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Nine to Fido: With Nutritious Dog Snack Company Billy + Margot

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It’s been a while since our last Nine To Fido but we’re delighted to share our interview with Dragon’s Den success story – Marie Sawle, Founder and Managing Director of nutritious dog snack company Billy + Margot. Marie launched her first product – iced treats for dogs - in March 2012 at Crufts and hasn’t looked back since.

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We're guessing that the name Billy + Margot has something do with a doggy companion past or present?
Spot on! My partner and I both come from 'doggy' families but with our various work commitments we hadn't managed to have our own dog. However, Andrew owns his own business so when I decided to work for him, we realised bringing a dog to work was now an option. Within days we had a gorgeous little black puppy Lab – Billy! He was a bit of a mummy's boy and we developed a very strong bond. Six years on we decided to give him a little four-legged sister and that’s when Margot came into our lives. Billy had been an only ‘child’ for so long that he instantly became jealous but it wasn't long before they became inseparable. Margot was very pretty as a puppy and she’s grown into a gorgeous dog. Billy was brains; Margot had the looks! Sadly, in October 2010 when Billy was only six years old he tragically and suddenly died. We grieved him for long time but in June 2011, we brought puppy Louis into the fold. Margot is now three and Louis two, and they’re devoted to one another. They have totally different personalities and make us laugh everyday.  They’re also delighted to be 'chief tasters' for all our products. 

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Ice cream for dogs is a pretty novel concept. How did you come up with the idea? 
An ice cream van used to visit our place of work and Billy being a typical greedy Lab was always begging for a soft cone. At the time I was re-training as a Nutritionist and being health conscious I wasn't keen on letting him eat something non-dog, however, I knew that he liked its’ cooling effect. Billy had a thick coat and suffered badly on hot days so I started to make him homemade iced treats made from a broth of bones and vegetables. I’d pop the both in the freezer in a big block and take it out so he could enjoy a cooling and tasty lick! Once friends found out they started to ask me to make it for their dogs. I quickly realised I had a great idea on my hands, which was commercially viable.  After a long period of development, research, testing and training I decided to give up my job and launch Billy + Margot. It is the best decision I’ve ever made!  

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You showcased the ice-treats on Dragon's Den. How did that come about?
My father passed in 2011 and left me a small inheritance, which enabled me to start the business. However, I knew that I’d need more funds to turn my venture into a sizeable and serious business. I often watched episodes of Dragons Den and I liked the idea of working with someone who had great business experience. I think I also wanted validation from the Dragons that my idea was commercially sound - I knew I could count on them if it wasn’t! So one cold January evening, I filled the application online and after a period of interviews and pre-filming, I received word in February that I’d been picked for the live show. What I didn’t expect was that filming would take place mid-March just two days after our launch at Crufts. Standing under the bright lights of the camera I was so nervous but as soon as I started my pitch the nerves disappeared.

The experience was not without drama – a tub of melted product spilt over Hilary Devey’s legs and skirts, my mind went blank when Peter Jones quizzed me on figures and Margot decided to flip onto back, legs in the air and go to sleep! The male Dragons didn’t warm to the idea but both Hilary and Deborah Meaden made an offer. Thankful as I was for Hilary’s interest and support, I’d always hoped to go into business with Deborah, as I knew all about her work with the Dog’s Trust, her fondness for animals and penchant for investing in ‘Women in business’. I knew she could really help me develop my brand. The whole thing was an intense and stressful period of my life, and one I’m glad I’ll not have to repeat.

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We met Deborah Meaden at the Dogs Trust Honours Awards last year. She seems like a very nice ‘dragon’.
She sometimes has a reputation of being a tough dragon but in real life she’s nothing like it. She’s a lovely person to work with and of course like me, Deborah loves animals. I love that she’s straight talking just like me. She also has a knack at making you feel like your business is the only one she’s invested in even though she’s busy with many investments. I definitely have the best dragon!

For a dog lover, a business focused around dogs is a pretty enviable career. Would you agree?
Wholeheartedly. Although I work long hours, I’m lucky to have been able to set the business up from home in the beautiful surroundings of the Hampshire countryside meaning that Louis and Margot are with me most of the time. My day normally starts at 7.30am with an hour long walk in the local woods with my friend Anne and her Border Terrier Hector; I’m then usually ready for the day ahead at 9am. This can involve anything from developing new products (my favourite bit), meeting with our suppliers or stockists, boring but necessary admin work, accounting, answering emails, planning shows and advertising campaigns and of course meeting with my investor Deborah Meaden on a regular basis.

I have one other employee Harriet, who’s my Sales Executive. She works in another room so the dogs often wander between our offices or the garden. If I have to go to a meeting they either stay with Harriet or go to work with their daddy where they get completely spoilt. If I’m away for longer at shows, they tend to stay with our wonderful dogs sitters Dave & Jane after coming back to us completely exhausted from endless playtime - they have a pretty amazing life and I make sure of that. Sometimes if I go to an event I’ll take Margot with me, as she is very sociable and loves all the attention. We recently filmed with Joe Inglis on Vets Kitchen TV and Margot will be in front of the camera with me. She’s definitely more relaxed than I am.

You've recently branched out into other tasty treats - all of which are very popular with Barkarama's in-house re-pawter Basil. Tell us more.
Although the iced treats are available all year round, they’re most popular in summer so it was important for the business’ survival to introduce other complementary treats. The first of which was a range of air-dried venison treats sourced and produced in the UK –a very important requirement for B+M, as I like to know exactly where things comes from and how they’re made.  I always choose the best quality ingredients and it's very simple: 'If I can't feed it to my dogs, I simply don't produce it'.  We also launched doggy popcorn earlier on in the year, which is just like popcorn you or I would eat but produced to nutritionally sound for dogs.

***BARKARAMA EXCLUSIVE: in September we’ll be launching a range of nutritious training biscuits in the same flavours as the iced treats - Strawberry & Apple, Apple, Banana and Carrot and Honey & Banana - using pure fruit. We’ve also got some exciting plans for Christmas in the shape of crackers so make a note for your wish list!

If someone wanted to follow in your footsteps, what advice would you give them?
Do your research and understand your market. Don't be afraid of failure or you’ll live with regrets.

For more information and to browse their range of delicious and nutritious dog treats visit BillyandMargot.com. Get social at Billy and Margot on Facebook and @BillyandMargot on Twitter.

Has your dog tried any of Billy + Margot’s treats? Which ones? What are their favourites?

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