The Apprentice S10 Ep11: And then there were two

With both their business plans and themselves under the microscope, a gruelling series of interviews produced surprises, tears and the rug-pull to end all rug-pulls, spelling the end of the road for three candidates as Lord Sugar selected his two finalists.

The final five meet their biggest challenge yet – a grilling from Claude Littner (Image: BBC)

Resumés and business plans

Torn apart by expert hands

Solly, Roisin, Daniel – shoo!

Mark, Bianca – final two

Meet the rottweilers

The candidates are told to come with their business plans to the Leadenhall Building in the City the following morning. That gives them 24 hours to swot up on their details, crack that next level of Candy Crush Saga or finalise their last will and testament in case things don’t go well in front of the Spanish Inquisition that awaits them.

Speaking of the interviewers, this year we have:

  • Claude Littner: Sugar’s former global business troubleshooter. A bit like John Harvey-Jones, but slimmer and balder.
  • Mike Soutar: One of the pioneers of the free magazine industry.
  • Claudine Collins: Managing director of media agency MediaCom.
  • Ricky Martin: Had a number one hit with Livin’ La Vida Loca Season eight winner, who now runs a recruitment company.

Their task is to seek out the flaws in each candidate’s CVs, business plans and personalities. And to give us something to laugh at, of course.

Bianca Miller

Business plan: To launch revolutionary new offerings in hosiery and shapewear.

Image: BBC

I spoke to one of Britain’s leading fashion editors and she said you’re really on to something.

Blink and you might have missed it, but right up front we’re casually informed that Bianca is the owner of a top 100 start-up, which immediately elevates her from arse-covering also-ran to the genuine contender she has hinted at becoming over the past few tasks.

Claude initially expresses concern that her plan to offer two distinct product offerings may be a non-starter. Bianca adapts in subsequent interviews, allowing for the possibility of not launching the shapewear range immediately. But Mike, after seeking the opinion of a fashion editor, is positively enthusiastic that she has found a genuine gap in the market.

Claudine calls her “a very impressive lady” but when Bianca struggles to talk personally about herself she wonders aloud, “Do you think you take professionalism so far it stops you having a personality? It feels like you’re hiding behind a mask.” Ouch.

This leaves the normally self-assured Bianca shaken, and it carries over into her interview with Ricky where she breaks down in tears before regaining her composure. Oddly though, rather than it being a sign of weakness, it makes her more human and she comes back well, talking articulately about her passion and drive. It’s a strong finish.

Daniel Lassman

Business plan: A one-stop shop website on which people can plan and book events such as weddings.

Image: BBC

On your application form you’ve said you’re very competitive, you’re a bad loser, you’re loud, you’re an attention-seeker.

Daniel still believes that his determination, motivation and passion will see him through, and that he would have proven himself as a salesperson if only Felipe had let him sell those hot tubs in the country show task. Oh, and if he had sold anything worth a damn in any of the other tasks.

It later transpires he was only the sixth-best seller overall which wouldn’t even have been enough to win him the utterly fictitious Best Salesperson in the World Evah award on his CV that Mike calls him out for. Even so he claims, “To be honest, Mike, I would honestly say that the CV is probably under-exaggerated.” Oh dear.

Claude finds it embarrassing that he doesn’t know his numbers properly and points out that people simply aren’t going to trust big events to a website without first meeting the organisers.

Mark Wright

Business plan: To set up his own online marketing agency, to help clients achieve better results in search rankings and generate leads.

Image: BBC

Ever since I was little I’ve wanted to be a businessman.

Mark’s initial interview with Ricky doesn’t go particularly smoothly, as he gets called out for exaggerating how long he has been a sales manager and then struggles to convince him why he should take his call over the dozens of other digital marketing agencies out there.

Claudine quizzes him about his failure at Tesco in last week’s premium pudding task. Mark makes no excuses, but talks passionately about how being in business was his childhood dream and comes across very well.

Claude also goes on the attack, calling his plan bland and unoriginal but he responds calmly, stating that he wants to start with what he knows and that he is both confident and comfortable about his proposal. It’s a good, credible response.

Roisin Hogan

Business plan: To launch her ‘Skinny Chick & Mr Lean’ range of virtually carbohydrate-free, ultra-low calorie ready meals.

Image: BBC

I would buy her as a person but her idea and her business plan are just too big.

Ice queen Roisin gets emotional when she says she left her job to pursue this opportunity and it’s clear she’s serious about her business plan.

Sadly, the validity of her plan soon starts to unravel. Claudine questions her experience of both running a business and the ready meals sector. And although she has conducted market research (good) it amounts to half a dozen people and some family and friends (not so good).

It gets worse. Claude praises her attention to detail but says her expectations for her business are too ambitious. (I’ve worked in the supermarket trade – I agree with him.) And he points out that her financial forecasts predict she will burn through Sugar’s £250,000 investment by month two. She claims she will improve her cashflow by getting credit from customers. She’s dreaming – and Claude tells her so.

If Roisin is hoping for some respite from Mike, she receives quite the opposite. He quizzes her about konjac, the secret ingredient in her ready meals. She claims it’s unique to her product, but he then produces a packet of it and tells her it’s already available in raw form health food shops. She tries to defend herself by saying that only her products incorporate it in ready meal form, only for him to put another manufacturer’s product on the table that she was unaware of.

That sound you can hear? A death knell.

Solomon Akhtar

Business plan: ‘We Ship Start Ups’, a fulfilment service for university students wanting to launch their own products and other new start-ups.

Image: BBC

Frankly, it’s a bloody disgrace … You’re taking the piss.

The alarm bells start ringing immediately as we discover that Solomon’s business plan is about as thin as a supermodel with bulimia – it’s only eight pages long, half of which are pictures.

His interview with Claudine gets off to an embarrassing start when she asks him about another product of his called the ‘willy-kini’, which is a cross between a mankini and, well, you can work out the rest.

Having proclaimed himself as someone from “the ideas generation” who regularly taps new ideas into his phone, Mike reprises the Rubik’s Cube stunt he pulled on Jordan Poulton in last year’s interviews. He produces Solomon’s phone and asks him to pitch some of his ideas from it. A faltering Solomon tries two ideas which are, basically, an online grocery delivery service and a hotel. Oops.

There’s worse to come. Claude builds him up by telling him that his application form and CV “filled me with pleasure” for its lack of boastful brags, and congratulates him for starting his own business while still at university. And then he rips into him for the lack of detail in his business plan, forcing Solomon to admit his naivety, and immediately terminates the interview. It’s a shame, because Solomon was this close to achieving that rarest of rare things – impressing Claude.

At the end of a draining day, all five candidates are battered and bruised but it’s Solomon who sits quietly with his head in his hands. He’s often appeared lacking in maturity – but he’s never seemed as young as he does here. Where’s ‘Fat Daddy’ Felipe when you need him to cook him something and do up his tie?

Boardroom Brouhaha

Sugar starts the boardroom session by consulting his four interviewers and it’s clear that Solomon’s lack of business maturity let him down, that Bianca is seen as professional and credible despite her lack of manufacturing experience and that Mark is seen in a similar light, with Claude even likening him to Ricky.

Roisin was let down by her non-unique ‘unique’ ingredient while Daniel’s Achilles’ heel is his obsession with being portrayed as a super-salesman. As Sugar notes:

He should have got an award for his CV: the Booker prize for fiction.

Sugar dismisses the interviewers and brings in the candidates, raising concerns about each of them. Mark copes well when he asks about him not running a business before, citing his involvement in his family’s business. Bianca does even better: when questions are raised about her lack of manufacturing experience, she states that she has already identified factories who manufacture similar products. Music to an investor’s ears, that.

Solomon admits he can be immature but adds that he has ideas. Sugar observes that Claude thinks he’s going to go somewhere one day – but not now. He fires him.

So Solomon climbs into the Taxi to Obscurity, where he says:

I am really disappointed. I would love to be in the final but for me to make the final five at such a young age is an achievement in itself. I think Lord Sugar sees potential in me – not right now but in the future. So I’m very happy with that.

And so he should be. For a young man who is still just 23 and not long out of university, he has time to learn, grow and succeed.

Sugar questions whether Roisin really understands the scale of what needs to happen and the difficulty of being a tiny player in a competitive market. As Nick Hewer notes:

Doesn’t the scale of your ambition expose your naivety? You’re taking on the world from day one.

Sugar agrees, and many people’s favourite to win is gone – and with no taxi interview shown to boot.

One to go. Sugar mulls the pros and cons of each candidate but despite his passion and willingness to work hard, it’s finally Daniel’s time to go, with regret, although he says he is a changed man:

I really feel like the process was good for me. Lord Sugar has taught me a hell of a lot. It’s made me a better person, a better businessman. And that at the end of the day is worth more than a quarter of a million to me.

So now we know our finalists: Bianca and Mark. But will Sugar decide that Bianca’s idea has legs, or will he be swayed by Mark’s smooth sales talk?

Analysis

What is Sugar looking for in his business partner? In simple terms:

  1. Is the business idea viable?
  2. Is the person behind the business idea credible – can they be trusted to turn the idea into reality?
  3. Will I make a worthwhile return on my investment?

The eventual winner must be able to tick all three boxes. A great idea is nothing without someone to make it happen. A credible candidate is nothing without a good idea to execute. And, even if you tick the first two boxes, not all businesses have the capacity to scale up their profit to the level where they can provide Sugar with his £250,000 back and then a satisfactory return on top of that. You can have a successful small business and yet still not generate the excess profit required to satisfy an investor. Many thriving businesses fall into exactly that category – there’s nothing wrong with that but they’re just not good investments.

With that in mind, let’s review the candidates one by one.

Solomon had a good idea that met a specific need that isn’t well served in the market. In many ways he was also credible. What he crucially lacked, however, was the ability to articulate his idea in words and numbers. If you don’t have a plan on paper, you have no plan – only an idea. And while ideas are crucial, they are not persuasive to investors. Numbers talk in business.

Roisin was scuppered by the fact her unique ingredient wasn’t actually unique, but even if it was the reality is that it wouldn’t take long until a bigger competitor – most likely a supermarket own-brand line – imitated her product and muscled her out. The bigger issue is that £250,000 doesn’t get you far in this sector. By the time she had invested in product development and testing, manufacturing capacity and all the other things you need to do just to get to square one, never mind on to supermarkets’ shelves, she would have needed a lot more cash – and with still only a slim chance of success in a hugely competitive area.

Daniel’s plan was fatally flawed because event planning is something that doesn’t translate well online. And he himself has never been a credible candidate. While his passion and hard work are admirable, they were outweighed by his tendency to make outlandish claims about his own ability. Over-promising and under-delivering on a consistent basis is one of the biggest sins you can commit in business – Daniel did that over and over again.

What of our two finalists? As we did last year, we have one product-based idea and one service-based one.

Bianca’s hosiery plan is inherently risky: it’s a new area for her to move into and requires a significant investment in manufacturing and stock. However, she has started up a business successfully before, her idea has the blessing of a market expert and even if the venture doesn’t succeed the manufactured inventory has an inherent if lesser value – it would be written down but unlikely to be completely written off. She has also proven she understands what she needs to do, and she comes across as professional and credible.

So does Mark who, despite being portrayed as this season’s pantomime villain and sailing a bit too close to the wind at times, impressed his interviewers with his clarity of purpose and calm, professional manner. His plan is equally conservative and risky: it’s in his comfort zone, he knows the market and there is definite demand, but it’s also an area where competition already exists. The one clear advantage he has over Bianca is that it is easier for him to start small and then scale up over time, and he would require less direct support from Sugar as it’s a simpler operation that he already knows well.

For me there’s little to separate the pair, and it will come down to which plan Sugar is more comfortable with. But if I had to guess right now, I’d say Bianca.

Next time: With some help from some old friends (Sanjay, Felipe, Katie, Daniel, Sarah, James, Lauren and Solomon), the two finalists must launch their business ideas to the world.

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12 Comments on The Apprentice S10 Ep11: And then there were two

  1. Good review. I have to disagree about Bianca. Not about her capability or the viability of her plan – I was impressed by both – but I wasn’t impressed by her thin skin and to be honest I think Ricky went too easy on her both in the interview and in the boardroom.

    Roisin’s plan was fatally naive – as to be fair, she fully realised on ‘You’re Fired’ – but it’s hard to get over the feeling that Lord Sugar never liked her; that she was too polished and soft spoken. As I’ve said before she seemed to have a very hard time winning praise from him throughout the series and it adds a sour taste to his ‘with regret’. I’m also baffled by the description of her as an Ice Queen. Leah from last year was an Ice Queen, all arrogant and hard. Roisin was soft spoken and quite emotional (in fact I’m positive the lack of exit interview is because she burst into tears in the taxi.)

    Solomon always seemed lightweight to me so I wasn’t remotely surprised he fell apart.

    • Solomon made a catastrophic error, which ruined a very presentable candidate with a very good business idea. But, as Claude pointed out, he couldn’t recommend an idea without a plan to Sugar.

      I’m still not sure how much Sugar was against Roisin because she was an accountant. I actually think he’s right that candidates who don’t have a commercial background because they lack experience or have not worked in a customer-facing role have to prove themselves that much more. I think Roisin did that, but she was let down at the last by a badly flawed business plan. I cannot begin to emphasise how difficult the ready meals market is – you have to persuade the major supermarkets to give you space in their chiller cabinets, and if you go into any supermarket you’ll notice that most of their ready meals are own brand products. As for her idea that she could get credit from customers, that was laughably naive. It’s the other way around – retailers demand very generous payment terms from their suppliers.

      I don’t think Bianca’s momentary weakness will be an issue. She was caught off guard by Claudine’s pointed personal question, and that affected her in Ricky’s interview. Put her back in a professional business task, and she’ll be fine. She has the same kind of toughness that we saw in Saira Khan and Ruth Badger.

      • Hmm, I think your giving Sugar too much credit there. While I agree that non-commercial candidates do have more to prove again I got the strong feeling that no matter how good Roisin had been he would never have given her the time of day during the tasks (which again makes her being fired ‘with regret’ distastefully hypocritical.)

        I don’t think Bianca’s weakness will be an issue – in fact I was stressing that it should have been. I suppose I should admit that while I don’t dislike Bianca I don’t have a particularly favourable impression of her either (maybe it’s my preference for the old format but I think she had several lucky escapes). Since I actively dislike Mark it will be hard to get invested in the finale.

        • That may be the case, Ross – we’ll never know. But I do think that Sugar puts a lot of stock behind a candidate’s relevant commercial experience. If someone has set up their own business before, he values that over someone with, say a business degree with no experience – and, even as someone with business qualifications, I agree with that. If someone has shown the drive and determination to get things done rather than sit there having ideas and strategising, that too is a plus point. Roisin and to an extent Solomon were both in the same boat there of having to do a little bit more to prove that they could ‘do’ rather than just ‘think’.

  2. Great review. It’s Bianca’s to lose, in my opinion. As long as she doesn’t sell exclusivity to her tights for a tenner to Westminster..

    • I can see genuine pros and cons for both business cases. Sugar, as we know, prefers products to services, but having said that his last two winners, Leah and Ricky, both work in service industries.

  3. We did discuss some of the issues over Twitter and I think that in general you are right and it is a good review.

    Roisin (which my bloody autocorrect made Raisin last night) would have won the old Apprentice when a job was on offer. I have had a quick Google of konjac and there is lots of stuff around but to find a ready meal is more difficult even if Mike did find some. Roisin really didn’t learn: my point last night was that Bianca adapted her plan in a minor way that made her stronger whilst Roisin merely reiterated the strength of her idea. It was naive in the extreme and for an experienced chartered accountant to get her numbers so wrong was a major mistake. You are also right about the difference between an ambient bottled product (such as Regae Regae) and a chilled ready meal: thinking of my last visit to the supermarket I am fairly certain that the vast majority of ready meals these days are supermarket own brands. And in view of the “magical” properties of konjac there must be difficulties in using it in this way.

    I think that Daniel’s idea is more flawed than the interviews exposed. You cannot plan a wedding or any other event without a significant amount of legwork. Venues need to be visited and the details, the important little things that make the day, discussed with the venue events team, the caterers, the florists and so on. I think he will be better served by upscaling his business in smaller steps rather than trying to make the big jump with someone else’s cash. But it is a crowded business segment and the exposure he has received will no doubt help him. I agree with you about his sales obsession: he has failed to see that The Apprentice is not one long sales task and I think has obsessed with selling above all else.

    Solomon has no excuse, not even his age, for failing with a business plan. You can download templates from the web and there is no shortage of advice. He will learn and he is a bright and articulate person and will succeed but he failed big time here. As Claude said, it is difficult to appraise the idea when it is so lacking in detail. As far as his cv and application go, I think that the reason it was so good is simply because he is a confident young man with an excellent academic record and a decent record in his business. He did not need to invent awards or claim to be a super salesman as his record spoke for itself.

    So, to the finalists. I don’t like Mark and I think we see him start to play the mind games in the return to the Apprentice house. His idea is sound enough as it sticks to what he knows, and if it wasn’t for Ricky Martin’s own success I would have said that it was not something that Lord Sugar would go for. I was also wrong about cosmetic surgery last year! Bianca’s idea is excellent and has resounding endorsement from the interviewers and industry experts. Sugar will not worry about the manufacturing details not only is he from a manufacturing background in this process we have seen scented products, board games, soft drinks and desserts manufactured and branded, albeit on a small scale.

    So now we have a final task that is purely subjective. Lord Sugar must simply hope that it can be edited to justify the result he wants. I know who my money is on, but with my track record that is hypothetical money!

    • The biggest issue I can see with Bianca’s plan is how big her range will need to be. Like Claude, I’ve been doing my research today. If she wants to have a range of skin-matching colours, that’s a fair number of different product lines already. Then for each of those she needs to have a range of sizes (at least S, M and L). Then she will probably want to offer at least 2-3 different deniers (weights/thicknesses), and then you can have matt or gloss finishes too. Assume she starts with 10 colours (and I think she will need more), and that’s, say 10 x 3 x 2 x 2 = 120 different lines already. That all adds up to complexity in manufacturing and complexity for retailers too. Who’s going to stock 120 different sets of tights – and to achieve Bianca’s aim of matching skin tones, she will need retailers to take at least most of that range.

      Mark’s market is hugely competitive but he is very credible in that area. It also seems to me that the business model is very similar to Ricky’s (basically some people, some phones and some office space) – and in the boardroom I noticed Sugar made a point of saying that his business is already profitable in year 2. That must give Sugar some pause for consideration.

      I’ll pass over Roisin’s plan, other than to say that the difficulties involved in succeeding in this market were actually massively undersold in the episode.

      Solomon: good candidate, good idea, lousy plan. I still believe that, with a decent plan document, he could have been in the final. I really liked his idea and I think Sugar did too – to the point where I wonder whether this might just be another Susan Ma where he ends up investing in the project outside of the show.

      Daniel, well. I didn’t buy his plan at all. And I do hope he does apply some of the lessons he has learned, although I have my doubts. As you say, he was so obsessed with making the process about being a showcase for his sales abilities – only to discover that he wasn’t even close to being the best seller in the group. He always lacked credibility for me – over-promising and under-delivering is not a mistake you get away with making repeatedly in business.

  4. I don’t buy tights but aren’t they one size? And if you had an efficient delivery system you could get away with holding very few of each? 10 shades is quite good but as it is a major step forward perhaps many will accept something that is not perfect but is much closer than previously available until she gets established? It is not a large stock holding in terms of cash as most tights retail for a fiver or so so.

    Daniel was massively insecure and that encouraged his boasting. And you are right, expectations management is key in business at all levels. I disagree about Solomon’s plan – it might be decent but he didn’t offer anything on which Lord Sugar can make a judgement.

    As you say, Mark’s market is competitive but he has proved that he can sell, he knows his business and without Ricky’s success I would never have given him a hope just as I wrote off Ricky two years ago!

    • They usually come in multiple sizes (S/M/L/XL). My concern with the size of Bianca’s range is not so much the logistics end of the operation as the retailer end. Her proposition is dependent on being able to find the right tone and size for every woman, which is negated if the retailer only has the space/desire to stock, say, 20 lines. It definitely would work online in that respect, but I’m not sure how many women would buy tights sight unseen, trusting that they’ve got the right colour and size.

      I don’t disagree that Solomon should have been fired – he absolutely should – only that I wonder what would have happened if he had had a well-written business plan, as he impressed Claude in other respects. The idea itself seems fundamentally sound – as a distribution business, it’s similar to Luisa’s last year in that respect but sits in more of a gap in the market, I believe.

      I too wrote off Ricky two years ago – but the similarities between his start-up model and Mark’s are striking. And, as Sugar pointed out in the boardroom, he is already profitable in year two. That statement was a pat on the back for Ricky, but I wonder if it was also a subtle bit of foreshadowing for Mark.

  5. Louisa Radice // December 18, 2014 at 9:58 pm // Reply

    I don’t understand what’s going on here. The candidates all had to submit their business plans before being accepted onto the show. It’s obvious that the four trusted advisers have all seen the plans well in advance – it stretches credibility that Mike Soutar managed to do his research into both the hosiery market and the ready meals market on the morning of the interviews day. So what is the point of the candidates having to produce a second version of their business plan on the day before the interviews? Is it a test to see how much they can remember of what was in their original document?

    • The handing over of the business plans is just for show, Louisa. Of course the plans have been submitted well in advance. All four interviewers had clearly done their homework on the five candidates. It wasn’t just the konjac products – remember, Mike had checked up on Daniel’s false sales award claim and ensured he had Solomon’s mobile too. (Just as last year he had a Rubik’s cube ready to test Jordan’s claim he could solve it in three minutes.)

      And Claude has always looked in detail into the financials of the business plan – for instance, in season 5, he surprised eventual winner Yasmina Siadatan by revealing he had obtained the annual accounts of her existing restaurant business. (Yasmina was shocked that he’d been able to do that, but in reality anyone can download those from the Companies House website in two minutes.)

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