There is plenty to argue about in tonight�s episode and it would be easy to find clear and simple business lessons, whichever team had one, that would account for their victory and the other team�s loss.  But I don�t think that was what today�s episode really taught us.

Instead, I think the message is darker; perhaps the darkest yet, since I have been commenting on The Apprentice.

The task was simple: to buy second hand goods and to sell them at a mark-up in a shop unit in trendy East London.  This is �Business Starter 101� � low investment (our teams had �1,000 each to spend and let�s ignore the retail unit gratis) and rapid learning with the potential, when done well, of high margins.  We all have shop space cheaply available now and many people make a good living buying at car boot and jumble sales, and selling on eBay and at market stalls.  This is how Lord Sugar started.

The Teams and their Strategies

After some reallocation of team members, we can forget the Boys� and Girls� team epithets and stick to the team names.


Sterling chose Laura Hogg to lead, and her team were Ricky, Nick, Duane, Jane, Gabrielle, and Jenna.

Their plan was to �up-cycle everything� and in that plan, I learnt a new word: thank you.  They were to lean heavily on Gabrielle Omar�s design flair: she is an architect by training, and she took that lead role with enthusiasm and confidence.  They bought as much as they could with little discrimination and then fell upon a house clearance like a swarm of locusts on a botanical garden, even asking if they could strip the carpet.  The �Up-cycling� sub-team then intemperately ordered legs, castors, fabric, paint, knobs and all with which to improve their tat, in an orgy of distressing, re-painting and creating what can only be described as dada-esque chimeras from luggage and cheap wooden Queen Anne legs.  Karren Brady had the best lines today: it was �more shabby than chic.�

Sterling called their shop Vintage Gold which I thought a pretty good name and then further distressed its already scruffy look by strewing the floor with fallen autumn leaves: more distressing than distressed, really.  �Nature�s first green is gold� � not it�s last!


Phoenix chose Tom �spend as little as possible� Gearing to lead, and his team were, Jade, Katie, Azhar, Adam and Stephen.

Tom�s strategy was to spend as little as possible and to buy  only the best stuff � although despite rejecting so much, it was far from clear to me what his criteria were for �best stuff�.  They bought so little that, at one moment, we saw Adam �we need more stuff� Corbally rooting through the bins out the back of an auction house for anything they could get.  I certainly don�t think those rusty radiator clothes airers would meet Tom �Fine Wine� Gearing�s criteria.  This left them falling foul of one of Lord Sugar�s cardinal rules: �if you don�t have enough stock, you can�t make much profit.�  On the other hand, you could not accuse Tom of over-stretch and hazarding too much capital on stock.

Unlike Sterling, Phoenix chose to show their limited stock �au naturel� in what can only be described as a Spartan shop display.  As Nick Hewer commented: �there�s a difference between minimalism and empty.�  They called their shop Retro Station � another pretty good name.


It all came down to selling

We saw some examples of good selling and some of awful failures to engage with customers: none worse than Jane McEvoy�s pushy, aggressive and uncompromising style.  Half way through the day, Phoenix were running out of stock � from a low base � so Tom dispatched Adam, Jade and Stephen to buy more.  Sterling, however, were struggling to shift stock, so Laura made the inspired move of getting fliers printed with 10% discount vouchers and sending half her team into the surrounding streets to promote their shop.  This resulted in a real rush.  With one hour to go, both teams were knocking their prices to rock bottom and yet still some poor punter had to fight off a candidate who wanted him to take a chair for �1.  It reminded me of the earlier scene where a car boot sale stall holder relented on a price on the condition that the hapless candidates leave her stall.  This punter, however, had stronger will and left without the chair but, critically, with is pound!

Spoiler alert

So, how did the added value up-cycling shabby chic strategy fare against the low cost, low stock, minimalist strategy?

Here are the figures�













So, Phoenix won, with a strategy to buy good stuff and sell it in an uncluttered shop.  If they�d lost, I�d said they failed to buy enough stuff and had an empty-looking shop.

Sterling lost because they spent too much on distressing and up-cycling tat (over �230 worth of good new materials were wasted on it) and then failed to sell it.

The market has spoken, but who could authoritatively have predicted which strategy would win?

Both strategies work in East London�s smart second hand shops � although the ones that up-cycle do it with a lot more design flair and skill than Laura�s team showed.  So I guess with hindsight, the result was obvious. But where should the blame fall.

The Boardroom

Laura was clear: Gabrielle styled the stuff and spent over �230 on legs and knobs.  It was her fault.  Lord Sugar pointed out that she (Gabrielle) also sold the most and that Jane sold the least, by far (�10 worth).  Job done: three to face Lord Sugar for the showdown.  He also seemed clear on Laura�s part in the failure: �You didn�t get the plot on what to buy.  The shop looked like a tip.�

Lord Sugar did not blame Gabrielle: he admired her enthusiasm and felt Laura misplaced any blame she attached to her and was unfairly picking on Gabrielle.  He laid into Laura, though.

But this is what I wrote in my notes: �Laura getting battered but he has yet to turn to Jane.�
� and he did.

�I haven�t seen anything from you yet� he told her.  And I lapped it up, having predicted her demise last week.  Karren too was unimpressed by what she had seen and weighed in.  That was it.  Despite a very strong CV and a good track record with her real-world business,

�Nothing I have seen tells me you would be a strong business partner.  Jane, you�re Fired.�

The Darkness

I was pretty pleased with that result.  Laura performed poorly but, like Lord Sugar, she looked the stronger candidate.

But now I think I was wrong.

In last year�s blogs, I commented on the importance of recognising that all that we see is what the producers want us to see.  Masses of footage is tightly edited to make a short story each week. Like all stories, The Apprentice must have characters � who represent archetypes like stupid, clever, resourceful, capricious, manipulative, nasty, nice, and secretive.  I think I had almost started to forget this.

I have commented already that this series is a disappointment, but now I am wondering why: is it the candidates, or have the producers pushed the format too far?  Are there subtle shifts to make the final edit just a little too manipulative?  I think there are.  And here�s my big clue in the edit � before I give my key evidence from this week.  How often have we had true �laugh out loud moments� in this and the last series?  Rarely.  Set aside the candidates� mangling of the English language and its idiom (�never look a gift horse in the� eye?� Duane) and there are few howlers in the things the teams do.  Yet a few years back that wasn�t so.  I suspect that many of the candidates are at a higher standard than ever before � possibly because the new format offers investment in a business, rather than �just� a job.

But it was in watching Jane McEvoy on the �You�re Fired� show that I realised that there is a lot more to her than came out of the clips.  And passing reference suggested I was totally wrong last week in assigning all the blame and none of the credit for the first failed batch and second successful batch of Sterling�s chutney.

I wonder if the single view we get of the candidates  is not sometimes wholly unfair.  I accept that Karren saw a lot more of Jane and was equally unimpressed, but did she get the whole picture?  I was at times deeply aggrieved that senior colleagues � bosses � in my previous employer did not get to see some aspects of my work, making judgements that, I felt, partly missed the point.  I was biased, but so were they, by their particular view-point.

One of the pillars of true wisdom is Perception.  I wonder if The Apprentice is letting us down by deliberately crowding ours.

I reminded me of last year, feeling one early-departing candidate richly deserved her firing and then learning from a trusted business associate that she rated her professionalism very highly.

Jane, I fear I may owe you an apology.


The Other Candidates

It feels almost invidious to comment on performances after what I have just said, but it is worth noting that, I think, Gabrielle and Tom had a good week, but few others shone.    I think we may be due a double firing soon.

2 Responses to The Apprentice 2012, Episode 4: The Dangers of Perspective
  1. No question in my mind that the way the show is edited greatly influences our perception. When the producers are editing the shows – I remember once reading they film over 100 hours of footage for every episode – they have to put in an editorial slant based on their foreknowledge of who the finalists are. As such, the ‘better’ candidates must be made to look good, while the lesser ones are made to look evil/incompetent/arrogant/just plain silly for our viewing entertainment. In reality, the margins of difference are less extreme, I’m sure, but it would be no fun for us viewers if we couldn’t easily tell who was wearing white hats and who black!

    Both teams did well this week, I thought – as evidenced by their healthy profits – although I did prefer Tom’s well thought out strategy. He seemed to grasp that this task was unusual in that the teams did not have to buy all their stock in one go. As it was, he was able to send his sub-team out on day 2 to top up their stock, with the added insight of knowing what sort of stuff sold well. This minimised their risk well in terms of stock exposure. (Although I’m not sure about the quality of what was brought back.)

    Laura’s strategy might have worked better in the real world, but too much of what the team did with their upcycling looked very amateurish (although some was very good). Over-spending is a cardinal sin in any start-up situation, and it’s what kills many businesses in the early days. Walk first, run second.

    I haven’t seen You’re Fired yet, but my impression of Jane was that she is probably a very good MD in her own business, but didn’t really fit the mould of The Apprentice, where candidates need to be generally competent rather than very good at one specific thing. She had weaknesses in finance and general people management which were exposed here – but if you surround yourselves with people who compensate for your weaknesses and focus on exploiting your own strengths then they don’t matter so much. It’s a bit like being a footballer. Lionel Messi is a great forward, but he would probably be a lousy goalkeeper. He doesn’t need to be mediocre at everything when he is brilliant at what he does best!

  2. I am not sure Jane came across as particularly competent on Apprentice youve been fired. To say she was not passionate about the product and hence her reason for not selling well was just an excuse. The aim of the tasks is to win in order that you are not up for being fired. Going by her desperate approach it shows that she was keen to sell as much as possible. I feel if she had been a bit more emphatic about how she had got customers to go into the shop which drive up sales may have helped her a bit more in the boardroom.


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