Trying to talk to Sarah Willingham without saying “success” is like trying to eat a doughnut without licking your lips. And when the inevitable happens during the first few seconds of our conversation, the Dragon’s Den star does what comes naturally to her – and in her warm and charismatic manner, she takes control and sets the agenda.
“Can I say something about success?” she asks, determined to rid a troublesome bee from her bonnet. “The only person who can define success is you. Success is nothing to do with what other people think. It’s personal. It’s where your dreams – whatever they are – meet reality. For me, I wanted to control my diary, enjoy life, travel and, above all, be a mum. Making those things happen is what success was for me. But another person’s success will be something else.”
As we’ll find out, the idea that success is internal rather than external is fundamental to this serial entrepreneur. To paraphrase her, you don’t automatically ‘make it’ when your bank balance reaches a certain level or when you board your luxury yacht for the first time. In reality, you only achieve success when you hit the targets you’ve set for yourself.
“While we’re at it,” she continues, on a roll now, “I’d like to say something about the idea of ‘doing something you’re really passionate about’ too. Let’s get real. It’s a nice thing to say if you’ve got cash in the bank and can afford to chill out a bit. But actually, doing something you’re passionate about is a middle-class luxury. Yes, do something you enjoy if possible, and don’t do something you hate, but by Christ do something you’re good at.”
That philosophy has certainly been effective for the 47-year-old mother of four. Early in her career she excelled working for Planet Hollywood and Pizza Express; then, in 2003, she forged her own path and became the driving force behind The Bombay Bicycle Club, building the UK’s most successful Indian restaurant chain. In 2004, she co-founded Neutrahealth and floated it on the London Stock Exchange. And in 2010 she invested in London Cocktail Club (which she now jointly owns) and has watched it grow from zero to ten bars (so far). In 2016, she was named one of the 500 Most Influential People in Britain by The Sunday Times. And in 2021 she co-founded Nightcap plc (more on that later).
All in all, not bad for an ambitious, young waitress from Stoke-on-Trent.
“I’ve worked in restaurants since the age of 13,” she says. “I loved it because it’s sociable, I was good at it, and I got great tips. I always had a pound in my pocket while growing up. I had proper working-class grafter parents – great parents. They wanted me to get a job, work my way up and get a decent pension 30 years later. That was how I was brought up.”
But a job for life and steady pension were never going to satisfy a confessed “lover of change and chaos”. This waitress was going to travel, have fun and make waves. Just how big those waves would get was hard to predict. But watching Sarah go from a bar job to the Pizza Express board of directors gave her friends and colleagues a big clue.
“After studying business at university in the UK, I did a second business degree in France to try to get the travel bug out of my system. I had a banking job lined up in the City but meanwhile worked as a runner on the Paris Stock Exchange and as a waitress in a bar, The Frog & Rosbif. Mine was a Sunday shift when the rugby was on and the place was rammed. Nobody kept the tips, but drinks were free during the week – which as a 21-year-old, I thought was a cracking deal!
“The guys who had helped to open the Frog & Rosbif’s were working on opening a second place – Planet Hollywood on the Champs-Élysées. The Americans had flown in and locked horns with the French team, so they asked my bosses for help. They sent me in, and I loved it. I acted as mediator, translator and organiser, and oversaw the project. On opening day, the American vice-president said: ‘Thanks so much for all your help, Sarah. But you never translated a word I said over the past ten weeks, did you?’ And he was spot on because if I’d translated him literally, the site wouldn’t have opened. The French would have just walked off!”
Unsurprisingly, Planet Hollywood offered Sarah a job on its Euro Disney site, which she took after dumping her banking job offer. “I thought I love this and I’m good at it. Why am I contemplating working in a bank?” Soon she was working at the brand’s European HQ in London, starting to think about what to do next.
As usual, she took control – armed with nothing but scissors, a copy of the FT and a landline. She explains: “I remember sitting at my desk – I must have been 24 – and going out to buy the FT thinking ‘I’m so clever’. I didn’t understand much of it but I saw two articles. One was about Pizza Express – Hugh Osmond and Luke Johnson had just floated the business on the stock exchange and I was fascinated, so I cut it out. The other was about Pret a Manger expanding in the UK, which I also cut out. Next, I phoned both companies and said, look, this is what I do, I’d like to open your sites abroad. How about it? Pret were like: who is this insane woman? But Pizza Express invited me in and I got a job leading their European expansion.”
If you don’t ask, you don’t get – Sarah had proved the rule. And it wasn’t long before she proved the adage yet again. “What I did next changed my life because it turned me into an entrepreneur,” she says. “After working at Pizza Express for a while, I went to the board and told them I was planning to leave to join a company more focused on international development. They responded by inviting me to join the board and work on special projects. I agreed. It was a pivotal moment because I began sharing an office with the then Chairman, David Page. David was brilliant at property and opening sites and excellent at City and investor relations. I was like a sponge. What I learned most of all was the art of value creation – not just making money but fundamentally creating value in a business. That’s very different from creating cash flow. And after asking thousands of questions, I was like, great; now I get it; I really understand what you do and how you’ve done it. And now I’m going to do it myself. I was in my late 20s by this point and wanted a family but I wasn’t in control of my diary, so I needed more freedom.”
In 2003, Sarah spotted an opportunity to turn The Bombay Bicycle Club into a chain and devised a business plan. She went back to the Pizza Express board and asked them to back her new project, but they declined. “They said no, we do pizzas – so I left.”
This bold move and the reasoning behind it – to gain more freedom and have kids – provides a valuable insight into Sarah’s modus operandi. The Dragon never sacrifices her life aims for career goals but instead moulds her career to fit her life. Tellingly, this has not led to fewer personal achievements but, arguably, more. “What I always find interesting is that everyone always talks about a career path,” she says. “I never had a career path or a plan – nothing – but I’ve always had a life path and life goals. I’ve made my career decisions fit that. That’s why it’s worked.”
She continues: “During my twenties, the path I took didn’t make me money or give me freedom, but I learned loads. It also gave me something I wanted at the time – a fantastic social life and the ability to travel. It was great. I loved it. But by my late 20s I needed more freedom. And I needed cash to be properly free. How the hell was I going to get that?”
The answer was The Bombay Bicycle Club. After leaving Pizza Express, she raised finance to buy the fledgling restaurant brand to turn it into the largest and most successful Indian restaurant chain in the UK. She structured her new business – using all the lessons she’d learned – so that she would make good money. “I thought, I’m going to control the outcome of this,” she says. “If I fail, it’s my failing. If I succeed, it’s my success.”
Her success was rarely in doubt. Sarah sold the business in 2008, having achieved her aim. “The reason I exited was, again, personal. I’d had my second baby – in total I had four in four years, so I always had a toddler! I’d put my baby sling on and off I’d go. You could do that with a baby, but it meant always leaving a toddler behind. I also had 1,500 staff, so I felt I had too many people reliant on me getting up in the morning. That’s what made me sell. I needed to restructure my life so the only people reliant on me were my kids and my husband. That was a big shift in thinking, but it was right for the next phase of my life.”
Yet again, Sarah shaped her work to fit her life – which is perhaps this entrepreneur’s golden rule. However, she adds: “Obviously there have been compromises on either side. Could I have done more in my career? Probably. Could I have cooked more meals for my kids? Probably. So, success for me is about finding balance. Nobody else can tell me whether my life is going well or not – only I know. And I’m lucky that I can feel when it’s ‘right’ in my tummy. When my tummy says it’s wrong, I change it straight away, no questions asked.”
Another Willingham Golden Rule is to know what you’re good at and stick to it – but also to understand what you need help with. “Surround yourself with brilliant people,” she advises. “Aim to be the most stupid person in the room. If you are, you’ve made it! It’s funny because I don’t see myself as a serial entrepreneur, really. I see entrepreneurs as people who start stuff. I’m not great at starting stuff. Give me a blank sheet of paper and I’ll just stare at it! But give me a piece of paper with three or four lines on it and I’ll visualise an amazing novel.”
Since exiting The Bombay Bicycle Club, Sarah has continued to listen to her gut and thrive, which in 2015 led to an invitation to become a Dragon, an experience she talks about with typical honesty and compassion. “I loved the Den – what an experience,” she says. “I was terrified at first, though. I thought I was going to vomit! I stood in front of the chairs and thought: ‘Oh my God. If I’m this scared, what’s the pitcher going feel like?’ And I told myself to remember that feeling and give people a massive smile when they walked in to put them at ease.”
Perhaps the best investment opportunity to come out of the Den, according to Sarah, is Craft Gin Club. “It’s a phenomenal business and growing exponentially,” she says, “so I’m really proud and grateful to have been part of their journey. Sublime Science was an amazing investment too. We sold it in 2018 for five times our investment.”
Looking forward, the mum-of-four has plenty to keep her busy. In addition to her global investments across myriad industries, in 2021 she and her husband launched (and listed) Nightcap plc. The aim of Nightcap – whose first acquisition was London Cocktail Club – is to take advantage of the current unique business landscape.
“I don’t think we’ll see anything like this again in my lifetime in terms of what lies ahead over the next three years. I think there’ll be unprecedented demand – people will want to socialise like never before. Also, the opportunity from a business perspective is interesting because many fundamentally sound businesses will have no money to grow. They will have to put the brakes on completely, probably for three years while they recapitalise. At Nightcap we want to work with these great entrepreneurs and businesses to provide capital. And in property terms – I’ve never seen opportunities like this.”
Whatever the future holds, you can be sure of one thing: this investor, entrepreneur and whirlwind of positivity will set her own targets and succeed on her own terms.
She concludes: “Setting the goal and allowing the journey to find its way is something I’ve learned works for me. I always say to my kids: you’re 95% there if you can make the decision. Getting there isn’t the problem; deciding what you want is the hard bit. And I don’t mean deciding that you want to make £10m. That type of goal doesn’t work. It’s about deciding to aim for something that you feel deeply about. The goal attracts the arrow.”
Sarah’s story and its insights act as a timely reminder that success does not come from ticking off a list of standardised, media-friendly, clichéd goals. Only by thinking deeply about what you truly want in life will you make the right moves and hit your targets. One of this entrepreneur’s greatest gifts is to know instinctively what she wants – which is why setting the agenda and taking control comes as easily to her as sipping an ice-cold G ‘n’ T.