Are You Sitting Comfortably?

Tom Pellereau The Apprentice

Finally, on The Apprentice: business plans, elevator pitches, and one long seduction lesson.

Week Twelve of The Apprentice found the “entrepreneurial elite” whittled down to the Not So Fantastic Four. Brainy Tom would be a shoo-in for the role of Dr Reed Richards, and you must admit that Susan Storm is a name that fits our highly strung skin care consultant as snugly as one of Edna’s gloves. Jim would relish employing his “dark underside” in playing Dr Victor von Doom. As for hard-working Helen, well she’s just a marvel, isn’t she?

To reference the perennially cheery golfer Phil Mickelson, it’s been a lot of fun. But all these weeks of buying, selling, brainstorming and (let’s be honest) bullshitting have all been leading up to the moment when someone finally claims the cash. Lord Sugar’s £250,000 business start-up pales into insignificance compared with last week’s £161 million Euromillions jackpot, but it’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

Last week’s pies ‘n’ sombreros fiasco delayed the much-anticipated return of Margaret Mountford. She was worth the wait, though. Before the grilling began, the candidates received the news that the final round of interviews would be even more taxing than usual. In previous years they’ve had their work cut out minding their P’s and Q’s, keeping track of all the fabrications in their CVs and, in Jamie Lester’s case, talking up that (apocryphal) third nipple. But this year’s process has been about finding a business partner for Lord Sugar, so he gave them 48 hours to write their business plans.

Bizarrely most of the candidates seemed to be writing the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper. (Apparently there was a severe shortage of laptops in the house this year.) But any technological deficiencies were soon lost in the blizzard of boasting that followed. “I am the best in this house” exclaimed Susan, while Jim declared he had something “amazing” in his business plan. Tom, saddled with the worst overall record in the tasks, optimistically announced that he’d “saved it all to the last”.

Margaret Mountford The Apprentice

The interview panel had a bit of a facelift this year. Marvellous Margaret and the choleric Claude Littner were joined by freemium magazine pioneer Mike Souter, and Matthew Riley, who was Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 2007. The new boys were less humourless and intimidating than Bordan Tkachuk and Alan Watts, but no one took long to detect the shortcomings in the Not So Fantastic Four’s plans for world domination.

Teflon-coated Jim managed to retain his sense of humour during what must have been a trying day. During the interludes he tried to (not so subtly) undermine the other candidates. Sadly, there was no hiding place from the scorn of Claude who was unimpressed by his War and Peace-length application form and extravagant claims about a “meteoric rise from zero to hero”. Jim’s stableful of equine analogies gave Margaret the (correct) impression that he is “a bit of an ass”. The biggest laugh of the night for me was when she enquired: “How do you set yourself apart? By swallowing the Oxford Book of Clichés?”

“I’m exactly what it says on the tin.” (Jim Eastwood)

Mike, who’s clearly been following this year’s show closely, also cut to the chase with Jim: “Do you have difficulty expressing yourself succinctly?” More damning was his conclusion that the Ulsterman’s “AMsmart” e-learning proposal for schools was “a feeble attempt to curry favour” with Lord Sugar by riffing on the Amstrad name. When we finally got a straight answer to a question, it turned out that he hadn’t actually spoken to any head teachers about his proposal to teach employability skills in UK schools.

Helen, who was looking very stressed throughout the interview process, admitted “Susan is driving me potty today”. All that youthful enthusiasm was a little overwhelming, as Matthew found out when he invited her to give him an elevator pitch on her “niche” organic skin care range, targeted at the mass market. Can you be both niche and mass market? A bigger problem was that Susan’s costings didn’t allow for testing the products. “This smells like bullshit” concluded Matthew, and he was right. As for her garbled line about “turning over £1 million pound profit in the first year” — forget it. It’s a very long way from Greenwich Market to going global.

“I am a really good sales guy and thank you for pointing that out.” (Jim Eastwood)

With her flawless manners and (almost) unblemished Apprentice record, Helen might have been expecting an easy ride. Margaret seemed mildly surprised to hear her ascribe some of that success to luck. Ironically, the woman whose big idea involved helping people find that crucial work/life balance is a workaholic. Challenged to tell an off-the-cuff joke, she floundered. Helen’s plan for a nationwide concierge service to deal with all those day-to-day chores was fatally undermined by her lack of contacts and the fact that it wasn’t a new idea. “Can you get me a table at the Ivy?” asked Matthew. Helen didn’t look as though she could even locate it without help from Google Maps.

“Would it be fair to say that your career is flagging?” You can always rely on charming Claude to kick you in the gonads. He did have a point. Affable Tom has lots of great ideas but isn’t great at following up on them. Come to think of it, he’s not that great at adding up figures either. (A common thread in this series.) Tom’s “confusing and obtuse” plan was all about reducing the incidence and cost of back pain. Put simply, it was about creating a really comfortable office chair. Unfortunately, Mike’s close scrutiny revealed that “one hundred per cent of your business plan doesn’t mention the word chair”. Tom looked suitably flabbergasted.

After the Schadenfreude, came the cosy sitdown with the experts. I really couldn’t guess who Lord Sugar was going to pick:

  • Helen had shown herself to be “incredibly organised” (according to Karren Brady), but lacks entrepreneurial flair. Her plan was “deeply flawed” as she hadn’t done enough research. Should have stuck to what she knows — ie baking.
  • Jim has a terrific sales patter but trying to pin him down was like “nailing custard to the ceiling”. Nick summed up his pitch as “one long seduction lesson” and Mike said it didn’t work without Lord Sugar.
  • Tom “the mad professor” and inventor of the curved nail file was criticised for not seeing things through. Karren wisely observed “He’s the one who’d most benefit from your involvement.”
  • In a flashback to the Paris episode, Susan was again dismissed as “naive”. But Margaret did see her as a genuine entrepreneur. That’s what the series is all about, yeah?

Pleasingly, Jim was the first out of the boardroom door. When it came to “Show me the money” it turned out that his e-learning scheme was likely to be non-profit. He didn’t have a clue about the financial aspects of last week’s task either, did he? His appeal to Lord Sugar’s philanthropic side fell on deaf ears: “Don’t play the sympathy thing with me.”

Susan was next to go, which seemed wrong to me. She did have a good idea, even if she was overreaching herself by a trifling few million quid. “I understand that I don’t understand” she flapped, as that dream of sharing her flawless skin with the rest of the world went south.

It was great to see Helen and Tom attacking each other (albeit politely) as we counted down to the big announcement. Lord Sugar had pronounced himself “terribly disappointed” by Helen’s proposal, which seemed to drain all the colour from her face. There was a Plan B — something to do with a chain of bakery stores — but it was all too late. In previous years she would have walked into the job, but this was a different ball game.

Timid Tom, usually so reluctant to blow his own trumpet, finally won it with a killer anecdote. It turned out that he got his famous nail files into Walmart stores by using his “creativity” and hand-delivering his parcel to the key buyer there. His chair idea might need some serious “tweaking” but, hopefully, it will be coming soon to an office near you. He was a deserved winner.

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