The Apprentice 2014 – Business Plans

Winner Mark Wright with Lord Sugar. Courtesy of BBC News

Winner Mark Wright with Lord Sugar. Courtesy of BBC News

The Apprentice 2014 – Business Plans

The semi-final and final of this year’s BBC Apprentice was all about the business plans. Although it has made for great entertainment, I remain a critic of the revised format. The decision to change from recruiting an Apprentice, to finding a business partner, makes the series look more like Dragon’s Den, and in this respect it fails.

There were attempts in the final last night to make the process look fit for purpose. Reference was made to winner Mark Wright‘s excellent people management skills, as well as his drive and determination, and it is true that these were identified across the weekly tasks. And this did differentiate Mark from runner up Bianca Miller.

The truth is, though that in the end it all came down to the business plans, and in this respect the outcome became predictable, as Lord Sugar opted for the most coherent plan. It may appear to be a risk to go into SEO and website development, but Sugar has consistently invested in projects that are away from where he made his name. Not manufacturing products, but into the Service industry. Certainly this was true with Leah Totton (last year’s winner) and Ricky Martin from 2 years ago.

The truth is that Mark had the better thought out plan and, crucially, it was in his area of expertise. Bianca was very successful with a previous start-up (top 100) but had no track record in this field. Sugar prefers to play the odds, and in this respect, Mark was the safer bet. Of course, it is not without its risks, but is is not as risky as Bianca’s tights. Bianca was shown not to understand her market when she got the pricing strategy so wrong. It was a brave, or desperate, move to change the pricing strategy, but it maybe undermined Sugar’s confidence in the plan. In reality, she had lost the moment was clear the pricing was wrong, whatever she did.

Across the series, we have seen some excellent candidates (Mark, Katie, Roisin, Bianca), but very few (one?) decent business plan, and it is not earth shattering. Going forward, the programme needs to find candidates with better business plans because, ultimately, the best contestants had the poorest plans (Roisin?).

Finally, goodbye to Nick Hewer. He has ben an integral part of The Apprentice and he will be missed. Whoever replaces him, I hope the producers rain back on the contribution of them and Karen. This extra contribution from the eyes and ears of Lord Sugar is not welcomed by me.


The Apprentice 2012 – been these, done that, got the tee shirt

The Apprentice 2012 – been these, done that, got the tee shirt.

Its back! The Apprentice returned to our screens last night, and will be with us for the next 12 weeks. Sixteen candidates, described as amongst Britain’s biggest and best would-be entrepreneurs joined battle in the House and the Boardroom.

The programme has now completed its own makeover/evolution to reflect the changed political environment. Under the previous government, individuals were given sponsored jobs to keep them off the dole. It was the same with The Apprentice. The current government prefers to partner Business and encourage a more entrepreneurial approach to growing jobs. The (New) Apprentice reflects this, with Lord Sugar trying to identify a business partner (and idea) to invest £250K into. Under the Trades Descriptions Act it probably should be renamed, and there isn’t much apprenticeship involved. Interestingly, although the programme has evolved, the format has remained more or less the same. This is to be praised, as it makes for great TV.

In this blog, I will review each episode and give my thoughts on any lessons we can take from a business process or influential communication perspective.

Last night we were introduced to the 16 individuals (8 male, 8 female). I won’t go into their bios, if you want to get to know them in more detail I recomment the BBC website .

Week 1 is all about meeting the candidates, forming first impressions and wondering how people can make some of the outrageous self declarations on show.

Lord Sugar introduced his own version of the Gremlin rules;

  1. The biggest profit (prophet?) wins
  2. Don’t hide
  3. Don’t feed after midnight (i think he said that…)

So, both we, and the candidates know what to do and what not to do. Do they listen? Of course not. Perhaps they should be called Muppet Rules.

The group was split into the now traditional boy v girl teams and given then the task to design, print and market their own range of printed goods.

But first the all important team names. For the girls we have Sterling (strong, traditional etc) andfor the boys Phoenix (are they expecting to fail and have to rise from the ashes? Given last year’s early performances by the boys team they could be right).

Next, who will be the first Project Managers (PM)? For the boys everyone took a step back and technology geek Nick Holzherr was slowest, so got the role. For the girls, architect and  print store owner Gabrielle(“I’m a bit quirky”)  Omar volunteered.

One definition of marketing is getting the right product to the right people at the right price. Immediately, the differences in style and approach between the teams that were to prove crucial became evident. Phoenix went for cheap and cheerful London souveniers (a tee shirt with a red bus and a “large” cuddly bear) and went for the tourist market down by the Thames. Sterling lived up to their name and created a quality tee shirt jigsaw and bag aimed at the parent and toddler market. These had the added option of being personalised with names printed upon request and at extra cost. The girls decided to target Greenwich Market (fixed stall) and London Zoo. Thanks to Gabrielle’s knowledge of printing the product featuring cuddly animals designed by Jade looked good and was produced without a hitch.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the boys, and they had many reject items and a good few that should have been rejected but got through the non-existent QA. What they did have, was a clear plan of action, general agreement on how to approach it (if you ignore Sales Manager Stephen Brady’s pep talk and sales training) and clear roles. Stephen correctly pointed out that the bears were over priced and got the items reduced from £15 to £10. This is still a huge mark-up on the production costs.

Sterling had a great product, but no clear strategy and no clear roles. The sub-group sent to the zoo got stuck in traffic (surely one of the most easily predicted obstacles in London) and resorted to bitching and working against, rather than with eachother. Aggressive sales techniques and poor planning once they decided to try their luck selling to retailers (they chose Primrose Hill instead of Camden) and a general lack of leadership would ultimately cost the girls the task.

And so it proved. Despite the programme editors trying their best to convince us the poor product being sold by the boys wouldn’t win, it did. The moral of the story goes back to Lord Sugar’s rules – biggest profit wins. The boys got the right product (poor quality) at the right price (massive mark-up) for the right people (tourists).

Once it was revealed that the girls had lost, we enter the Blame Game. PM Gabrielle was vulnerable due to her poor leadership. Katie Wright had been highlighed as making little or no contribution and alongside Bilyana Apostolova (of Bulgarian extraction) was part of the ill fated, and poorly performing “Zoo Team”.  These were the 3 who ended up back in fornt of Lord Sugar.

Bilyana had come across as domineering, selfish, driven and opinionated. Katie had sat quietly in the background, she contributed little other than to point out mistakes others had made. Remember Sugar’s second rule “Don’t Hide”? On that basis, Katie should have walked. But instead Bilyana talked, and talked and talked. In the end she did such a good job she talked herself out of the competition. Lord Sugar declared the he “couldn’t work with her”.

Now 16 become 15 and the first candidate leaves the programme. The girls lost because their quality  product did not make enouhg profit. Katie should have lost  as she was hidden in plain sight. The girls will have to learn.

More next week. Comment welcome

Why Young Apprentice Needs To Be Fired

Lord Sugar. Courtesy of

Why Young Apprentice needs to be fired.

Last night’s Final of Young Apprentice (formely Junior Apprentice, child of The Appentice) was a real let down. Following on from last week’s car crash of a semi final, where several innocent candidates “left the process” (read here), the final revolved around a pointless task and a protracted interview in the boardroom. Put simply, this format did not work and should be fired. If Young Apprentice is to return (and the voice over at the end of the programme assures us it is) then it needs to revise the format for the last 2 episodes.

So, why was last night such a disappointment? Well, it wasn’t anything to do with the candidates, James and Zara. Both came across extremely well and approached the task of producing a viral video for a new video game with energy and creativity. However, the task proved to be incidental. Yes, it was nice to see the ghosts of candidates past, and I would pay money to see Harry M  made to wear a pig costume throughout the presentation (surely some revenge there for his attitude in the series). But the task proved to be pointless. There was no professional assessment or scoring to differentiate the candidates, it just became a platform to launch a prolonged interview in the boardroom.

In the boardroom, the supporting former candidates were quickly dispatched and the interview began. We were reminded of the highs and lows of each candidate; James’ early manipulative approach of both team mates and customers, Zara’s preference to be a back-seat driver rather than volunteer to be PM. And yet they did good jobs in the final task, so that wasn’t going to differentiate them. Even the last opportunity to sell themselves / stab their opponent in the back was extremely polite.

So how did Lord Sugar decide upon a winner? Once it was revealed that Zara would use the money to develop her film production business, but James had no plans, other than to continue his Economics education, I felt really let down. James has no business, and has no plans for a business. Is he really going to use the £25K prize to pay his University fees?? As this process was about identifying a future entrepreneur, the prize could only go to Zara, and it did. On this basis, the right finalist won, but were James and Zara worthy of being in the final? Not James. It would be nice to know how the other candidates would have used the prize money.

The funny thing is, I remember feeling let down at the end of the last series of The Apprentice (read here), and for the same reasons. On both occasions, the big reveal about how the prize was to be used, suggested that the whole process had been a waste of time.

The real issue is the format itself. Both Young Apprentice and its older sibling have moved into Dragon’s Den territory. The original concept of looking for someone to work with Lord Sugar, and other people, validates the weekly tasks and generally led to tense, exciting finals. If these series are to continue, they need to either return to the original format, or find new tasks to fairly evaluate the entrepreneurial ability of the candidates. Oh, and the candidates themselves should have some real ideas worthy of Lord Sugar’s, and the viewer’s,  investment.

The Dragon’s guide to writing a Business Plan

The Dragon’s guide to writing a Business Plan

Six simple steps from the Dragons Den.

There is an old saying in business;

“Fail to Plan or Plan to Fail”

This week, The BBC broadcast the Dragon’s Den guide to writing a Business Plan. This 6 point guide offers some top tips to getting investment for your business idea. Here they are;

1. Set Realisitc Targets

Don’t just pick a number at random as your sales or turnover target. There needs to be some evidence of the financial targets you are suggesting. Do your research, and look at the trend over the last year, 3 years, 5 years, both for the market you operate in and your own company. This should give some indication of future opportunites in your market.  In the programme the 2 guys behind The Wand Company (a remote control shaped as a magic wand) presented solid evidence of future orders as well as their current success, and were able to negotiate a great deal with Duncan Bannatyne. The pitch was spot on, as they were able to present targets with confidence and backed by evidence. In fact, their research was so good that they were able to choose not to take up Duncan’s offer.

2. You make it happen

Commercial acumen is important, but your self belief is key

“Once they like you the Dragon’s will view everything you say positively”

If you don’t believe in your product, why would the Dragon’s? The example given – Masque-Erade showed that confidence and belief, coupled to good forecasting (see 1 above) can be a recipe for success.

3. Get the numbers right

An extension of point 1.

“Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity”

Know your business essentials. These figures need to be at hand, and delivered confidently. Deborah Meaden is particularly hot on this, and has torn apart many an entrant to the den. Any decent bank manager would do the same.

You need to understand the Balance sheet, and Profit & Loss as these are the fundamentals of the business, or no one will want to invest in you.

The example of the camper duvet company showed that not knowing your numbers can cost you. They secured a Dragon (Hilary), but they had to give up 26% equity, rather than the 10% they wanted. Had they been better prepared they could have got a better deal.

4. Price it right

This is the opposite problem to that above- over estimating the value of their business, so you look deluded. The example given was Applied Language online translation services. Success came because they had got the value of their organisation spot on.

5. Timing is everything

“The right idea, the right product at the right time”

Obvious really, but hard to get right. The example in the show – online antiques valuation site “Value my Stuff” secured investment from Theo and Deborah because they reasoned that in a recession, people will want to sell their antiques. One year on this proved to be shrewd. The timing was right. The explosion of good quality camers on phones made uploading photos to the internet easier than it was even 5 years ago.

6. Know when to give up

Back to being realistic. A dud is a dud, recognise it and move on. It is good to have self belief, but not to delude yourself. Look at the evidence objectively, and know when to move away. Example of the Zigo baby cycle – massive previous investment of over a million and losing massive amounts. Dead in the water. One year on, they still have the businesss, but one of the partners, Steven,  now has an online price comparison site for funerals.

So there you have it, the Dragon’s guide to Business Planning.

The best example of a Business Plan from Dragon’s Den is Imran’s ITeddy. Imran knew his margins, and had a sustainable business model with opportunities to innovate. He secured a deal with Peter and Theo and is now busy developing new ideas for his ITeddy company. That is the final lesson;

“Don’t stand still – innovate or die”

Selling ideas to Dragons

Selling ideas to Dragons

The latest 5 point guide from Dragon’s Den to succeeding in getting a product to market was presented on BBC last night. Here’s what they say, with a few thoughts of my own added in.

1. Keep your ideas coming

Put simply, the more you ideas come up with, the more chances you have to succeed. Basically, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Alternatively, if you are not prolific, it helps to be creative.

In the programme, the example given was Mark Chapkins; the stereotypical mad inventor. Mark presented lots of ideas at his Dragon’s Den pitch. Only Peter Jones was interested and with his help Mark has now achieved a turnover of £250 in 3 years. He now writes books on celebrity inventors and is employed by the Science Museum “inventor in residence”.

Of course, to  have a “good” idea, you need to be able to identify s problem and come up with the steps to solve it. See point 5 below.

2. Don’t forget to dream

Be optimistic. Brainstorm all of the positives about your idea before you pull it apart. A good technique to do this is to use  “second position” to see how realistic your idea is. That is, look at it from the perspective of end users or potential investors.

3. Do the paperwork

Protect your idea. Register the patent, if possible, but remember “patent pending” is not yet a patent. Can you get copyright on your idea? Deborah Meaden is particularly keen on this, and has pulled apart many a good idea because the paperwork is not right. Next week they are looking at Business Planning, so more on this topic then.

4. Think outside the box

Frame the problem you are trying to solve in a different way to come up with a unique way to solve it. Again, use “second person” perspective to aid this. The programme gave the example of “mad inventor”  Rupert Sweet-Escott. He invented a wind turbine chimney pot. This has proved successful in Japan, achieving £270K turnover.

However, Duncan Bannatyne disagrees – he prefers a more pragmatic, realistic approach saying  improving on an existing idea is a safer option for those not gifted with original thinking. The example given was the Magic Whiteboard Series, which improved on flip charts as a portable self adhesive alternative, achieving  £2M turnover in last 3 years.

5. Be your own worst critic

Your product needs to solve a problem (this is the opportunity) worth solving (this converts it to a need) See my FREE e-book for more information.

Your idea needs to work and there needs to be  a market for it.  Bad examples presented to the Dragons included; edible greetings cards for dogs, anti-wrinkle cap, and Derek Cousins Flow Signals – traffic signal safety light. Each of these were either difficult concepts to understand, and were not taken up by the Dragons. The Flow Signals were described as  “the worst invention to be brought to Dragon’s Den”.

So, there we have it a 5 point plan to get your ideas to product and to market.

The best example of meeting all of the above criteria (missed by the Dragons) was Tangle Teeze (to fix Tangled, Knotted , Hair). Poor presentation ( especially the demonstration) combined with a lack of market research scared the Dragons off. . The inventor took their advice and was approached by many distributors following the programme. The product has now sold over 1.6 M items, wirth £2.3M turnover with international sales. Now that is success to be modelled.

Negotiating with Dragons

Negotiating with Dragons

Last night the BBC showed their latest guide to how to succeed on Dragon’s Den. The focus this week was on Negotiation, and a 5 point plan for success.

Here is the 5 point plan, with some sound theory behind it. Unfortunately, the programme presented the points out of sequence. I’ve re-ordered them so they are in chronological order;

1. Have a strategy

Presented last on the programme, the most crucial aspect of any negotiation is to plan  ahead and be clear on  your strategy and the tactics you may choose to use (don’t forget  to allow yourself to react to what happens in the negotiation, rather than be dogmatic). The programme showed Kate Castle as an example and her bold step of revealing her preferred Dragon (Theo). This was a high risk strategy as it effectively ruled out the other Dragons, but it paid off and she got a successful outcome. But was it pre-planned or reactive?

Good planning includes deciding what your choice of negotiating style is (competitive, relationship, collaborative or compromise).

2. Know your bottom line

This is part of point 1 really. Always be clear what your “walk-away” point is and stick to it. You need to know this before you go into the negotiation or you are likely to be disapppinted in the outcome.

3. Don’t be greedy

This starts in the planning phase, but carries on during the negotiation when you need to have flexibility. Look for a sensible level of investment and know what your WIN position is (what do I WANT? what is an IDEAL result? what do I NEED?). The example in the programme was Chinese entrepreneur Ling and her car leasing business. Ling’s expectations were unrealistic and she lost out.

4. Take (or keep) control

This is about keeping on top of your emotions and (if possible) your body language. Experienced tough negotiators will be looking for any opportunity to exploit your weaknesses, so you need to keep cool and detatched. the pitch for the mobile water refreshing unit managed to secure all 5 Dragons on board by using this tactic.

5. Know how to haggle

A crucial skill in negotiation that only works if you have clearly identified your WIN positions and you stick to them. The key thing here is that it is about give and take; don’t be inflexible, unless you stand to lose out, and never give something away for free. Know your “tradeables” in advance – those things that can get a deal moving. The ideal tradeable is something that is valued by the other side, but is of low value to you. Aim to identify tradeable that are valued by the other side as you go through back and forth negotiation (haggling).

So there you have it, a 5 point plan for successful negotiation, this time presented in the right, chronological order.

The Psychology behind Pitching to Dragons

The Psychology behind Pitching to Dragons

This week the BBC aired an insider’s guide to successful pitching on Dragon’s Den. They came up with a six point plan for success. Here’s the psychology behind each of the points;

  1. Create an impression. It has been shown that we make a judgement within 30 seconds of meeting someone for the first time. So we have to get it right. We need to grab their attention, and our dress, poise, and confidence rather than gimmicks are needed to create the right impression.
  2. Practice makes Perfect. There is no substitute for practice, and the more you can simulate the environment you will present in the better prepared you will be.  Practice prepares the subconscious mind for what to do, as well as the conscious. This is crucial for “programming success”, a crucial NLP technique.
  3. Keep your nerve. When teaching presentation skills, I always emphasise that the audience will not know you have made a mistake unless you let on. If things don’t go as planned, so long as you are prepared (see point 2), you can adapt what is going on into your presentation.
  4. Don’t offend your audience. Obvious really, but it is easy to react to a challenge from the audience. Remember the first rule of good customer service – the customer is always right (even when they are wrong)! Acknowledge what the audience has said, but don’t disagree. After all they have a right to their point of view even if you don’t agree with it. Lose the battle, win the war.
  5. Be Passionate. Remember Mehrabian. People look to our body language and tone of voice to determine whether to believe us or not. It may not come naturally to us, but if we can’t get passionate about our message, product or service, why should our audience?
  6. Be honest and credible. See point 5 regarding body language, but this is also about not making claims you can’t back up. It also takes us back to point 2 – practice. Good preparation means anticipating what your audience will want to know and how to give it to them.

So, there it is! All you have to do to be successful with your pitch. On the programme Kirsty Henshaw was identified as having give na master class pitch.

This first clip (about 3 minutes in) shows Kirsty’s pitch.

The next clip shows how Kirsty used the Q&A to get  positive outcome