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.
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 LocaSeason 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.
Business plan: To launch revolutionary new offerings in hosiery and shapewear.
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.
Business plan: A one-stop shop website on which people can plan and book events such as weddings.
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.
Business plan: To set up his own online marketing agency, to help clients achieve better results in search rankings and generate leads.
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.
Business plan: To launch her ‘Skinny Chick & Mr Lean’ range of virtually carbohydrate-free, ultra-low calorie ready meals.
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.
Business plan: ‘We Ship Start Ups’, a fulfilment service for university students wanting to launch their own products and other new start-ups.
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?
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?
What is Sugar looking for in his business partner? In simple terms:
- Is the business idea viable?
- Is the person behind the business idea credible – can they be trusted to turn the idea into reality?
- 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.