlett with his first comment “So Alex, do you have another job?” Ha! The shade! He later went on to say that I don’t have the mindset that he did to get his business to where it got to so quickly… This may be true, but we’re all different and everyone has their own story. He later said that my story and the reason for starting the company through having a disability in the family was beautiful, so I’ll take that from Steve any day.
My reason for designing and coming up with the idea of PODS had inclusivity at its heart. I wanted to produce a safe and calming space that was not only a sensory aid but also a imagination space for all children's imaginative play. To crossover he boundaries of sensory equipment and toys, breaking the mould of expensive products for disabilities and making it a household toy price.
The general consensus was that they thought the product was really cool, but they didn’t understand the sensory and disability market, coupled with my RRP of the original product of £1500 they could clearly see that this would be a tough business to invest in. However, the main reason was to showcase my new prototype (RRP £375) which unfortunately was delayed and was only present through videos and images, unfortunately the Dragons didn’t want to see these and were judging the pitch on the here and the now, which is fair enough. I wanted to take that opportunity and hope that I would get featured and by the time of airing, 9 months later, my new product would be here and in stock.
Towards the end of the 90 minutes (feeling more like half an hour) under the cosh, Peter Jones commented, “Alex, pardon the pun, but you look deflated, where is your head at?”
I replied, “To be honest, I think I’m a year too early”,
“I think you’re right,” he said. But, this could all be so different if we get featured and then maybe, just maybe it will be the perfect timing with the arrival of the new stock and the showing of series 20 across the UK in the spring of 2023. It’s all about taking risks and putting yourself out there, sometimes it can pay off.
Above: Me backstage. The production crew decided not to go with the silk sheet reveal on camera.
If I could do anything again or convey any features in a different way, other than having the un-delayed product in my hands I definitely would. I would have insisted on total blackout from the studio lighting so the glow could really be captured, this unfortunately was out of my hands as to was the tech side, where we tried to run the sound effects through the studio sound system whilst using a portrait TV to showcase how the app side of the product works with the digital and audio features that enhance the immersive experience of PODS.
Touker Suleyman didn’t give me the comment that I was expecting about being able to make PODS for a fraction of my current factory, which surprised me, he did however promote the importance of owning my own IP, which I do but only to the limit of my funds, but didn’t have that kind of money to go through the patenting process, knowing the financial implications through the English Library’s great course on intellectual property and protection and also personally having challenged a patent in the past.
Sarah Davies was pretty much the most relevant Dragon to my product and quizzed me on my numbers, which I made an error. I run my business and I know my numbers, but there is something about being stood up there that caused me to fail at a very simple question about gross profit…it’s school boy stuff. This was immaterial anyway as the high ticket price of the current product was a red flag for all of the Dragons.
On the whole the Dragons were really quite kind and thought the product was really neat and thanked me for bringing in such a fun product as it is refreshing for them to see and experience. I did manage to get a small laugh out of Sara Davies when Peter Jones asked if he were to hypothetically offer me a job with my response “thanks, but no thanks”.
After thanking the Dragons for their time I span and hit the mock elevator button and retraced my steps to the back of house to another mini set to do a post pitch interview. My head was still reeling from what went on and just how strange it all felt. My production assistant and the crew looked so gutted for me, their help, passion and enthusiasm for the product and me was so fantastic and I really felt they were rooting for me from the sidelines watching on with suspense and hope.
From 120+ businesses that pitch, around 70-80 pitches make the edit. So I had two thirds of a chance of making it.
That was June 2022, the 9 months that followed were a mixture of signing off on the prototype and then putting it through toy testing which would open us up to a new market rather than the sensory equipment that the original PODS product was marketed under. It also gave me a deadline of late January to work to, to get the website in order, and maybe even set up a personal Instagram account. To those who know me, I detest social media on a personal level. I'm quite a simple and private person, this is probably the most open I’ve ever been online.
Above: The email campaign advert that was never sent.
Fast forward to late January and I was at my parents’ house, doing some work on my laptop, half wanting to be productive and half not wanting to watch it through nerves. My mum was watching the first episode of the new series in the background when I heard a yelp. Trying to act calm I put down the laptop and asked to rewind it… I don’t know if it was one of those situations when someone rewinds or forward skips the TV and you’re not in control of it, but it seemed like an age. In what seemed like minutes we got it back to the opening credits where Steven Bartlett was pictured sitting in the POD saying “ I wish I had one of these when I was a kid”, in all 2 seconds of its glory. This was it! Action stations, ready the horses, it just got real.
This had to mean that it would be featured, surely?
Above: Steven Bartlett Sitting inside the POD on set. Aired on Epsiode 1, Series 20, BBC Dragons' Den, opening credits.
I begrudgingly made that insta profile, tweaked the website for user experience and most of all made sure that our first batch production was ready and in stock for time of airing, putting the balance on credit cards. This is always risky but I had to be ready for the levels of hits to the website and then relating sales that would follow, I had to ride that wave.
Some weeks passed and I didn’t know if I should be receiving an email or not, I emailed in and was told that I was definitely not featured in the first half of the series which had just been approved. I figured this made sense as my filming was towards the last of the sessions to be shot.
Yet more weeks passed and we had attended our first trade event at The Spring Fair at the NEC launching the new PODSpop to the world, again financed on credit cards, the timing felt perfect. On week 11 of 14 I had the unfortunate news that we were not scheduled to be used but there is still some chance that it could happen. Knowing when I’m being let down gently, I had to quickly draw the line that this isn’t going to happen and will have to continue as per normal, with the only exception being that we can legally state that we have been seen on BBC Dragons’ Den, OK it’s only for 2 seconds but it wasn’t to be. It was gutting, but a really great experience, one that I would thoroughly recommend any entrepreneur to go through if you have your stuff in order and truly believe you have a product that would look great on TV. It is far removed from a normal pitch deck, business plan and chat over a coffee that normal investment meetings consist of, so I’m told anyways!
I keep playing over if I should have made more of a gimmick of the pitch, made it better for viewers at home to make the final cut. I keep thinking that I jinxed it by posting our involvement after our teaser feature on episode 1. Was I too early? Should I have eaten another Weetabix that morning?
Above: The New PODSpop product is available to purchase on the PODS Play store £375.
Since filming so much has happened. The new PODSpop is now in stock with 4 of the most popular interchangeable themes from the PODS range. The product is fully toy certified and the product is now patent pending or applied for.
We’re also super proud to have recently been accepted to work with Innovate Edge, a key part of the UK innovation agency’s investment in innovative businesses. They are helping us with marketing and getting us export ready to receive trade orders from other markets globally.
We have also recently been in talks with a major worldwide brand about licensing our new PODSpop for iconic children’s characters. This is super exciting as one of the characters is my most favourite ever!
The summer is incredibly busy for PODS Play; This July 2nd we are partnering with Parallel Windsor, the festival of inclusivity with challenge events for all ages, we’re sponsoring the car wash tunnel, part of the SuperSensory1K event. We’ll also be found in the mindfulness area with our sensory dome, showcasing a place to chill out and compress. See you there at Windsor Great Park.
The following week sees us partner with the Disability Expo at the ExCel London, 6th & 7th July, providing the Zensory Dome along with the inflatable walls for the fashion show.
We are delighted to have our first sales and distribution agent down under in Australia and having talks with other market representatives alongside.
If you are interested in working with us as an agent, distributor, a licensing partner or even a parent, caregiver or educational professional wanting to experience the magic of PODS then please get in touch today. We’d love to hear from you and to join the adventure.