I met up with Neil Westwood from Magic Whiteboard at the recent CIPD Learning and Development Exhibition.

Do you remember Neil?

He is the entrepreneur who – alongside his wife Laura – ­entered the intimidating atmosphere of the BBC’s Dragons’ Den and walked away with an investment of 100k from Deborah Meaden and Theo Phaphitis.

Two other Dragons ­- Duncan Bannatyne and James Caan -­ also wanted in on the deal but missed out. Peter Jones had reservations saying ‘It’s ridiculous, I’m out’.

The experience has changed Neil and Laura’s life and those of the people around them including his two Dragon investors. Magic Whiteboard is the most successful investment ever in the history of the BBC series.

Neil very kindly agreed to discuss his entrepreneurial experience with me and in the course of our interview he offered an insight into the Magic Whiteboard journey and some top tips for other budding entrepreneurs.

The Winning Formula ‘Journey’ Interview

Q1. What is the Magic Whiteboard proposition all about?

“Magic Whiteboard is a portable whiteboard on a roll. It can be created in seconds and combines the best bits of flipchart paper with a traditional whiteboard. It is perfect for presentations, conferences, training events, team meetings and group work.

The brand is supported by a range of accessories and other products including Magic Clearboard, Magic Blackboard and Blackout Blind.

They can be purchased from our online website www.magicwhiteboard.co.uk and many retailers including Ryman Stationery and Sainsbury’s.”

Q2. What aspects of your background have helped you on the journey?

“I worked as a trainer for the local NHS hospital and spent a lot of my time on change management and process improvement work. Reducing wastage, improving efficiency and innovation formed a major part of my day-to-day role. The skills developed and the experience gained has helped me a great deal in our own business.

Problem solving was a personal strength of mine. When we encountered them, I would always go direct to the source, identify the issues and would work with individuals to arrive at a solution. In change management you get used to hassle and confrontation, but I would always find a way to get things done.

Also as a young kid at school, I was always selling things and although I never considered myself an entrepreneur I had an eye for an opportunity and I quickly developed selling skills without realising it.

Selling, quality, innovation and efficiency are important to the success of Magic Whiteboard.”

Q3. What was the catalyst to beginning your current journey?

“Laura and I started the business with £1,000. We traded from our bedroom whilst still in full time work. We did everything ourselves. Our garage was the warehouse and our delivery service consisted of a walk to the post office every day. The business operated part-time and we sold 45k worth of product in the first year. I remember thinking to myself “we could sell millions of these”.

Redundancies were being announced at work. I was paid a good salary (65K a year) at the time and we also had a baby on the way. We were both giving up good pensions and a career in a recession.

I was fed up at work and I always wanted to work for myself. I knew we had a business in us and I realised that potentially there was an opportunity to build a serious business with Magic Whiteboard.

It was a huge decision to make to go out on our own but I knew it was the right thing to do.”

Q4. What did your business plan look like?

“To be honest we didn’t have a business plan. In fact we had to produce one in order to enter the Dragon’s Den. Prior to that we were just getting on with the business.

We didn’t want to take a loan out. The business was self funded from the start.

We found a manufacturer prepared to produce the product. We sent them £1,000. They sent us the stock. We sold it. We made a profit. We re-invested in more stock. We sold more. Same process all over again. Our turnover in the first year was the tip of the iceberg.

We didn’t have the time and to be honest I couldn’t see the benefit in having a business plan. I knew my market. We always kept an eye on our costs and although we were ambitious, we were responsible in every aspect of building the business particularly in the early days.

We have been profitable since day one, something I am particularly proud of.”

Q5. What have been the main challenges facing you on the journey?

I didn’t embark on the journey with any particular fear. Challenges are part and parcel of being in business. I was always hardworking and persistent and I was prepared to do what was necessary to make Magic Whiteboard a success.

I knew as a trainer that there was a market for the whiteboard. I just had to get on with it.

Finding the right manufacturer, protecting our brand and making the transition from a start-up to a proper business have been our main challenges. We’ve handled each challenge extremely well.

Q6. What support and help have you received on the journey?

“Laura and I support each other on the journey. My mum and dad have helped us over the years. Friends have played a part and now of course we have Deborah Meaden and Theo Phaphitis on board as partners.

It was important to us that we had a partner on board capable of helping us accelerate the growth of the business and maximise the potential of the product. Their experience and expertise has helped us enormously. They enabled us to rollout our new products quicker and also help us to open up some new distribution channels.

I wouldn’t say that they have highlighted anything that we didn’t know in the business. I knew we could sell a lot. The main benefit to us is our accessibility to them if we need help, and thankfully we don’t call on them too often.

We manage the business and they like it that way.”

Q7. What is your vision for Magic Whiteboard?

“It is simple and straightforward really. We want to keep selling more.

The market potential for our product range is huge. We have recently opened up in France and have plans to export across many more countries in the near future.

In the retail sector Sainsbury’s have recently stocked our products in 75 stores.

Although we sell hundreds of thousands of products, I am always meeting people who haven’t heard of Magic Whiteboard, who love the product and who are prepared to buy it.

We regularly sell out at the trade fairs and exhibitions we attend.”

Q8. How would you describe the journey?

“Surprising, exciting and fulfilling. Each day brings something new on the journey.

I have also recently been asked to support other budding entrepreneurs with Dragons-Den type advice. Although I am fairly new to the advisory world, I believe I can offer valuable input to others and the early reaction has been hugely positive.”

Q9. What advice would you give to anyone thinking of embarking on their own journey?

“Five pieces of advice

1. Do it for yourself. If you’re hardworking, why not?

2. You have a better chance of success if you can solve a problem

3. Ensure that your commercial proposition is simple and easy to understand

4. Keep an eye on the costs and the margin at all times

5. Know your market.

Oh and if you want to impress the Dragons in the Den, prepare to be honest and open about the business. The TV series may highlight a few minutes of edited coverage. Don’t be fooled. We received a grilling from them which lasted over three hours.”

Q10. What next on the journey?

“More of the same I hope. New opportunities, more countries, increased distribution, increased sales, increased profit. Family time and fun.”

Summary

Neil’s journey is unique to him and in some ways similar to other entrepreneurs I have worked with. Passion, persistence and at times bloody mindedness drives them on to deliver success in their chosen market.

I admire his straightforward, no-nonsense approach to the world of business – a trait of many successful entrepreneurs. Simplicity forms an important part of his strategy, customer proposition and leadership of the Magic Whiteboard business. He is an entrepreneur brimming with commonsense, humility and integrity.

There a lot more to come from this Dragon’s Den winner.

Best wishes on your journey, wherever it may take you.

John

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