Dragons – All smoke and fire

This was first published in Bdaily Business News on 26th August 2014.

It’s a flaming mess

In their infinite arrogant wisdom, the “Dragons” in the latest series of BBC2’s well-known entrepreneurial roasting session Dragon’s Den recently turned down Richard and Lynn Bye’s request for investment in their cycling apparel business “Fat Lad At The Back”, otherwise known as “FLAB”.

The Byes spotted an opportunity in the market for cycle clothing made to fit the average male who cycles rather than the skinny whippets who dominate the professional end of the sport. The average male has a 42 inch chest and a 38 inch waist – in tight fitting lycra they look like a trussed up chicken. Fat Lad At the Back is primarily designed for the fuller figure. The Dragons believed that the ‘FLAB’ concept would be too limited in appeal and the larger sized clothing was too easily replicated by the big brands.

They were wrong. Not because the kit is either good or bad – that’s for you to judge – but because they were blind to the bigger picture that lays behind the concept.

I am where I am…

The FLAB concept got me thinking. It seemed to me the Byes are tapping into the zeitgeist. In any race there can only be one winner, the rest of us are the ‘also-rans’. In a business there is only one CEO, the rest of us are subordinates. In class, there was always one or more children brighter than us. Life is a layer cake, there is always someone above us, better than us. It doesn’t stop us aspiring to be the winner or the CEO or the top in the class. The FLAB concept simply states “I know I am not going to win or be the best, but I am here and giving it a go and I’m ok with that.”

It’s a philosophy I can relate to. My body fat is in single figures, my cycling performance is well above average, I ride distances most people would think twice about before driving and yet there are still plenty of people faster than me and who ride further. I’m ok with that. I am, within my cycling peers, the Fat Lad At the Back. FLAB then, is a relative concept. It could be just as easily expressed as ‘I am where I am’, but I guess that doesn’t have the same catchy name as FLAB.

The brutal facts

Jim Collins in his excellent book ‘Good to Great’ talked about Admiral Stockdale as an example of what he meant by ‘facing the brutal facts’. Admiral Stockdale was held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. He believed the key to survival was to face the brutal facts of your situation and hold onto the faith that you will prevail. The brutal facts are that as a population we are overweight and unfit. Recognising you are fat but getting out there and riding your bike is to both face the brutal facts and hold faith that you can do something about your health and well-being. If you are prepared to wear kit that states you are the ‘Fat Lad At the Back’ then you have faced the ‘brutal facts’. That’s surely a sign of strength.

The illusion of performance

The amateur sports person is seduced by marketing into the need for the latest sports drink, the lightest bike, the fastest wheels and the best kit. All of these things contribute the type of marginal differences to performance the British Cycling Squad have made famous through their success. For most of us, even supposing we could achieve the performance gains promised through such kit, the result would be the difference between being 125th in a field of 600 riders rather than 129th. In other words it’s almost wholly irrelevant. It’s an illusion of progress where none really exists. We could achieve far more by simply losing two or three kilogrammes of weight or by investing a few more hours a week following a proper training plan – these are the brutal facts.

Instead, the FLAB philosophy implies, ‘keep the dream alive, focus on what you want to achieve, get out there and get stuck in, and be comfortable with your starting point’. It’s the same in other spheres of life too. That faster computer processer, or extra bit of functionality might be appealing, but in reality it will make next to no difference to what we do every day. We could probably get far more improvement by taking a bit more time to think through our entire approach in the first instance.

It’s emotional

Had the Dragons taken the time to explore the response and reaction to the world of FLAB they would have found it is developing a cult following. Active groups on Facebook and a club on popular sports app Strava. No other cycling brand seems to have created the same sense of emotional attachment. It’s akin to those who become obsessed by having everything ‘Apple’. Sadly, as with all clubs, there are those who are so literal in the interpretation that they think anyone thin wearing the kit is wrong. They, like the Dragons, are missing the point.

All fire and smoke…

The trouble with Dragons in general is that they are brilliant at violent defence of a position or the savage destruction of countryside, but there aren’t many tales of philosophical Dragons able to stand back and see a bigger picture. The Dragon’s Den protagonists are part of an overall problem in this country that views business successes as money-grabbing, profit-fixated, ‘couldn’t care less’ monsters. Whereas the reality is that business creates the wealth that fuels the country and is filled with thousands and thousands of people who do give a damn about what they do and are passionate in their beliefs. Business is not a pejorative term. Although let’s be honest, watching Dragons in action is entertaining.

The lessons

The process of reflecting on the failure of FLAB to secure funding for their kit leads me to four lessons:

1) In order to improve you have to be in the game. Don’t just talk about it, get out there and do it, no matter what your starting point.

2) You are where you are. Face the brutal facts of your position. If you’re at the back at least you are out there in the game. That’s more than most people will ever do.

3) No matter how much you improve, at each level you will become the Fat Lad At the Back of the next group – that’s just the way it is. The fun is in the continuous improvement and personal mastery.

4) Being a Dragon is just one perspective. If your only tool is a sword all you will see are fights. Stand back and reflect. There’s probably another perspective in there somewhere worth thinking about.

The challenge for the FLAB team now is can they see the broader potential for their brand and the philosophy that underpins it – or will they too become too bound up in the narrow perspective that constrained the Dragons. Time will tell.

Dominic Irvine August 2014 All rights asserted.

Read our article on the complexity of high performance here and you may also be interested in reading Dom’s views on failing.  We have created Career Development programmes for our clients and you can read about one of them here.