The Apprentice: The best-laid plans?

Apprentice logoFive became two as Lord Sugar's team of interrogators asked the sort of questions you would never get away with in a normal interview - and received in return the sort of answers that no credible candidate would ever give in a proper interview. At the end of a gruelling grilling, three were sent packing while the remaining two survived to battle it out on one last task for Sugar's £250,000 investment.

Meet the rottweilers

The candidates are given 24 hours to swot up on their business plans to prepare for their interrogations interviews. We see them all tapping away furiously at their laptops. Obviously they’re not typing up their business plans, which were submitted at the start of the process – so presumably they’re just updating their Twitter and Facebook statuses and playing Angry Birds.

The following morning sees them whisked off to the Institute of Directors. Folders are handed over to Nick Hewer and Karren Brady. I’m not sure why they would pass them their business plans, given that (a) their interviewers have clearly had access to them in preparation and (b) Nick and Karren aren’t interviewing. Maybe the folders contain their last will and testatments, just in case one of Claude Littner’s infamous verbal eviscerations becomes physical?

The candidates’ fate lies in the hands of smiling assassins (l to r) Claude Littner, Claudine Collins, Mike Soutar and Margaret Mountford (Image: BBC)

Anyhow, Sugar’s group of four rottweilers sadists interviewers comprises:

  • Claude Littner: Sugar’s former global business troubleshooter. A bit like John Harvey-Jones, but without the hair or the waistline.
  • Margaret Mountford: Karren Brady‘s predecessor, and the much-loved Queen of the Arched Eyebrow™.
  • Mike Soutar: One of the pioneers of the free magazine industry.
  • Claudine Collins: Managing director of media agency MediaCom.

Their primary task is to show up the final five’s business plans and CVs for the works of fevered imagination that they are. Candidate by candidate, here are the key soundbites from each interview.

Francesca MacDuff-Varley

Image: BBC

Image: BBC

Business plan: A dance/fitness class business.

Francesca kicks off her interview day experience with Claude, which is a bit like sending a novice skier out on a black run at night in the middle of a blizzard. She doesn’t help herself by being unable to remember her own financial figures, talking of “turning over a profit” (a minor slip in terminology which Claude treats about the same as “I’ve just kidnapped your children”) and then admitting that her claim of running businesses with a £5m turnover is just a fabrication based on “the number five just came into my head”. As a famous philosopher (okay, Charlie Brown) once said, “Good grief!”

Claudine – who appears to have been given the brief of discovering more about who the candidates are as people – probes her reputation for fairness and her unease with the game-playing tactics of others. By which, clearly, she means Luisa – unless she’s referring to all those happy unaired evenings in the Apprenti-Mansion™ where they all played table football.

The perception that Francesca is one of the duller characters is only reinforced by Margaret’s arched-eyebrow response to her application form claim that the most interesting thing about her is her shoe collection.

Jordan Poulton

Image: BBC

Image: BBC

Business plan: An online platform to allow hobbyists and brand owners to create their own mobile games.

Both Claudine and Margaret quiz Jordan about his role as president of Oxford Entrepreneurs, which he explains as being a full-time role where he advised budding start-ups on strategy, marketing and vision. Claudine accuses him of jumping on to other people’s ideas and teases the admission out of him that the only business he has ever set up was trading on eBay as a teenager.

Claudine also establishes what we already knew from last week’s boardroom, that Jordan has an existing business partner who writes the software whereas he is the creative and visionary. Mike pursues a similar line of questioning, suggesting that Jordan is no more than a middle-man and his partner is the real brains – to which Jordan responds by modestly saying he is like Apple’s Steve Jobs was to Steve Wozniak. More damaging is the revelation that his claim to be a co-founder of the proposed business is untrue.

Mike also calls Jordan out on his claim that he can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than three minutes by producing said puzzle – every modern interviewer keeps one handy for just such an occasion, don’t you know? – and challenging him to prove it. Naturally, he fails. By the way, the world record is 5.55 seconds:

(Incidentally, the world record for solving the cube using only your feet is 27.93 seconds.)

But the best is kept for last, as Jordan meets Claude. We just know how this is going to go when Jordan opens with a jaunty “Hello, I’m Jordan”, to which Claude growls back, “I know you are.” Things rapidly deteriorate, as Claude tells him this isn’t his business, that he isn’t a shareholder in it and therefore has no right to be offering it to Sugar as a partnership, and that he is only offering 15.39% equity rather than the mandated 50% anyway. (As I said last week, did Jordan think he was going on Dragons’ Den?) Disgusted, he throws Jordan out, summarising his position as:

You’ve got no right to be here because you’re feeding on somebody else’s idea, somebody else’s business. You’re a parasite.

At this point, I think it’s fair to assume that Jordan won’t be in the final.

Leah Totton

Image: BBC

Image: BBC

Business plan: Facial aesthetics clinics to carry out non-surgical cosmetic procedures.

Claude, who is clearly having one of his grumpy days (nothing new there, then), doesn’t think Leah’s business plan is great. He questions her first year profit projection of £265k, only for Leah – she of the photographic memory – to calmly reel off a detailed cost and margin breakdown which reveals how meticulously she has prepared her plan. And also just how fast she can speak if she wants to. (Have you ever listened to a podcast on an iPod at 1.5 times normal speed? It’s like that.)

Claudine pulls her leg about claiming she is more glamorous and has more voluminous hair than any other applicant for the show. More seriously, she raises the moral issue of making money by preying on young people who don’t like the way they look. Leah defends herself well, however, saying that this essentially condemns all cosmetic surgeons.

Luisa Zissman

Image: BBC

Image: BBC

Business plan: A new one-stop shop baking brand, offering independent bakers a full range of products.

Claude is impressed with the success of Luisa’s three existing businesses. Her online electronics and baking businesses turn over £1.5m pa and £40k a month respectively, while her cupcake shop generates a more modest £100k pa.

Mike is less impressed initially, noting that Luisa variously claims to be a manufacturer, a wholesaler and a retailer and accusing her business plan of being “half-baked” (boom! boom!) However, upon further questioning he learns that she has identified a clear problem in the market and is offering a clear solution for it as she provides good examples not mentioned in her business plan. (I mean, why would you put anything helpful like that in a business plan? I wonder what Luisa’s plan actually says. Something like “Look at me, I’m so pretty and wonderful”, presumably.)

Margaret is also unimpressed, noting that the candidate who claims she has “a brain like Einstein” earned rather modest C, D and D grades in her AS-levels. (Mind you, Einstein also failed many of his exams, although he did do rather well in physics and maths.)

Luisa fails to impress Claudine by openly referring to a previous boss as “an idiot”. She is accused of being manipulative, stubborn, game-playing and unprofessional, but claims that (a) those aren’t necessarily bad qualities (which they aren’t, if you’re Machiavelli) and (b) she has changed during the process. Claudine does not look convinced.

Finally, what’s Luisa’s motto for dealing with times of stress?

When in doubt, smile and pout.

I really must try that some time.

Neil Clough

Image: BBC

Image: BBC

Business plan: An online estate agency which vendors can use to sell their own homes, and which estate agents can use to advertise their existing properties.

There is a consistent theme running through most of Neil’s interviews where he defends the viability of his business model with his usual passion and 100% conviction, but none of the interviewers buy it for a second. For instance, Claude tells him he can’t possibly compete with the existing market leader, resulting in a yes I can/no you can’t/yes I can/no you can’t exchange which goes on almost as long as the Hundred Years’ War (which, fact fans, actually lasted for 116 years).

Margaret thinks the attraction of paying lower commissions would be outweighed by people not wanting the hassle of doing their own viewings. Mike is similarly unconvinced, as Neil refuses to compromise on any part of his plan.

Claudine, however, elicits a very human moment from him, as he discusses his biggest failure being letting his dad down by failing to make the grade as a professional footballer. Although that does make his late father sound like one of those overly competitive parents, no?

Boardroom brouhaha™

Sugar gathers his four rottweilers in the boardroom for a debrief on the five candidates.

Luisa is described as streetwise and bright, but also suffering from ‘spoilt child syndrome. Her business plan is sketchy but viable. Sugar makes a wisecrack about spending hundreds of thousands on hundreds and thousands.

Francesca is praised for having identified an emerging craze and being a self-starter, but concerns are raised about how much help she would need and her ability to scale the business. (I’m not sure why that’s such a big concern when the standard model for scaling this type of business is to set up franchises.) Sugar jokes about becoming Lord of the Dance.

Neil’s business plan is shredded, and although his passion and desire are praised it’s pointed out that his unshakeable self-belief is also a barrier to him refining his idea. Sugar is so disappointed he forgets to crack a joke.

Leah impressed the interviewers with her intelligence, research and credibility, although Claudine found her cold. Sugar: “Lunchtime facial fillers? Sounds like a big sandwich to me.”

Claude says he had to throw Jordan out. (Well, you didn’t have to, Claude.) He’s also criticised for not being a true entrepreneur, instead taking credit for other people’s ideas and successes. Sugar ponders about his ‘immersive mobile experience’, saying, “I thought that’s when you dropped your phone in the loo.”

As the five candidates are brought in, the writing’s clearly on the wall for Jordan, who is summarily dismissed by Sugar and receives not only the Digit of Doom™ but also an accompanying musical sting which we’ll call the Drums of Doom™. Just to underline how little we should think of him, we don’t even get to see his Taxi to Obscurity™ interview. It’s that bad. He’s evil. folks. Evil.

Next to go is Neil, with Sugar saying he is bitterly disappointed with his proposal – the right man with the wrong plan. It’s season seven runner-up Helen Milligan all over again. Neil, for so long Sugar’s favourite son in the process, is granted an extended Taxi to Obscurity™ monologue:

I feel like I’ve let not just Lord Sugar but obviously my family and my wife down. I’m absolutely heartbroken by it. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a tear in my eye and it’s probably not going to be the last one tonight because I put absolutely everything into trying to win this. I’m the right man without a plan and that is really gutting for me.

In the end, for all Neil’s initial bluster and unlikeability, he was arguably the most likeable of the final five by a distance.

Which, against all apparent logic for anyone who watched the first three weeks of this season, means the final three are all girls. Nick rams home the point that each has a credible business plan – which is what matters more than anything in the show’s current format.

Sugar ponders his options. He sees risk in Leah’s proposal, which could do more damage than Luisa’s cupcakes – Leah counters that she has the potential to make more money. He worries about Francesca’s ability to inspire, lead and scale the business. (Again, I repeat: franchising.) And he reiterates the concern about Luisa being a game-player, although her insistence that she has changed is backed up by both Leah and Francesca.

It’s decision time. He states he’s willing to take a gamble on Leah, and puts her through to the final. Then, despite saying with a straight face that “the dance studio has got legs”, he fires Francesca, who manages a gracious smile as she departs in the Taxi to Obscurity™:

I’m obviously gutted. I didn’t win but the final three, all girls – I’m really proud of myself.

So it’s Luisa versus Leah in the final. As Karren succinctly puts it, one finalist who has spotted a gap in a market (Luisa) and one who has identified an emerging market (Leah).

Next week: The final! Familiar faces return to ‘help’ the two finalists launch their business ideas for real. God help us.

The Apprentice final is on BBC1 next Wednesday, July 17th, at 8pm. Companion show You’re Hired follows immediately afterwards on BBC1.

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14 Comments on The Apprentice: The best-laid plans?

  1. I think Leah is a more convincing individual than Luisa in person, but I have qualms about a the fact that she’s still a very junior doctor – less than two years into the 7+ year postgraduate medical training programme – and so her experience of actual medical practice on patients isn’t very extensive. (The Harley Street training she’s done isn’t part of that programme so will have been something she’s undertaken outside her main job.) Not that it will stop her being successful – but I think her credentials have been a bit overstated during the process.

    It seemed a bit unfair that Jordan was allowed to get all the way to interviews instead of a more viable candidate. Of course any of the others probably would have fallen at the interviews hurdle too! But it would have been a good chance to showcase their business plan.

    Neil showed another side of himself in this episode. Having originally thought he was totally self-absorbed, I found it revealing, and rather sad, that he kept talking about letting other people down (his dad, his family, his wife…) – he obviously feels an enormous burden of responsibility.

    • To an extent, both finalists have been downplayed. While we knew she was smart – you don’t get to be a doctor if you’re not – the extent of Leah’s academic achievements were only really revealed in the Final Five programme. And, of course, her business idea is credible and well thought through, albeit risky. (But then, most good investments are risky – that’s the nature of the beast.)

      Luisa remains, for me, fairly objectionable as a person, although clearly she is a capable businesswoman – anyone who can start up a company of their own in the current climate with a turnover of £1.5m deserves some respect (although, pointedly, we weren’t told how profitable her three businesses are). Her business plan is relatively unexciting, but at the same time does address an apparent gap in the market. Astute.

      Ultimately it will come down to whether Sugar wants a relatively safe investment with a higher chance of making a return (Luisa) or a riskier one which could lose him all his money and/or damage his reputation but could make him big money (Leah). That’s a standard portfolio decision in life, like deciding whether to invest your money in the stock market or on a 20/1 shot in the 3:15 at Newmarket. From what I know and have seen of Sugar in the past, despite what he said in the boardroom, he’s actually quite conservative, particularly when it comes to risking damage to his personal brand – a big driver behind why he went for Ricky over Tom G last year – so I expect Luisa will win.

      With hindsight, it’s clear that Jordan was set up to be this year’s Interview Day’s spectacular crash-and-burn. Unfair on others? Yes, although I doubt he earned his place at the expense of someone else who had a genuinely credible plan. As for Neil, to be honest I’d started to warm to him over the past several weeks. As was said last night, he had real passion, drive and clearly was in the process to get the investment, not just for fame. I ended up liking him rather a lot.

      • Yes, I’d warmed to Neil over the weeks too. Oddly enough up until this episode I found him one of the few candidates who did actually seem to be open to feedback from Lord Sugar, Karren & Nick – we first saw glimmers of this in the week 4 boardroom. What I hadn’t realised was how much of his drive was about proving things to other people, rather than just to himself. Definitely the most likeable candidate of the five.

        I’d agree with your assessment of Luisa’s chances – though is there a possibility that after avoiding risk last year, Sugar might be keener to take a risk this year? My guess is that he’d be up for taking a business risk, but not a medico-legal risk – so my money’s still on Luisa.

        And I guess Jordan’s crash and burn was too entertaining to miss!

        • Jordan was set up to fail. Certainly at some point before the interviews they would have done standard due diligence on him – criminal record checks, credit checks, Companies House records and so on – which would have meant everyone knew about his non-stake in the business before the day (but maybe not right at the outset).

          The reputational risk of Leah’s plan is sizeable – I spoke to a doctor friend of mine this morning and she raised the issue of whether she had fully factored indemnity insurance into her costs – so it’s hard to see beyond Luisa. Sugar seems to be quite conservative with his cash, and (understandably) even more so with his reputation.

  2. I think this could be my favourite ever series of The Apprentice, with some really strong candidates at this point. I’ve never been that keen on Jordan and I think he showed himself up as a bit of an idiot by ignoring the whole agreement for the winner. Still, considering that business plans are submitted at the start of the process, it looks like the producers were setting him up to fail from the start.

    Neil probably was the strongest candidate (and would have easily won with the old format) but needs to realise that there is more to business than sheer force of will. I felt like Mike Soutar and Lord Sugar were essentially giving him prompts to stay in the process – if he had accepted his plans was flawed and had proposed to look at it again I think he could have made the final, as I think Sugar would have given him the benefit of the doubt. Self-belief alone doesn’t breed success, he needed to be more open to ideas and criticism.

    But two really strong finalists and I’m really looking forward to the final. While Leah’s idea is more risky, I think personality-wise she is the safer bet.

    • Leah would certainly be the easier of the two to work with, although a bit more naive in terms of the commercial world. Luisa is a risk – too much of a loose cannon. But Sugar will clearly also weight up the potential damage to his reputation if something goes wrong at one of Leah’s clinics.

      I do think that if Neil had offered to amend his plans, Sugar would have given him a chance to make it happen – especially as the final task is to launch their businesses. A shame – his journey was great to watch and he came across as pushy but likeable and sympathetic by the end. There’s no question he was a genuine candidate, not in it just for TV. Interestingly, at the episode of You’re Fired I saw filmed (week 3), Karren Brady hinted that there was one candidate we would see go on quite a journey through the process. At first I thought she meant Alex – clearly she meant Neil.

      This season has grown on me. The first 3-4 weeks irritated the hell out of me, but it’s turned right around. And it was all worth it just for that Rubik’s cube moment!

  3. On balance, it was the right two from the options available and based on the business plans. I would have loved Neil to get to the final, as he seems like a genuinely decent bloke and just wants to not disappoint people, but he was just so pig-headed about his plan even when he was prompted about how he’d change it – which seems odd as he’s responded well to that kind of feedback in the past (eg winning the ready meal task when he said they’d improve the recipe). I think mentioning estate agents wasn’t the best idea either – if he’d left it as ‘you sell your house and pay less commission’ he might have scraped through. Francesca’s business plan was good in theory, bad in practice and suspect the hand-holding would have been too much like hard work. Jordan, on the other hand, deserved everything he got – not only was it not a partnership, it wasn’t his idea and he had no investment in the company. I’m actually a bit stumped as to why he was on there, unless the actual owners felt they couldn’t do it justice and asked him to do it for them. But even then, it’s a big risk to take that he’d even get to interviews…

    It is a wide open final, but I think he’ll go for Luisa as the safe pair of hands, especially as Leah’s reassurances seemed to be a bit too vague and what with the various scandals and reports in the last few years – which, weirdly, she seemed completely unaware of – cosmetic surgery seems like too risky a market. Though the flip side of that is a) Leah’s plan would probably make him more money and b) Luisa is… well, Luisa (although equally it could be argued that The Apprentice brings out people’s competitive side and turns it up to 11). And she cried in the trailer for next week’s episode, so I’d say her redemption arc is pretty much complete.

    • I agree with you on most of your points. Sugar seems quite averse to high risk/high return investments, especially ones which might damage his reputation, so it seems all set up for Luisa now. To be fair, much though I have disliked her throughout, she has sound business instincts and, as the owner of three businesses, has a track record.

      I thought the criticism of Francesca was a bit OTT, to be honest. Scaling that type of business simply means following a tried and tested model: you franchise it, same as many other brands in the entertainment/fitness industry have done. Having said that, her admission that she’d made up her £5m turnover figure was laughable – given Claude’s reaction to Jordan (a clear set-up-to-fail moment), you’d think he’d have been fairly affronted by that too!

  4. Ross Nolan // July 11, 2013 at 11:10 am // Reply

    Fully agreed on Neil’s likeability. I think he came across well talking to Dara and the others and seems to have grown since the process.

    While I can’t warm to Leah on a personal level (I agree with Claudine about her being cold) I can see her winning. Objectively she talks a great game and while there are red flags over her youth and relative inexperience I don’t think they are enough to keep her down. Also she is up against Luisa and while I personally find Luisa more likable I’m aware that is a minority view and a lot of people would be reluctant to get into a partnership with her.

    • To be honest, what was said in the boardroom was spot on. Leah’s business has the potential to be much more profitable – but also has the potential to cause serious reputational damage in an industry which hardly has the best of reputations as it is. Sugar is very sensitive about his personal ‘brand’, as we saw with his concerns over Tom Gearing’s wine investment fund last year. (I’m told by friends in the City that this kind of idea is quite popular in the moment, so it was actually quite a reasonable proposition.)

      Luisa’s also far more experienced in business than Leah, and represents a relatively safe investment. I balked at Leah’s projected year 1 profit figure – my gut feel was that it was way too high for what is a relatively small-scale start-up. Even though she did rattle off a long list of costs, I wonder if she has been a bit naive. A doctor friend of mine has questioned whether she has fully accounted for the cost of things like indemnity insurance, or the high, near-surgical standards of cleaning which are required in this kind of environment. Of course, we don’t know the detail of that, but it would make sense in terms of bringing her initial profit down to a more realistic level.

      • That’s a really good point about the cleaning – especially given that Leah said she would probably do all the cleaning herself for the first year! I’m sure she would be very efficient at cleaning, but given the standards required, it might not be the best use of her time, and the casual tone of her comment suggested that she didn’t consider it a big deal.

        She is a force to be reckoned with though. I wonder if, like Susan Ma, she might end up losing the Apprentice at this point but still benefiting from Sugar’s support in the longer term.

        • I think the risk of reputation damage is too great with Leah, but you never know.

          On the whole, it’s common for any start-up business plan to overestimate turnover and underestimate costs, particularly when there is no prior experience to draw on. Leah would not be the first to do that, so it’s not a huge concern. Even if she only made a small profit in year 1, that’s acceptable (actually, quite good) for a start-up. Many make no money at all in year 1 as they fight to get off the ground.

  5. It certainly has been a series of surprises. As a person, Luisa, has not come across well, and her recent rebranding could be more evidence of her manipulative nature. She is hte safer bet for Sugar, though.

    You can read my thoughts at http://markdecosemo.com/2013/07/11/the-apprentice-week-11-final-interview/

    • Hi Mark. On the one hand, Luisa’s change in behaviour could be interpreted as ‘game-playing’, on the other I suppose it could be genuine learning. It’s an interesting choice Sugar now faces – two seemingly viable plans, with the key to his decision being the two different personalities and how he wants to balance risk versus potential reward. Should make for an interesting final.

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