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The Apprentice 2015, week 1: Where the contestants went wrong

The new series kicked off with 18 candidates competing for Lord Sugar as their business partner. Startups looks at the key takeaway lessons

Entrepreneurial reality show The Apprentice returned to our screens last night for its eleventh series, with 18 hopefuls fighting it out for £250,000 investment from Lord Sugar.

As the candidates entered the boardroom, Sugar – assisted by Karen Brady and Claude Littner – explained that being part of the 12 week process was “an incredible opportunity, one of you will become by business partner with no strings attached. […] Prove to me that you can be my business partner”.

The first challenge, Fish Food, saw the contestants tasked with going to Billingsgate market to buy fish and turn it into products that Londoners want. The teams – Team Versatile vs. Team Connexa (“Latin for united and if you say it really quick it sounds like ‘connects us'”) – chose to make and sell calamari, fishcakes, fish finger sandwiches and tuna nicoise salad. Yet it quickly became clear that both teams weren't ready to “prove” themselves to Lord Sugar just yet.

From business man Dan who asserted “I can't sell to the public”, to headstrong project manager April; “I know what I want”, Startups shares the key business lessons which were apparent in the first episode – largely focused on how NOT to do business…

1. Leadership and communication

On returning to the house, both teams held initial meetings to decide on their name, project manager (PM), and products they would be selling. Team names were quickly decided; Connexa and Versatile (the latter after rejecting Dan's tongue-in-cheek suggestion of “Sugarbabes”) but the decision of PM wasn't as straightforward.

In team Versatile, not one person wanted to put themselves forward for the position which led to an awkward exchange as events company owner Selena was left to take the lead. It was a different story for Team Connexa where April; a Jamaican food business owner; was keen to be PM – “I have a passion for food and I have a food blog so I think this task is for me”.

PM's agreed it was then time to decide on the fish food products to sell and it became apparent that April's leadership approach was one where she made all of the decisions. Ignoring the advice of her team mates who wanted to opt for calamari, April insisted on going ahead with her tuna salad and fishcake combo; to her fellow contestants annoyance. On the contrary, Versatile's Selena was unable to take lead of her team and the group continued to talk over each other in what advisor Littner referred to as a “shambles”.

Business lesson: Selena's lack of leadership and April's dominant approach caused issues from the very start of the first challenge. When running a business you need to strike the right balance; delegating where possible, being decisive when necessary, and you should always listen to employee's (or in this case team members') feedback and concerns. 

2. Pricing

April's headstrong nature reared its head again when it came to deciding upon price points for team Connexa's fish food products. Unwilling to compromise on price, April demanded that they charge £9 for the tuna salad based on the reasoning that city workers would happily pay that much.

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Once the task got underway, it became clear that this price point was too high with sales flagging and yet, despite calls from team members to lower the price, April was only willing to move down to £6.50. Her fellow team mates then dismissed her decision and chose to set the prices – some fishcakes were even sold for £1 as the day drew on. In the boardroom, Sugar criticised the team's pricing; “you're not selling in the Ritz, £9 for a salad is ridiculous!”.

It was Connexa's poor pricing and small margins that ultimately saw them fail with “pathetic profit” of £1.87 compared to Versatile's £229 profit.

Business lesson: A well-researched and considered pricing strategy is essential for any business selling a product or service. While you may want to keep your profit margins high, you'll never be able to sell if your products are steeper than competitors. Market research, consideration of your target audience and competitor analysis will help you set prices.

3. Sales techniques

Arguably the biggest business lesson of the episode was how to, and how not to, sell and negotiate a sale. This latter point was evident at Billingsgate market where, on buying cod for the fishcakes, team Connexa's April didn't barter on price and snapped up the first offer from the first trader she met – a decision which Brady branded “poor practice”. Team Versatile showed much stronger negotiation skills and bagged bargain squid after bartering with the traders, but they did have to compromise on quality.

However, the importance of a refined sales technique really came to a head when it came to face-to-face sales. Having already admitted that he wasn't confident selling face-to-face – much to Lord Sugar's dismay – Connexa's Dan appeared out of his depth when faced with having to approach Londoners to buy a tuna salad. Despite advice from colleague Ruth whose “creepy, over-friendly” sales strategy did, as Brady pointed out, seem to be working, Dan's strategy was to ask customers “Would you like a salad? No? Ok then” – an approach which saw him achieve grand sales figures of zero.

Dan's sales technique, or lack of, wasn't lost on Sugar. In the boardroom , Sugar dismissed Dan's claim that “yes I can't do face-to-face sales but I excel online, my business plan is sound” as he wanted a “Jack of all trades” which led the millionaire mogul to utter the two words the apprentices fear – “You're fired!”.

Dan was the first to be told "You're Fired"

Dan was the first to be told “You're Fired”

Business lesson: Firstly, when it comes to agreeing any deal you need to show that you can successfully negotiate. In the business world, most people – corporates, traders and clients – expect a negotiation and it's “poor practice” to shy away from negotiation tactics. Secondly, face-to-face selling may not be for everyone and your business may not even require you to sell face-to-face, but you should have mastered your pitch and be able to interact with prospective customers effectively.

4. Common sense

In this first episode, there was distinct lack of common sense from both teams. The best example being the fact that a member of Versatile's team attempted to sell fish fingers to a vegan restaurant.

It was also lacking in team Versatile's approach to food hygiene and storage. With the task taking place on a hot day, the team unwittingly left £150 worth of calamari in a cool box outside in the sun. To no surprise, this stock was then found to have spoiled and lost the team money.

Over in team Connexa, common sense was also missing with team member Brett who played chef for the day. Adamant that he had to stick to the “product specifications” of the fishcake recipe, he made fishcakes that were much too big and meant that only 89 were made when the team were looking to achieve a quota of 300 fishcakes. Sugar criticised Brett's poor reasoning; “It doesn't take a brain surgeon to see they were too big”.

Business lesson: Common sense and running a successful company go hand in hand. Lack of planning and poor judgement will only ever lead to bad decisions which could have potentially dire consequences for your business. 


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