The Apprentice entrepreneurs

By: Mike Southon

Date: 24 May 2011

You may have noticed that the positioning for the new series of The Apprentice has been subtly shifted from business in general to entrepreneurship in particular. This is evidenced by the prize, which is no longer an opportunity to work for Sir Alan Sugar, but £250,000 for the winner to start their own business.

This makes sense, given the nature of the candidates. If not before, they will certainly be unemployable in the traditional sense after the series. They may be bright, hardworking people, but the nature of reality television is to entice the unwary in to saying or doing something stupid, and then broadcasting the output to many millions of people.

Having "failed Apprentice contestant" must be the last thing that the human resources director is looking for on a CV. It implies not only that your sense of judgement about your own strengths and weaknesses is suspect, but also that you are not a team player.

The premise of the programme is how quickly you can screw some revenue out of unsuspecting consumers while simultaneously stabbing your teammates in the back, so as to win the competition. Looking at this year's candidate auditions, most seem to fit the stereotype required by this kind of programme.

There are the morally challenged ("there is no time for Mr Nice Guy"), the over-confident ("can only see success on the horizon"), the morally confused ("a nice person, who isn't afraid to show her dark side if crossed"), the arrogant ("already knows it all; loud and aggressive, wants respect"), the two-faced ("intends to make friends with his fellow contestants, but also has no problem dropping them like a stone should he need to"), the unrealistic ("always gets everything she wants") and the deluded ("Lord Sugar will find me too good to be true").

All of these are also characteristics you find in many aspiring entrepreneurs. Mentors will tell you that the prime attribute required of the entrepreneur is an unshakable confidence in his or her own ability. They also need to be creative, charismatic, hard working, optimistic and ambitious.

All of these are excellent qualities, but to succeed as an entrepreneur is to understand that you also possess the opposite qualities in equal measure, being at times arrogant, poor at completing tasks, manipulative, prone to overwork, sarcastic and ruthless.

While these are great qualities if your only ambition is to eventually host The Apprentice yourself or be a panellist on Dragon's Den, this will not help you with your first task, which is forming a complementary team to turn your good idea into a great business.

To do this, you have to show the opposite qualities to those currently attributed to The Apprentice contestants; to have a clear moral purpose, to be pragmatic in the short term, to be nice to people at all times, to be humble and listen where necessary, to be loyal to others, to set realistic goals and finally to understand fully your own strengths and weaknesses.

All of The Apprentice candidates will leave the programme with some fame or notoriety and ideally will have learnt something from the experience. If they find the right mentors and are honest about their own shortcomings, then they have every chance of becoming a successful entrepreneur.

An interesting question for the candidates would be how they would actually spend the £250,000 if they won. Based on the candidate interviews, I suspect that many will spend some of this money on a fabulous website about themselves, with the rest used to hire a PR company expert in personal brand damage limitation.

Originally published in The Financial Times. Copyright ©Mike Southon 2011. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced without permission in writing. Mike Southon is the co-author of The Beermat Entrepreneur and a business speaker.

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