“I’m sitting right at the top.” Ricky Martin on why he’s the number one Apprentice

With his recruitment firm celebrating its fifth birthday, the 2012 Apprentice winner talks exclusively to Startups about working with Lord Sugar and more...

Winning series 8 of The Apprentice way back in 2012, Ricky Martin believes his success on the hit BBC One programme has allowed him to make a real difference with his “life changing company.”

A former professional wrestler, competing under the ring-name of Ricky Hype, it would be easy, but perhaps foolish, to dismiss his claim as just that – hype.

A show not known for its humble contestants, viewers and Lord Sugar alike have had to take such boasts of success with shovelfuls of salt.

But with his science and tech recruitment firm Hyper Recruitment Solutions celebrating its fifth birthday, the proof really is in the pudding for Martin.

A multi-million pound company that’s been profitable since year one, and with double digit growth year-on-year, the business already has a headcount of 40 employees with an additional 150 consultants.

Operating out of five UK offices, including locations in London, Manchester and Edinburgh, the specialist recruitment consultancy focuses on mid-level to senior appointments – and is born from Martin’s honours degree in Biochemisty as well as Lord Sugar’s £250,000 investment.

With Martin hosting an exclusive event at the Royal College of Chemistry to toast half a decade in business, Startups’ Shane Donnelly sat down with the entrepreneur to talk success to date, working with Lord Sugar, playing The Apprentice game, and more…

Milestones to date

With studies showing that upwards of 90% of all businesses will make their first birthday, it’s a sad fact of life that this percentage plummets as the years go on – with as many as four in 10 closing their doors before they enter year five.

Despite operating within a £35.1bn industry, coupled with billionaire backing in the form of Lord Sugar’s £250,000 investment, Martin was careful to target realistic yet significant milestones in order to ensure his business didn’t become another unfortunate statistic.

Explaining how gaining his first sale was vital because “it’s confidence that the business model will work”, Martin was all too aware that TV stardom is no guarantee of success in the real world.

“We can all draw pretty business plans but what happens in the real world is very different.”

Setting three key targets when launching Hyper Recruitment Solutions, Martin’s plan was to first make his initial sale, second to understand his costs and break even point, and third, to make his business turnover at least £1m a year.

The Apprentice Network

Five years since he left Alan Sugar’s boardroom as the last man standing, Martin says that a “kind of unofficial The Apprentice alumni” exits among former contestants.

Adding he would “speak favourably” of the majority of contestants he encountered during his stint on the BBC One show, when Martin started his recruitment firm Hyper Recruitment Solutions, he knew where to look for help when getting off the ground.

“One of the guys in my year was an exceptional graphic designer who had his own business which I used to support my brand and initial marketing.

“While one of the other contestants, who owned kitchen showrooms, kitted up my first office when I moved out from Lord Sugar.”

Now in its 13th series, the reality show has drawn criticism in some quarters that it’s become more of a Love Island in suits (though with less sex and more spreadsheets) with an emphasis on fame-hungry contestants rather than genuine entrepreneurial talent.

With a string of former candidates all admitting some of their cohorts only entered the process for a chance of an after-life in the tabloids, Martin says that while there’s definitely “two types of candidates”, only those interested in enterprise will get a call.

“There is an unofficial alumni that you can speak to, but it’s only the people that are serious about their own business. Those that are less interested in business are probably not included in that.”

Why he’s the number one Apprentice winner

Finding “great people for great jobs in an industry that saves lives”, Martin, who also won BBC’s Total Wipeout under the moniker Unassuming Ricky, is anything but when ranking himself against previous Apprentice winners.

Turning “significant profits”, and having a “sustainable growth plan”, Martin believes it’s more than just his impressive figures that showcase why he’s “at the top of the podium”.

Not just a one way system of support, Martin says he’s “lent on a lot” by Lord Sugar and points to his reoccurring appearances on The Apprentice as both interviewer and mentor as evidence of his place as the most successful Apprentice winner ever.

By no means alone in making that claim, Series 10 winner Mark Wright of Climb Online recently blogged for Startups on why he’s actually Lord Sugar’s best business partner ever – pointing to his £4m turnover and status as a Young Gun.

For Martin, the boardroom simply isn’t big enough for the both of them, and Mark Wright needs to ‘climb up’ the pecking order in order to match his success.

“Mark cracks me up. He’s full of waffle. He is your ultimate salesman, who’ll just throw these things out there.

“You will find Mark and I are the most competitive in the process, but I laugh every time I see that about Mark, because its completely manufactured out of his own hot air.”

Working with Lord Sugar

An East End boy done good, Martin’s business partner Lord Alan Sugar is not known for mincing his words either on-screen or on Twitter.

Somewhat of a TV villain, his near-superhuman ability to see through fluff and get straight to the point has been well evident throughout his 12 years hiring, and more often firing, contestants.

So, is this just a persona equally applied alongside his make-up for the cameras? Or is Lord Sugar really not so sweet?

“He’s no different, I think that’s perhaps why The Apprentice has lasted so long.

“I’ll go into a conversation with him and I’ll start saying whatever and he’ll just say ‘what are you actually talking about? Just get to the point!'”

Believing this brutal honesty to be his best business quality, Martin says Sugar is “a laser-beam for understanding what can go wrong” and can pinpoint problems in areas he may know nothing about.

Despite his directness, Martin admits he’s “not had one bad experience” with his billionaire business partner, but is quick to mention that they are only that, partners.

“We’re not best friends. We’re not going down the pub having drinks with one another but I’m not looking for that in a business partner.”

How to play the game

A grueling 12-week process, Martin saw off 15 other candidates, and three other finalists, to be crowned The Apprentice winner.

Believing genuine passion for your business plan is the ultimate key to coming out on top, Martin says any contestant looking to re-invent themselves specifically for the cameras will eventually be found out by the eagle-eyed Lord Sugar or his assistants Karren Brady and Claude Littner.

“Just be yourself. You won’t be able to sustain the process if you’re not you.”

With contestants literally sharing bedrooms, Martin says the continued pressure experienced by candidates is almost unlike anything you’d face in the real world.

With intense boardroom battles, often between team mates, are all Apprentice winner-wannabes willing and waiting to stab each other in the back?

“Everyone likes to think we are. But you’re actually each other’s lifeline.”

While contestants know that a team victory and short-term co-operation will guarantee them safety from the firing line, a more long term vision will see contestants attempt to throw each other under the bus – just for a chance of edging closer to that £250,000 investment.

Believing he was willing to admit when he made mistakes, Martin was happy to be on the receiving end of a teammate tongue lashing – so long as it was based on fact.

“In the boardroom, don’t stab me in the back for something that’s not true. Stab me for something factually correct, go for it. But just don’t put opinions in.”

With so much at stake for The Apprentice constants, does the drama we see onscreen represent the day-to-day living back in the shared house?

Martin says no.

“To disappoint people, candidates actually get on quite well.”

And his final advice for anyone looking to enter the process themselves?

“Get your business plan tested by people you know before you apply. I’ve spoken to people who’ve said ‘oh yea, I got my audition and then I came up with my business idea’ and I think they haven’t got a chance in a million years of winning.

To read last week’s blog by 2015 The Apprentice winner Joseph Valente click here.