The Apprentice: Best of a bad bunch

So Lord Sugar, or Sir Alan as he's otherwise known, has chosen his next business partner. But what do the finalists suggest about UK entrepreneurship?

The Apprentice TV show has just finished its ninth outing, with the last three outings culminating in an investment of £250,000 into the winner’s business idea.

Historically, The Apprentice used to offer a £100,000 job in one of Sugar’s many businesses – but the retention rate of these hires has been much documented in the media as being pretty poor.

The creation of a quarter million pound backing also fitted in nicely with the upsurge of entrepreneurial activity that the UK has recently undergone – and the process shifted from finding the person most fit for a job, to the one most likely to be able to create a successful business.

Ten weeks of sales/buying/sourcing challenges preceded the revealing of the final five candidates’ business plans – and I couldn’t help but feel horribly let down by what was unveiled.

The presenting of pitch decs has, during the last three series, become an opportunity for Sugar’s cronies to lay into the would-be entrepreneurs and tear their plans to shreds for the benefit of the watching masses. But this year, it was thoroughly deserved.

Considering how hard it is to get any kind of face time with investors these days, those that eventually do sit down on the other side of the table to an angel investor or venture capital firm tend to have in their hand a pretty water tight business plan – not those on The Apprentice it seemed.

The worst of a bad bunch saw one of the candidates pitch a business which not only already existed, but was actually owned by two other people. Despite pleas that he had a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ to receive an equity share, the upstart was put firmly in his place and shown the door.

Another of the final five had an idea for an online property platform which allowed people to sell their own houses – instead of having to rely on the generic estate agent approach. Cute idea, except for the fact that he was going up against industry heavyweights like Zoopla and Rightmove and was also planning on inviting in the very people he was trying to cut – estate agents.

Third in line for the firing line was a so-called ‘dance and entertainment’ entrepreneur. The business plan hoped to take advantage of the Zumba craze by rolling out a chain of dance studios across the country. Again, this entrepreneur had picked a very crowded market which is already being served pretty well by gym chains and community centres and had no firm idea of how she was going to orchestrate a roll-out – ‘we’ll use your contacts Lord Sugar!’.

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And so we were left with two entrepreneurs and two business ideas vying for the £250,000. The final was an all-female affair with a trade-orientated baking brand retailer going up against a chain of cosmetic surgery clinics.

Again, there were a couple of glaring errors in the business plans on show. The baking brand’s creator had decided it was going to sell straight into the trade market, going wholesale and stocking the very people who she had found to be constantly out of stock when ordering for her cupcake shop. But she then set about creating a decidedly consumer offering, saying that ultimately she had to think about the end user – slightly confusing.

During her presentation, when quizzed on financials, rather than say she didn’t have them to hand she forecast £1 million revenue growth each year – fairly ambitious.

And as for the cosmetic clinic, which was offering chemical peels, botox and dermal fillers – this female entrepreneur wanted to call her business NIKS. While being a ‘clever’ play on words reading SKIN backwards, saying the name out loud doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in a business which is going to be taking medical implements to the face.

My overwhelming feeling from learning about each new business plan was that no one really knew how they were going to tackle the problems that would eventually come their way. When quizzed on how he was going to topple Rightmove and Zoopla, the property website entrepreneur could only really come back with comments like, ‘I really believe in this’, and ‘I’m so passionate about this business plan’.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to have belief and passion when building a business: but having blinkers on and hoping these two traits are going to take you to the top are horribly naive. 

There aren’t many entrepreneurs who will forfeit 50 per cent of their new venture for a £250,000 investment – but there is no less Sugar could have demanded from what were all fairly tenuous ideas.

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter Ruthven

Hunter was the Editor for from 2012 to 2014, before moving on to Caspian Media Ltd to be Editor of Real Business.

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