2022 was the year an Old Dragon entered the Dragons’ Den and came out with two offers of investment. Giles Atwell (OD 1987, Current Parent) along with his friend and business partner, Steve Russell, knew that ‘fresh chocolate’ was a big new idea and that swapping palm oil for organic fresh cream made their chocolates taste “ridiculously good”. They were approached by the BBC show Dragons’ Den in March 2021, and after giving it a lot of thought, they concluded, “What do we have to lose?”
Giles spoke to the Dragon about their brand-new business and his journey from Dragon School to Dragons’ Den.
In 1983 when our family chocolate business moved from London to Banbury, I started at the Dragon in D Block. Michael Harrison was the first of many teachers to struggle with my spidery handwriting. I enjoyed the relaxed ethos of the school and, coming from London, the seemingly endless space to run around. At the Dragon, I learnt confidence and the power of raising a smile from the balloon debates; skills which have stood me in good stead ever since.
Fast-forward 20 years through Shrewsbury, UCL, and a career with Unilever, then Cadbury/Kraft/Mondelez (mostly in chocolate), living on four continents, marrying Becky and having two kids and in 2016 we finally returned to Oxford.
Our son Ben (now A Block) started at Lynams and I joined Godiva where I met the wonderful chocolatier, Steve Russell. We both realised we wanted to break out of corporate life and disrupt the market we knew so well.
After nine months of prototyping (thanks to Dragon parents who helped with the tasting), ‘Russell and Atwell’ was born out of the insight that ‘everything tastes better fresh’. This led us to swap palm oil for organic fresh cream and make truly ‘fresh’ chocolates that need to be kept in the fridge and eaten in a couple of weeks – if they last that long!
We launched on ‘Kickstarter’ in September 2020, and within 48 hours become the no 1 ‘most popular’ food project in the world. The BBC spotted us and in March 2021 approached us to audition for Dragons’ Den. After initial hesitation, we took the plunge. Several auditions and multiple documents later, we found ourselves in a BBC Manchester studio on a warm June day.
Surrounded by cameras to record every little twitch and nervous glance, we resolved to enjoy ourselves and stepped out of the lift. After a 90-minute grilling, we got five offers, almost lost all of them after a cheeky counteroffer, and finally settled on Peter Jones for ‘offline’ and Steven Bartlett for ‘online’.
We then had to keep it secret for nine months (even from our children) while we moved to a bigger office, bought a cool room, and made a lot of chocolate.
We thought we were prepared for airing on 10th March 2021 – we weren’t. We sold two years’ worth of chocolate in two hours, way above even the most optimistic estimates. Four days later, we had to close the site to new orders and have been frantically making and sending chocolates ever since. Our business has changed beyond recognition, and we are now racing to scale-up supply.
I’m relieved that our 14 minutes of fame are over and grateful for all the support from our customers, friends and family including Dragon parents, and past and present teachers. Those Dragon School debating skills definitely came in handy in the Den (and we should have more chocolates back in stock soon!).
Giles Atwell (OD 1987)