Last night's television episode of the Apprentice has lessons for all, says Nigel Cannings.
It is in a sense ironic that Alan Sugar hung Apprentice hopeful Neil Clough out to dry for refusing to listen to advice on his business plan. The single minded determination to not listen to anyone at all and plough on regardless is something that Lord Sugar himself is famous for. Ever heard of the E-m@iler? It was to the telecoms revolution what the Sinclair C5 was to mass transportation. Bob Watkins, Lord Sugar’s CEO and 25 year long trusty servant, resigned from Amstrad in 2001 over what was described as Sugar’s “obsession” with the failed device.
Mixed history of success
The difference, perhaps, is that Alan Sugar had a history of success (and failure) that is the envy of many entrepreneurs, having made money and lost money by single-mindedly pursuing an idea, and hitting the market with the right product at the right time, as with the original PC clones and the PCW, or as with the E-m@iler, the PenPad and the GX4000, the wrong product. The time was immaterial.
I suspect you are supposed to watch the Apprentice in one of two ways. It is either Made in Essex for the middle classes, or a genuine attempt to shape budding entrepreneurs in to businesspeople ready to take on an investment from (or is that a takeover by?) Alan Sugar.
The 2011 winner Tom Pellereau had his business plan immediately ditched, and the investment went into an invention that he was desperate to get away from, the curved nail file. Was that as the result of wise words from your business partner, or ruthless exploitation of a nice, clever but naïve chap?
Good ideas need money
What it shows, I think, is the real message of the show: People with good ideas generally need people with money and experience to get those ideas off the ground. There is always the outrider, the exception to prove the rule, such as Rachel Lowe MBE who was rejected for investment on Dragons’ Den, and promptly took her idea and created a bestselling game that outsold Monopoly at Hamleys (although even she went bust).
Of course there have to be genuine entrepreneurs who take a company from scratch to vast success, but there are probably very few who would not have been glad for some help along the way, a word in their shell-like from someone with more experience who could just rein them in a bit.
Too much too soon
The greatest piece of advice I ever had was from a very successful entrepreneur, a real visionary in the computer industry who was known for bringing in tomorrow’s products today: Too soon, sometimes he would say. At the age of 18, I was ready to chuck in a university place and launch my own business, and I went to him for help. He told me that I should go and get a proper job.
What he meant was that I lacked the life experience, the contacts and quite frankly the money, to be able to maximise my chances of success. He had struggled from nothing to build up his business. I had the opportunity to leapfrog part of that struggle, and I should take it.
The show is, at its heart, great television, and because of that you feel that some of the participants are just being set up to fail. Poor Jordan Poulton, called a “parasite” on national TV because his company and his business plan appeared to be someone else’s. Clearly the producers had done their due diligence and they were just waiting for that moment of high drama.
You could feel the hands of the BBC lawyers in the background when the discussion turned to the “Lunchtime” cosmetic clinics proposed by Dr Leah Totton. Lord Sugar sat there and pondered the “morals” of the industry and declared solemnly that only doctors would be allowed to operate in his clinics. It was a moment that looked like it had probably been filmed several weeks after the original boardroom session, with all of the participants called back and asked to wear the same clothes. Is this a sign of who the eventual winner will be?
“Fran”, Francesca MacDuff-Varley, is the person you most hoped would make it through to the final, a woman who has clearly made her way the hard way, and has somehow retained her own sense of self and worth. Of all of the candidates, she is the one you feel you could shake hands with, and her word would be good enough. She’ll be back, possibly even before Arnie.
The last finalist, Luisa Zissman, professes to have changed, but you suspect she has just got better at pretending. Clearly ruthless and destined to be successful, would she be the immovable object to Sugar’s irresistible force?
An entrepreneur’s life
The Apprentice for all its faults, exposes the public to the possibility of a successful life as an entrepreneur. This country needs more people running their own businesses and exporting that success. Perhaps “Cloughie” can start a business printing T-shirts reading “Right Man, Wrong Plan” – If anyone can make it work, he probably can.