You’re hired: 7 business lessons SMEs can take from this year’s The Apprentice

The search for Lord Sugar’s next business partner has been anything but smooth. Here’s 7 things entrepreneurs can learn from this year’s series.

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If the saying ‘learn from your mistakes’ is anything to go by, then this series of The Apprentice has been more informative than an Attenborough documentary.

For the candidates involved, The Apprentice offers a lucrative investment opportunity of £250,000.

But for a small business owner, it offers something much more valuable: practical advice on how, and how not, to run your business.

Ahead of this week's final, we’ve cringed our way through the series to come up with a list of the most valuable takeaways:

1. ALWAYS consider your target audience

Throughout series 16, the contestants have repeatedly fallen at the first hurdle by making decisions without considering their target audience.

The biggest offender was undoubtedly project manager Sophie who, despite being asked by the client not to make a product that was too niche ‘or tacky’, decided to install a red carpet, karaoke machine, and pink seat cushions into the team’s driverless pod car.

Cut to Nick and Akshay wearing glittery suit jackets to promote a ‘party pod’ to an audience of shell-shocked investors that had asked for a product with mass, corporate appeal.

The Apprentice

Ultimately, every business decision you make should first consider your target audience and how it is appealing to them – whether related to branding, suppliers, or even shipping options.

If you’re not attracting your target audience then you might as well be throwing nails at a darts board. Potential customers aren’t going to engage and your investors will also struggle to see the value in your idea.

Early on in your business plan, you should carry out extensive and thorough research into your audience, to work out things like what they want from a product, how much they want to pay, and what supplier they are currently using.

Anneka Wallington is founder and creative director at Recognised, a socially-minded jewellers. Wallington told us that it’s not just research, but also analysis that’s key when you’re carrying out market research.

“I was studying business and marketing at the time, so initially conducted a pestle analysis on the market which helped identify key trends, customer behaviour and competition. Most of all it highlighted a gap in the market.”

Learn more in our guide to how to use market research to launch or plan your business.

2. Know your partners

Finance is one of the most important resources for startups to succeed. According to CBInsights, 38% of dissolved startups said they failed because they didn’t have access to cash or failed to raise capital.

Convincing clients and/or investors to buy into your business is therefore a very important method to stay afloat. And in episode 3, we saw how easily it could all go wrong.

The two teams were tasked with designing a non-alcoholic drink. Project manager, Nick had the idea for Vodify, an alcohol-free vodka and lime drink. The branding was well-received, and the focus group liked the product.

So far, so good.

Pitching to supermarket giant, ASDA, Nick had a great chance at securing a large volume of orders and a huge amount of revenue for the team.

But, having committed the fatal mistake of not properly researching his target brand, he pitched Vodify as an up-market, premium brand. Representatives from ASDA, the store famous for its cheap deals and savings cards, instantly shook their heads.

The Apprentice

Nick questions his life decisions

A business relationship works both ways. You not only have to tell your partner what you want from them, but demonstrate an understanding of what your business has to give.

Be specific about how your business fits into their business model, and what you can offer that other brands can’t. For example, you might be manufacturing an organic food product, and all the brands a potential client is currently selling are conventionally grown.

As your organisation becomes more established, or you implement a marketing strategy, this will naturally become easier as potential clients become more aware of your brand and what it stands for.

Albert Larter, co-founder of Wakuda, has over 300 businesses selling on the platform. “We originally were sourcing vendors by joining different social media communities and reaching out to them via message. As we have grown our brand awareness, we’ve had a lot more vendors joining us organically via word of mouth.”

Our guide for how to market your business beyond the pitch deck has more information on what to include in your initial pitch.

3. Think before you price

Episode 6 saw the contestants being sent to North Wales to design two tour packages for poor, unsuspecting tourists.

Kathryn volunteered herself for project manager and immediately began throwing out pricing figures that seemed to have no thought or calculation behind them. (In her defence, it’s easy to lose your bearings with Karen Brady sitting behind you dressed like Anna Wintour).

Karen Brady

Sadly, for some reason, people weren’t keen on splashing almost £100 on a spur-of-the-moment zipline cave tour. The team was immediately forced to drop their price down to as low as £60 to get punters in, making just £8 profit per ticket.

What should they have done? Well, firstly, they should have carried out proper market research into their competitors and checked out how much tickets were selling for similar services. Easy.

Another important consideration when it comes to pricing is to carry out a spending forecast. Your pricing can be an incredibly influential factor in everything from your cash flow to your profit margins. It can also decide which expenses you can afford to cover.

Using a third-party accountant, or cloud-based accounting software, is the easiest way to do this and design a pricing model that will pay off.

4. Be passionate about your product

In a first for The Apprentice, week 9 saw the candidates stammering their way through hosting a live TV shopping channel.

Both teams wanted to sell the high-ticket item of a tanzanite ring. But first they had to win over the client.

Taking a more-practical approach, Stephanie and Kathyrn tried to woo the supplier by barking questions about price, shipment size, and discounts available.

Brittany and Aaron, in comparison, began by showing excitement and interest in the product. They also explained in detail their relevant experience selling jewellery – leading to a successful pitch which meant that her team ended up winning the task.

The Apprentice

Selling is a task that most startup owners will need to take on themselves, so it is vital you start your company with a strong sales strategy.

Genuine enthusiasm for a product is the best way to succeed as a salesperson. Be sure you can translate the passion you have for your business into a unique brand story to give you the edge in that all-important sales pitch.

Richard Osborne is founder and CEO of UK Business Forums, the UK’s most active online community for small and micro-business owners. Osborne told us: “A strong, personal reason for starting your own business will help keep you going and give you the motivation to carry on – and it’s really important that you have that in the first place.”

5. Proofread your business plan. Thoroughly.

There have been few moments more golden in the history of The Apprentice than in episode 5, when the entire sub-team of Diverse didn’t realise that the word ‘Arctic’ is spelt with two ‘c’s.

Apprentice

This led to an excruciating moment in their investor pitch when they had to defend what was essentially a lazy and unforgivable mistake.

So, what can entrepreneurs learn from this amateur error?

Even the smallest mistakes can come back to bite you. Make sure you get a second, third, and even fourth pair of eyes on your pitch for proper quality assurance.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to use project management software. It provides a simple method for laying out your business plan in one, easily-accessible location.

Most systems, including our top-rated option, Monday.com, boast tools that are specifically designed to enable copywriting and proofreading. Simply add guest visitors to your page and you’ll be able to share your plan directly for checks and feedback.

6. Know your industry inside out

It should be obvious that anyone starting a business needs to know their market inside out, and also preferably have years of experience within the field.

Project manager, Alex unfortunately didn’t get this memo when he volunteered to run the ship for his team in episode 4’s fishing task. He errantly spent the full meeting with the client negotiating fiercely for a large shipment of plaice due to it being ‘in season’.

Unfortunately, his ten minutes of fishing industry experience was not enough. As Lord Sugar explained, Alex was clearly unaware that when a fish is currently in season it means there’s actually a lot of it on the market, not that it’s been in the latest issue of Vogue.

Self-evaluation is an important step when starting a business.

Think about the industry you want to enter in relation to some specific questions about yourself and your goals. Does the idea fit your skillset? Do you have the knowledge you need for this business? If not, what qualifications and expertise do you need to learn?

Having a firm grasp of your sector will make it easier for you to design and pitch your business plan to investors. You’ll also be more aware of industry challenges and not only how to navigate them, but also how to offer the market a solution.

Phillip Bacon is the director of marketing agency Bacon Marketing. He told us: “The idea for my business came from my past experiences working as a marketer in-house, when we often lacked the funding and staff necessary to achieve our goals. That's how I came up with the idea for Bacon Marketing, to be that extra resource providing all-around care and the seniority that some companies needed.”

7. Consult with a graphic designer

Series 16 of The Apprentice has basically been a giant walking advertisement for hiring a third-party designer.

We’ve seen some of the most truly heinous logos on Earth. That includes the below mock-up for a driverless car pod, lovingly described by Karen Brady as ‘a toaster that’s exploding’.

Apprentice logo

While it might be tempting to save money and take a DIY-approach to your branding and design, this years’ contestants gave us a very convincing example of what can, and probably will, go wrong with this approach.

They’re experts for a reason. Using a third-party graphic designer means you’ll be much more likely to get a professional-looking logo that represents your brand and doesn’t confuse potential customers.

This is true for any visual element of your organisation. Thousands of SMEs have moved online as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, meaning more and more firms are investing in websites, social pages, and even branded newsletters.

A picture is worth 1,000 words – so you need to make sure that these potential customers like what they see, and engage more with your business as a result.

How do I find a designer?

Website designers can help you to build an online presence that cuts through the noise and increases traffic. Read our guide to how to find a website designer to learn more.

Of course, we couldn’t leave without showing you probably the best image to ever come out of The Apprentice.

As bad as the designs were on this series, they did at least give us this iconic ‘cruise line’ logo of an amputated leg spewing out toxic waste.

The Apprentice

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Helena Young
Helena Young Senior Writer

Helena "Len" Young is from Yorkshire and joined Startups in 2021 from a background in B2B communications. She has also previously written for a popular fintech startup.

Included in her topics of interest and expertise are tax legislation, the levelling up agenda, and organisational software including CRM and project management systems. As well as this, she is a big fan of the films of Peter Jackson.

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