Five became two as Lord Sugar‘s team of interrogators asked the sort of questions you would never get away with in a normal interview – and received in return the sort of answers that no credible candidate would ever give in a proper interview. At the end of a gruelling grilling, three were sent packing while the remaining two survived to battle it out on one last task for Sugar’s £250,000 investment.
Meet the rottweilers
The candidates are given 24 hours to swot up on their business plans to prepare for their
interrogations interviews. We see them all tapping away furiously at their laptops. Obviously they’re not typing up their business plans, which were submitted at the start of the process – so presumably they’re just updating their Twitter and Facebook statuses and playing Angry Birds.
The following morning sees them whisked off to the Institute of Directors. Folders are handed over to Nick Hewer and Karren Brady. I’m not sure why they would pass them their business plans, given that (a) their interviewers have clearly had access to them in preparation and (b) Nick and Karren aren’t interviewing. Maybe the folders contain their last will and testatments, just in case one of Claude Littner’s infamous verbal eviscerations becomes physical?
Anyhow, Sugar’s group of four
rottweilers sadists interviewers comprises:
- Claude Littner: Sugar’s former global business troubleshooter. A bit like John Harvey-Jones, but without the hair or the waistline.
- Margaret Mountford: Karren Brady‘s predecessor, and the much-loved Queen of the Arched Eyebrow™.
- Mike Soutar: One of the pioneers of the free magazine industry.
- Claudine Collins: Managing director of media agency MediaCom.
Their primary task is to show up the final five’s business plans and CVs for the works of fevered imagination that they are. Candidate by candidate, here are the key soundbites from each interview.
Business plan: A dance/fitness class business.
Francesca kicks off her interview day experience with Claude, which is a bit like sending a novice skier out on a black run at night in the middle of a blizzard. She doesn’t help herself by being unable to remember her own financial figures, talking of “turning over a profit” (a minor slip in terminology which Claude treats about the same as “I’ve just kidnapped your children”) and then admitting that her claim of running businesses with a £5m turnover is just a fabrication based on “the number five just came into my head”. As a famous philosopher (okay, Charlie Brown) once said, “Good grief!”
Claudine – who appears to have been given the brief of discovering more about who the candidates are as people – probes her reputation for fairness and her unease with the game-playing tactics of others. By which, clearly, she means Luisa – unless she’s referring to all those happy unaired evenings in the Apprenti-Mansion™ where they all played table football.
The perception that Francesca is one of the duller characters is only reinforced by Margaret’s arched-eyebrow response to her application form claim that the most interesting thing about her is her shoe collection.
Business plan: An online platform to allow hobbyists and brand owners to create their own mobile games.
Both Claudine and Margaret quiz Jordan about his role as president of Oxford Entrepreneurs, which he explains as being a full-time role where he advised budding start-ups on strategy, marketing and vision. Claudine accuses him of jumping on to other people’s ideas and teases the admission out of him that the only business he has ever set up was trading on eBay as a teenager.
Claudine also establishes what we already knew from last week’s boardroom, that Jordan has an existing business partner who writes the software whereas he is the creative and visionary. Mike pursues a similar line of questioning, suggesting that Jordan is no more than a middle-man and his partner is the real brains – to which Jordan responds by modestly saying he is like Apple’s Steve Jobs was to Steve Wozniak. More damaging is the revelation that his claim to be a co-founder of the proposed business is untrue.
Mike also calls Jordan out on his claim that he can solve a Rubik’s cube in less than three minutes by producing said puzzle – every modern interviewer keeps one handy for just such an occasion, don’t you know? – and challenging him to prove it. Naturally, he fails. By the way, the world record is 5.55 seconds:
(Incidentally, the world record for solving the cube using only your feet is 27.93 seconds.)
But the best is kept for last, as Jordan meets Claude. We just know how this is going to go when Jordan opens with a jaunty “Hello, I’m Jordan”, to which Claude growls back, “I know you are.” Things rapidly deteriorate, as Claude tells him this isn’t his business, that he isn’t a shareholder in it and therefore has no right to be offering it to Sugar as a partnership, and that he is only offering 15.39% equity rather than the mandated 50% anyway. (As I said last week, did Jordan think he was going on Dragons’ Den?) Disgusted, he throws Jordan out, summarising his position as:
You’ve got no right to be here because you’re feeding on somebody else’s idea, somebody else’s business. You’re a parasite.
At this point, I think it’s fair to assume that Jordan won’t be in the final.
Business plan: Facial aesthetics clinics to carry out non-surgical cosmetic procedures.
Claude, who is clearly having one of his grumpy days (nothing new there, then), doesn’t think Leah’s business plan is great. He questions her first year profit projection of £265k, only for Leah – she of the photographic memory – to calmly reel off a detailed cost and margin breakdown which reveals how meticulously she has prepared her plan. And also just how fast she can speak if she wants to. (Have you ever listened to a podcast on an iPod at 1.5 times normal speed? It’s like that.)
Claudine pulls her leg about claiming she is more glamorous and has more voluminous hair than any other applicant for the show. More seriously, she raises the moral issue of making money by preying on young people who don’t like the way they look. Leah defends herself well, however, saying that this essentially condemns all cosmetic surgeons.
Business plan: A new one-stop shop baking brand, offering independent bakers a full range of products.
Claude is impressed with the success of Luisa’s three existing businesses. Her online electronics and baking businesses turn over £1.5m pa and £40k a month respectively, while her cupcake shop generates a more modest £100k pa.
Mike is less impressed initially, noting that Luisa variously claims to be a manufacturer, a wholesaler and a retailer and accusing her business plan of being “half-baked” (boom! boom!) However, upon further questioning he learns that she has identified a clear problem in the market and is offering a clear solution for it as she provides good examples not mentioned in her business plan. (I mean, why would you put anything helpful like that in a business plan? I wonder what Luisa’s plan actually says. Something like “Look at me, I’m so pretty and wonderful”, presumably.)
Margaret is also unimpressed, noting that the candidate who claims she has “a brain like Einstein” earned rather modest C, D and D grades in her AS-levels. (Mind you, Einstein also failed many of his exams, although he did do rather well in physics and maths.)
Luisa fails to impress Claudine by openly referring to a previous boss as “an idiot”. She is accused of being manipulative, stubborn, game-playing and unprofessional, but claims that (a) those aren’t necessarily bad qualities (which they aren’t, if you’re Machiavelli) and (b) she has changed during the process. Claudine does not look convinced.
Finally, what’s Luisa’s motto for dealing with times of stress?
When in doubt, smile and pout.
I really must try that some time.
Business plan: An online estate agency which vendors can use to sell their own homes, and which estate agents can use to advertise their existing properties.
There is a consistent theme running through most of Neil’s interviews where he defends the viability of his business model with his usual passion and 100% conviction, but none of the interviewers buy it for a second. For instance, Claude tells him he can’t possibly compete with the existing market leader, resulting in a yes I can/no you can’t/yes I can/no you can’t exchange which goes on almost as long as the Hundred Years’ War (which, fact fans, actually lasted for 116 years).
Margaret thinks the attraction of paying lower commissions would be outweighed by people not wanting the hassle of doing their own viewings. Mike is similarly unconvinced, as Neil refuses to compromise on any part of his plan.
Claudine, however, elicits a very human moment from him, as he discusses his biggest failure being letting his dad down by failing to make the grade as a professional footballer. Although that does make his late father sound like one of those overly competitive parents, no?
Sugar gathers his four rottweilers in the boardroom for a debrief on the five candidates.
Luisa is described as streetwise and bright, but also suffering from ‘spoilt child syndrome. Her business plan is sketchy but viable. Sugar makes a wisecrack about spending hundreds of thousands on hundreds and thousands.
Francesca is praised for having identified an emerging craze and being a self-starter, but concerns are raised about how much help she would need and her ability to scale the business. (I’m not sure why that’s such a big concern when the standard model for scaling this type of business is to set up franchises.) Sugar jokes about becoming Lord of the Dance.
Neil’s business plan is shredded, and although his passion and desire are praised it’s pointed out that his unshakeable self-belief is also a barrier to him refining his idea. Sugar is so disappointed he forgets to crack a joke.
Leah impressed the interviewers with her intelligence, research and credibility, although Claudine found her cold. Sugar: “Lunchtime facial fillers? Sounds like a big sandwich to me.”
Claude says he had to throw Jordan out. (Well, you didn’t have to, Claude.) He’s also criticised for not being a true entrepreneur, instead taking credit for other people’s ideas and successes. Sugar ponders about his ‘immersive mobile experience’, saying, “I thought that’s when you dropped your phone in the loo.”
As the five candidates are brought in, the writing’s clearly on the wall for Jordan, who is summarily dismissed by Sugar and receives not only the Digit of Doom™ but also an accompanying musical sting which we’ll call the Drums of Doom™. Just to underline how little we should think of him, we don’t even get to see his Taxi to Obscurity™ interview. It’s that bad. He’s evil. folks. Evil.
Next to go is Neil, with Sugar saying he is bitterly disappointed with his proposal – the right man with the wrong plan. It’s season seven runner-up Helen Milligan all over again. Neil, for so long Sugar’s favourite son in the process, is granted an extended Taxi to Obscurity™ monologue:
I feel like I’ve let not just Lord Sugar but obviously my family and my wife down. I’m absolutely heartbroken by it. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a tear in my eye and it’s probably not going to be the last one tonight because I put absolutely everything into trying to win this. I’m the right man without a plan and that is really gutting for me.
In the end, for all Neil’s initial bluster and unlikeability, he was arguably the most likeable of the final five by a distance.
Which, against all apparent logic for anyone who watched the first three weeks of this season, means the final three are all girls. Nick rams home the point that each has a credible business plan – which is what matters more than anything in the show’s current format.
Sugar ponders his options. He sees risk in Leah’s proposal, which could do more damage than Luisa’s cupcakes – Leah counters that she has the potential to make more money. He worries about Francesca’s ability to inspire, lead and scale the business. (Again, I repeat: franchising.) And he reiterates the concern about Luisa being a game-player, although her insistence that she has changed is backed up by both Leah and Francesca.
It’s decision time. He states he’s willing to take a gamble on Leah, and puts her through to the final. Then, despite saying with a straight face that “the dance studio has got legs”, he fires Francesca, who manages a gracious smile as she departs in the Taxi to Obscurity™:
I’m obviously gutted. I didn’t win but the final three, all girls – I’m really proud of myself.
So it’s Luisa versus Leah in the final. As Karren succinctly puts it, one finalist who has spotted a gap in a market (Luisa) and one who has identified an emerging market (Leah).
Next week: The final! Familiar faces return to ‘help’ the two finalists launch their business ideas for real. God help us.
The Apprentice final is on BBC1 next Wednesday, July 17th, at 8pm. Companion show You’re Hired follows immediately afterwards on BBC1.