THEY were the businessmen rejected by the Dragons’ Den millionaires and warned they would never hit the big time.
But Ray Duffy, Chris O'Nyan and Dean Walton are having the last laugh because their novelty facemask company, Mask-arade, is now worth a whopping £750,000.
The owners of the Warwickshire-based firm appeared on the TV show a year ago when they tried to win £50,000 investment from the Dragons. In return they were offering 10 per cent of their company, which had just started making personalised and celebrity facemasks.
But loaded James Caan scoffed at their valuation, claiming he would not see any profit for 30 years, and the men walked out of the Den empty-handed.
Now Ray has revealed that business has been booming ever since - and it is all thanks to the Dragons.
"When we went on the show it boosted our profile and we started getting more and more calls,'' said the Southam-based businessman. ‘‘It really helped to get our name out there.
‘‘On the show we predicted our company would be worth £500,000 after three years. In fact, it's worth £250,000 more than that figure within just one year."
Mask-arade has an army of celebrity fans after the owners collected more than 150 signed masks from the likes of former US President George Bush, Prime Minister David Cameron and opera singer Placedo Domingo.
They mail the facemasks to far away public figures or celebrities and ‘ambush' others in the flesh. "So far all the stars have loved the masks," Ray laughed. "No one has said that's an awful idea and they all sign the masks for us. They find it really funny."
Their clever tactics have even led to some celebs bulk ordering their own faces.
"Placido Domingo decided to buy quite a few of himself for a party he was throwing,'' said Ray. ‘‘And Geri Halliwell has ordered a load of Marilyn Monroe for a bash she's throwing this weekend. Some have even taken the masks on to the stage with them."
Even some of the Dragons have been ‘Mask-araded'.
"We got Theo Paphitis before we even went on the show at a business event,'' said Ray. ‘‘And we met James Caan soon after our TV appearance and he happily posed for a photo - although he didn't say he regretted not investing in us."
The idea for the masks, which cost £3.56 for a personalised one and £3.50 for a celebrity face, came from Great Barr-born Chris, 49.
He cut out a picture of Terry Wogan from a magazine several years ago and mounted it onto cardboard, complete with holes for the eyes. He later whipped out the mask at a dinner party and it became the focus of the get-together. He made more masks and frequently used them as his party piece, which was a big hit with friends and family.
Two years ago Chris pitched the idea to pals Dean, 49, also originally from Great Barr, and Ray and Mask-arade was born.
Ray said of the first few months: "We didn't have any proper cutting equipment and would do everything by hand after printing off the photos. When we went on Dragons' Den three months after we started, we wanted to use their money for premises and a printer as well as other equipment.
"But they turned us down because they didn't believe we could make a good enough profit."
The businessmen have certainly proved them wrong.
Ray said: "We get a lot of orders from hen and stag parties where faces of the bride or groom are put on masks for the party-goers. There are also lots of people who want them for birthday parties.
‘'We are currently working with the creators of the kids' cartoon character Ben 10 to produce masks and life-size cutouts, while there are lots of other things in the pipeline.
"The response worldwide has been amazing.
‘‘We've even been approached by Dragons' Den to be featured on a follow-up show as ‘the one's that got away'. Maybe then the Dragons might finally admit we proved them wrong!"
Aug 1 2010 by Anuji Varma, Sunday Mercury