Paper entrepreneur: in conversation with Dragon’s Den contestant, David Hawcock
The BBC’s Dragons’ Den can be the business opportunity of a lifetime. For Bath-based paper engineer David Hawcock, just appearing on the show sky-rocketed his takings beyond anything he had imagined | Words by Emma Clegg
Paper engineer David Hawcock pitched his business idea in the new series of Dragon’s Den at the end of January. He was seeking a deal for his pop-up versions of two classic games, a Pop-Up Chess Set and a Pop-Up Row of Four. Seeking £40,000 for 20% equity, four of the five Dragons – Peter Jones, Deborah Meaden, Sara Davies and Touker Suleyman – made him offers. He finally went with a joint offer from Peter Jones and Touker Suleyman.
Hawcock’s ingenious chess set was the focus of his presentation in the Den. The game, made from cardboard, folds out from a flat cover into a 3D chessboard and you can stop or continue the game whenever you like by folding it up, so it can be used as a travel set or as a game that can be easily stored flat. Made entirely of paper and card, no plastic is involved and it is recyclable. David also explained that his business idea was not just for the chess set and row of four, but that it would develop into a classic range of games for all ages.
Programme viewers see the often intense interchanges between the Dragons and aspiring entrepreneurs pitching their business ideas in the Den in what perhaps airs as a ten-minute episode slot, but David explains that both before and during filming the day was a long haul. “It is quite a febrile atmosphere back behind the Den. I had a seven o’clock call but then I didn’t do my pitch until midday and it then went on for nearly two hours.”
Steven Bartlett, the Dragon who didn’t make an offer, in the programme challenges David quite early on. David says, however, that Steven was very involved with the idea for much of his time in the Den, but the editing meant that it was only his conclusions before declaring himself ‘out’ that were aired. “Steven Bartlett was very entertaining in the Den when they were all offering – he was very amused by the way it was going. I felt quite confident I’d get an offer, and I wasn’t asking for a huge amount, but I was surprised that there were four and that derailed my thinking a little at the end.”
David – who has run his paper engineering business since the late 1980s – clearly has many years of business experience and came across as calm, direct and well-prepared. Yet he had a moment after the first part of his pitch when he dried up, but with Deborah Meaden’s encouragement – “Do you want to tell us how much you want and what percentage?” – he quickly established a strong position. Especially so after Peter Jones’s comment: “I’m absolutely, genuinely blown away – even if I tip it up, whatever I do, it is stable … this, I think, is exceptional.”
“After the initial brain freeze it was all very positive,” says David. “I never felt under pressure. Then when Peter Jones came in with an offer quite early, I knew I’d won as it were.”
David did a graphic design and photography degree “back in the mists of time” in York and Newcastle. When he graduated he went down to London with a portfolio, couldn’t get a job, so started freelancing building models and working as a model maker.
“I hit the ground running, really. I started working with a book packager and they had just lost a paper engineer who had left the company and had been working on pop-up books and they needed someone to unpick a lot of his work. So I learnt very quickly by taking apart the work, working out what this paper engineer had done and making them all work again. After that I was able to develop my own ideas. I have always had lots of ideas, so once you have a few contacts it’s relatively easy to get work.”
Since then David has balanced a constant stream of publishing projects which include Inventions: Leonardo Da Vinci (Walker Books), The Amazing Pull-Out Pop-Up Body in a Book (DK Amazing Pop-Up Books) and The Walking Dead: The Pop-Up Book (Insight Editions), as well as pop-up concert tour programmes for Genesis and Duran Duran. He also works for film and advertising with projects such as the spectacular pop-up book of London created for a scene in Paddington 2 (as well as paper landscapes of London within which Paddington is filmed); a book for a Kelloggs advert (2019) telling the story of how its cereal goes from seed to finished product; and a Compare the Market animation (2021) where a series of paper structures was created to inspire the digital advertising team.
When I ask about the appeal of creating a pop-up construction, David says, “I just like making things. Every job is different and although the end product is mass-produced, it is a very hand-crafted process. That’s what I like about it. It’s also immediate so I can make something like that quite quickly, as opposed to the lengthier process of making something out of wood or metal. There are a lot of very complicated pop-up books out there, and the tradition goes back to the Victorian era, so you can basically do anything if you work with a printer and a manufacturer.”
“When starting a pop-up, I build up a lot of visual reference and I then cut out all the pieces of paper and stick them together to see how they work. Then when it’s looking approximately okay I take it apart and scan all the pieces into the computer, fine-tune the elements and then we print it out and test it that way.”
David mostly works collaboratively with an illustrator who starts by producing thumbnail sketches before David develops the engineered design and then he works with the illustrator to create the final cardboard elements. “Alternately I’ll work something up that is quite well developed, and then I will send those to the illustrator and he will do his work and I will adapt it to his illustrations.”
David has not yet started working actively with his chosen Dragons – negotiations are still ongoing – but success has already hit, because having ordered a significant print run of both pop-up games in anticipation, on the evening of the Dragons’ Den episode David’s Infinite Jest website was overloaded with customers. “We ran out of the chess set that same evening. My website got battered on the night with 30,000 visitors in 10 minutes, so we sold everything that same day and had additional back orders to fulfil.”
“I would hazard a guess that you are one of the best people in the world at doing this”, said Sara Davies in the Den. “One of three or four of the best, yes”, responded David. The honesty and confidence was highly convincing, to the Dragons and the viewing public alike.
You can see Dragons’ Den on BBC iPlayer (bbc.co.uk/iplayer). David Hawcock appears in series 20, episode 4. Pop-Up Chess Set, £16.99 and Pop-Up Row of Four £16.99: David Hawcock, Infinite Jest | hawcockbooks.co.uk
Featured image:David Hawcock pitching on Dragons’ Den