Business Partners? How “The Apprentice” Was Flawed.

Warning: Apprentice Series 7 UK Final Spoilers.

After watching another amazing season of The Apprentice, with enough new tasks, lessons to be learned and humor, we witnessed the climactic final of a series that tragically hadn’t been well enough thought through.

We were reminded by the ever-inspiring Lord Alan Sugar at the start of every show this season that “this is not a job”. Instead of receiving a six-figure salary, in this season the candidates were competing for an investment of £250,000 into one of his or her business plans. The idea being to use the show’s influence to inspire entrepreneurs throughout the country to start up their own businesses despite these tough economic times. Lord Alan Sugar, a keen Labour supporter and friend of the ex-prime minister, Gordon Brown, have been keen voices calling for new business ventures as the best way to work out of a recession. The whole idea of this season was to support this concept.

Yet the way the concept was executed was deeply flawed…

The investment opportunity was interesting when compared to the business show of a very different format, “Dragon’s Den”. In “Dragon’s Den”, it’s common for candidates to ask for around £60,000-£100,000, and give up a 40% stake of equity in the company. In “The Apprentice”, the stakes were far higher at a guaranteed £250,000 for the winner (at a cost of 50% equity), but strangely in a company that was barely even an idea (let alone started), and at an entrance level where candidates’s characters were judged before their ideas (as opposed to the other way round), and where the investor pledged to invest in exactly one business (no matter what!). A stark contrast to a traditional investment style. Strange, considering the show is supposed to be representing business.
In fact, I felt that the show started to feel very much like “Dragon’s Den” once Lord Sugar’s aides finally started grilling the candidates on their business plans. Perhaps the next series should find new ways for each of the episodes to tease out the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates’s business plans, as well as the current format currently manages to tease out the character’s personalities.

Time after time again throughout the show, and again on the after-show, “The Apprentice: You’re Fired”, we were reminded that Lord Sugar was looking for a business partner, and whoever he guided through the process would possess the greatest business skills. Unfortunately, looking for businesses skills is only one side of the coin. Any candidate with a demonstration of exceptional businesses skills is a worthless candidate if he or she doesn’t have a decent business plan. What is it that the candidate actually intends to make money with? Is it a viable, feasible, worthwhile solution? How much money will the business realistically generate? These three questions were completely and utterly avoided through the entire twelve week period, leaving only a single week, a single final, a series of interview sessions, to hone in on what would make up 50% of Lord Sugar’s decision. Completely flawed.

By the time the final came around, Lord Sugar was faced with selecting from one of three candidates.

Jim had shown considerable business skills, but came up with a business plan specifically and blatantly tailored to what he thought would suit Lord Sugar’s taste. In fact, Jim’s judgement about what Lord Sugar was after in this process was completely wrong. Investing in a non-profit business attempting to educate schoolchildren about business makes no logical sense, and having devoted the series to inspiring good, money-earning, get-up-and-go businesses, investing in a business that teaches other people about business makes no logical sense. Business should be taught by people who have created businesses, not by paradoxical businesses that educate businesses. Investing in this business is not what the show, nor Lord Sugar, was hoping to achieve.

Helen demonstrated that she was clearly the most employable candidate, yet her business plan, like Jim’s, completely bombed. It wasn’t well enough thought through in her connections, in her experience and in her passion of the industry she selected. It was interesting to see Lord Sugar “not being able to express enough” his “disappointment” in her business plan. He’d really hoped for this candidate to come up with some that would match the exceptional candidate, and he was left with something that he couldn’t possibly invest and maintain a credible reputation as an investor. Helen tried a second business suggestion in the boardroom, but there was no way Lord Sugar could have gone with Helen and the second business plan without looking inequitable and devious to the other, competing, candidates. Unfortunately, and regretfully for Lord Sugar, Helen put herself into a position where there was no way she could be invested in.

Susie looked to me like a likely candidate for investment, yet her estimates and figures were scrutinized and deemed wildly unrealistic, seemingly so much so that it made investing in her inconceivable.

This left Tom, the kindest, most energetic candidate in the series, with a passion and spark that was clearly in the nature of the ideal candidate Lord Sugar was looking for. His business plans seemed incredibly problematic, similar to his fellow candidates. But it was the stories of his previous inventions, his nature, and his entrepreneurial spirit that Lord Sugar chose to invest in. Here, he managed to find a glimmer of light that he could perhaps cling onto and harness, making his investment worthwhile. It was interesting to see Tom mention in excitement on the after-show, “You’re Fired”, that he could, see Lord Sugar thinking, “Don’t talk about the chair!” and the camera angle changing to show Lord Sugar quickly looking away. I assume Lord Sugar wants to draw as little attention as possible to the embarrassing business plan he’s supposedly invested in.

After laying down these thoughts, I have to stress that I’m incredibly pleased for the winning candidate. Tom represented entrepreneurs, engineers and scientists amazingly well with his kind heart, manners and drive to succeed. Exactly what the show was created to demonstrate. If the next series (of which I very much look forward to), the show’s format may need to be more significantly altered, in order to bring more focus to the candidate’s business plans and to offset the current ratio of characters to plans from 12:1, as well as to give Lord Sugar the best selection of business ventures to invest in.

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