After 12 gruelling weeks on The Apprentice, it came down to this. Mark Wright and Bianca Miller. Two contrasting candidates, two contrasting management styles and two contrasting business plans. One male, one female. One an inclusive delegator, the other a ruthless micro-manager. A business-to-business service offer versus a consumer product. But who did Lord Sugar pick as his new business partner?
Bianca’s plan was coloured tights
Boost search rankings for Mark Wright
Twelve long weeks, one final pitch
Winner, loser – which was which?
Day 1: Research and branding
Bianca and Mark are summoned to the Bloomsbury Ballroom, where they will present their businesses to a room full of industry experts. But first comes three days of hard work, in which they must conduct market research, design brands and film promotional videos.
To assist them, eight former candidates have been brought back: Daniel Lassman, Felipe Alviar-Baquero, Katie Bulmer-Cooke, James Hill, Lauren Riley, Sanjay Sood-Smith, Sarah Dales and Solomon Akhtar. Bianca wins the coin toss and selects Katie first, while Mark chooses Solomon. Felipe, Sanjay and Lauren follow in quick succession, but there’s then a noticeable pause before Mark opts for James.
This leaves Daniel and Sarah. Bianca weighs up whether it’s worth taking Sarah just for the comic value of forcing Daniel to work with his nemesis Mark, but in the end she does pick him, leaving Sarah to join Mark.
Both finalists start by outlining their business idea to their teams, although Daniel is quick to tell Bianca:
You got me fired but I hate Mark more, so you’ve really got me behind you.
Daniel hates Mark? I can’t say we’d ever noticed that.
Bianca’s plan is to launch a range of tights which are accurately matched to a wide range of skin tones, pitched at the luxury end of the market with a retail price of £35. She adopts Felipe’s suggestion of True Skin as a brand name. Mark’s online digital marketing agency, christened Climb Online, will help small and medium-sized companies to boost their search engine rankings.
The teams head out to conduct research. Sanjay and Sarah soon discover that there are lots of similar digital agencies, and a more personal service would be a good differentiator.
Lauren, Katie and a bored Daniel’s hosiery research mostly seems to involve collecting mannequin legs. Meanwhile Bianca meets the MD of premium tights brand Wolford, where she is advised that her range of 30 colours, each in two weights and three to four sizes – which means as many as 240 separate product lines – is too ambitious. It’s good advice, as it’s expensive to produce and hold that much inventory and, more importantly, no retailer will have either the space or the desire to stock that many variants of a product which is premium-priced and therefore niche in volume. She’s also told that £35 is too much, compared to the established Wolford’s typical £22.
Bianca, to her credit, listens and adapts, realising she needs to reduce both her range and her price. But it’s concerning that her starting point is so out of kilter with the market and suggests she perhaps doesn’t understand her proposed business as well as it first appeared.
The next task is to design brands. In Bianca’s case, this also means product packaging. The design and colours she and Felipe come up with are bland and don’t look premium. (Still, at least there’s no gingham.)
Mark is feeling the stress but he continually involves his team, makes them feel valued and is quick to congratulate them while at the same time being direct and getting on with things quickly. It’s an excellent example of how to bring a team along with you and speaks well to his ability to lead his own business.
Day 2: Market testing and promotional video
The following morning, Bianca takes delivery of her packaging mock-ups. This includes a colour wheel for customers to use to help match the right product to their skin tone, with each colour being given a woman’s name to make it feel more personal – a clever touch. Daniel gives it a go and is told by Bianca:
You’re looking like you might be a bit of a Charlie.
While Bianca goes off with Katie to film her video, Felipe, Lauren and Daniel introduce the brand to a group of businesswomen. They love the concept but the packaging is criticised as too basic, and one lady says that for £24 she’d expect two pairs rather than one. When they feed back to Bianca, she stands by the packaging but takes heed of the concern over pricing.
At a climbing centre, Sanjay and James support Mark with the creation of his video. The normally smooth Aussie stumbles repeatedly with his delivery to camera – bringing memories of his Tesco nightmare back – but after several goes finally manages to get a good take recorded.
Meanwhile Solomon and Sarah talk to potential customers. At a hair and makeup academy which typically spends £3,000 a month on search engine optimisation (really?!?), they practically seal an order for the fledgling business.
As the finalists edit their videos in the evening, the contrast between their management styles becomes more apparent. Mark is inclusive, encouraging and openly appreciative of his team’s efforts. Sanjay notes he gets the best out of everyone. Bianca, who’s working with Katie on the editing, shoos the rest of her team away, leaving Lauren complaining about “a poor managerial decision”.
Bianca rationalises her actions by saying she needs to focus on getting things done in the right way. She does have a point – sometimes as a leader you need to be single-minded and not get bogged down – but that can come at the cost of alienating your team. There are times when you need the ruthlessness of Bianca’s method, while at times it’s better to take Mark’s approach of allowing a little more time to ensure the team knows they are valued and listened to. The best leaders instinctively know which leadership style to use in which situation. Judge for yourself which is the more effective approach here.
Day 3: Launch
The final day requires both teams to orchestrate the launch event and for the finalists to deliver their presentations in the ballroom.
Bianca continues to wrestle with her pricing. Lauren suggests dropping the price to £15 to give her products more mass market appeal, but Bianca is adamant that she retains a premium positioning. Higher prices of course mean higher margins, but a keener price point drives volume. It’s a tricky conundrum with no definitive answer.
Mark admits he’s feeling the nerves, and sure enough he stumbles during the technical rehearsal. Sanjay proves himself to be an invaluable teammate as his natural optimism enables him to provide support and encouragement at just the right moments when his leader is showing signs of buckling.
Again, there’s a market contrast between the finalists’ approach to managing this final day. Bianca is all over the detail of the launch event, right down to choreographing every step her models will take. Mark, desperate to find time to get his presentation word-perfect, delegates James and Solomon to organise a bizarre introductory mime that looks like it was arranged by two seven-year-olds. Only two-seven-year-olds would probably have done a better job.
As Karren Brady observes:
He’s left James and Solomon in charge of entertainment … their idea of entertainment and a corporate idea of entertainment could be very far apart.
Ultimately, however, bizarre mime aside, both Bianca and Mark pitch well, although there’s a horrible moment at the beginning of Mark’s presentation when he coughs and hesitates – just as he did at Tesco – but then launches in, and once he’s started he’s fine.
Bianca fields questions with her usual professional polish but the assembled experts’ overriding concerns are that her final price point of £20 is still too high to generate the volumes she’ll need to be profitable, that her 240-line range (15 colours in four sizes, two thicknesses and both gloss and matt finishes) is too complex, and that her branding and packaging are poor. None of those are insurmountable, but it does call her strategy into question.
Despite his last-minute preparations, Mark demonstrates that he understands his business model inside out and has thought through the detail of how he will deliver the personalised service which is his business’s unique selling point. His answers are convincing, although they raised concerns for me about whether he can sustain the cost of managing such a high contact face-to-face service. However, he impresses the experts with his experience and poise, and they seem convinced that he has the graft needed to succeed in such a competitive market space.
There are pros and cons with each business, but on my scorecard Mark is ahead on points. But, of course, what matters most is what’s on Sugar’s card …
Before getting down to the serious business, Sugar gets his jokes in early, asking Felipe if he ever assembled the paper skeleton that got him fired and checking with James that he understands that a search engine is not what you send out to look for Thomas the Tank Engine. Oh, how we laughed.
Mark’s exemplary team management comes to the fore when Sugar interrogates him. He refers to Sanjay as his “guardian angel”, while James says it was a pleasure to help him.
Karren sums it up:
You’re a good team player, Mark, you are. You’ve really got the best out of everybody.
When Sugar quizzes him on whether he will burn all his investment before turning a profit, Mark demonstrates his command of his business model, quoting anticipated salaries and the minimum level of spend per customer which will make their business worthwhile. It’s impressive, and shows the value of his idea being in a familiar area.
Sugar jokes with Bianca about her colour wheel (“I was going to give this to my builder to decide what shade of tea he likes”) and about Nick having heart palpitations at the sight of the leggy catwalk models used in her presentation. But although he likes the concept, she has to work hard to defend her huge range and whether her premium pricing approach will ever allow her to achieve the desired scale. There’s also the matter of the significant up-front cost in developing the product range, setting up manufacturing and producing initial inventory.
Nick and Karren argue Bianca and Mark’s cases respectively. Nick reminds Sugar that Bianca’s concept is strong and that he’s a product man – although that ignores the fact that the last two winners, Leah Totton and Ricky Martin, both operate in service industries. Karren praises Mark as an exceptional individual who manages his team well, knows the industry and doesn’t require hand-holding.
As ever, it all comes down to Sugar’s decision – and his choice for his new business partner is … Mark. On balance, I have to agree.
Bianca has been gracious in defeat, recognising that she lost to a worthy winner:
If you lose to someone who isn’t very good, it’s upsetting, but Mark is very credible. I was happy to go up against him and if I was going to lose, to lose to him was the best I could hope for, really.
Did the right person win? Whether or not you agree with Sugar’s choice, we shouldn’t forget that he has much better information to go on than we do. What we see in this final episode is largely superficial – although not insignificant. It’s worth remembering that this is the only time in the entire process that Sugar gets to see the finalists actually perform on task, and what he observed at the presentations – where, to my eye, both Bianca and Mark performed strongly – will have gone a long way to reassuring him that he is investing in the right person.
However, Sugar’s final decision is based as much on identifying the better plan as it is on choosing the better candidate. And it’s here where Sugar has the advantage over even the most experienced viewer. We can draw our own conclusions – but we have much less detailed data than Sugar. And the devil is very much in the detail.
Bianca’s concept was praised for identifying a tangible gap in the market, but is there a large enough market in that gap to sustain a business? Given that her idea is hardly a revolutionary step in a well-established market, why hasn’t another manufacturer done it already? Most likely because they don’t think it could be implemented effectively or profitably enough. That’s not to say that a small, focussed, start-up can’t succeed where a larger company is unwilling to go, but it does raise concerns.
The other big issue for me is that it became apparent that Bianca didn’t understand her market as well as it first appeared. Her initial price point was far too high – since the final was filmed, she has said she will reduce her price to £7.99 – and she failed to appreciate that retailers wouldn’t want or have the space to take her entire range. As someone moving into a completely new (to her) industry, she would need a lot of hand-holding to negotiate her learning curve when it comes to retailing and manufacturing.
Mark, on the other hand, has the advantage of knowing the market he wants to operate in. Like Ricky’s recruitment business, it should be relatively cheap to start up – all he needs are a couple of people, some phones and some office space, and the business can then be scaled up as it grows. The downside is that search engine optimisation is a crowded space – but given Mark’s previous track record and management ability, if anyone can succeed in this market it’s him.
Ultimately, Sugar will have ensured both finalists’ plans were scrutinised to ensure that accurate and realistic forecasts were built, and these would have provided a significant input into his decision that we’re not privy to. Sugar is his own man and trusts his own instincts, but ultimately numbers talk and he will have looked to see which business is more likely to recoup his investment – and give him an additional return on top – in a reasonable length of time. And it would seem the answer to that is: Mark.
So did Sugar make the right decision? He will certainly have made a more informed and expert decision than you or I ever could. But there are no certainties in business. Only time will tell if he really did make a good choice. That’s the nature of investments – there’s no such thing as a sure thing.