The Apprentice 2015, Week 5: Lessons from the contestants failures

Lord Sugar asked the contestants to create a children's book but was it all child's play? Startups looks at the business mistakes from the latest episode

So far on series 11 of The Apprentice, we’ve seen the contestants dabble in pet products, shampoo and even fish food. This week’s task was one for the wordsmiths as Lord Sugar set the candidates the challenge to write and design a children’s book and audio book which they would then retail to London bookshops.

With the opportunity to pitch to high-end retailers including Waterstones and Foyles, when it came to sales Sugar’s prospective business partners appeared to struggle under the pressure with strong negotiation and sales absent from most of the pitches.

Poor sales pitching ultimately saw Natalie from team Connexus shown the door having evidenced “dreadful sales techniques” and an inability to “think before she spoke”.

As a TV programme designed to encourage entrepreneurship, this latest episode demonstrated three major flaws in business which we’ve highlighted below…

Know your target market and listen to customer feedback

Having spent over three hours coming up with a plot and name for his children’s book (Snottydink) Sam, project manager for team Connexus, failed to show appreciation for the book’s three to five year-old target market when it came to vocabulary.

Using words such as ‘quell’, ‘moisture rife’, and ‘ado’, team member Selena expressed concerns that the book’s intended young readers wouldn’t understand what the words meant and would lose interest.

This concern was emphasised by the focus group of parents and toddlers. Queries were raised by some mothers that they wouldn’t use the terms or know what they meant, let alone their children.

When it came to pitching, Sam then had to think on his feet and pitch the book as one which would help “children learn vocabulary”. Had the book been designed more for the toddler market then the team would likely have achieved more sales.

Business lesson: It may be a cliche, but the old adage ‘the customer always knows best’ is one to adhere to. If you’re launching a product or service for a particular market, especially a business aimed at children, you need to focus your attention on understanding their needs and wants inside out. Market research and focus groups are key and insights gained from them should not be ignored.

Confidence in pitching is everything

Contestant Natalie was fired for her inability to pitch effectively. Having presented her book (Bizzie Bee’s first adventure) to independent retailers, it was evident that she didn’t know her sales figures and appeared disinterested in achieving a sale. In one store, fellow team member Scott had to step in as he “didn’t feel confident with her pitch” and felt “she was a little subdued”. Baroness Brady CBE (pictured) commented that Natalie’s approach was “frankly a disaster”.

Over in team Versatile, sales confidence was also lacking. On pitching to Foyles, contestant Joseph said he felt the “pitch was a bit of a mess” as his fellow sales team member David had agreed on 25 units down from 100 almost immediately, leaving little room for negotiation.

When pitching to Waterstones, Versatile PM Charleine seemed to buckle in front of the buyers; stumbling over her words and not engaging which led the buyers to reject the book on the basis that they “wouldn’t feel comfortable selling it”.

Business lessons: Even if you’re worried about the prospect of pitching – which most entrepreneurs are – you shouldn’t let this show to prospective clients. You need to demonstrate confidence in your own abilities and confidence in the product or service you’re pitching. Have a 30 second elevator pitch ready and know your figures inside out.  

When running a business, you can’t be the master of everything

This last lesson was demonstrated by Versatile PM Charleine who let her judgement become clouded by a dislike and distrust for fellow team member Richard. Despite Richard’s experience in having sold and closed deals with high-end retailers, Charleine chose to ignore his bid to lead the sales team and put herself forward instead.

This decision would prove costly as her pitch to Waterstones (see above) crumbled. Lord Sugar criticised Charleine in the boardroom; “You needed to take your strongest sales person and you chose not to […] bad management decision I think.”

Business lesson: As with the last point, confidence in your abilities is key but you should recognise and play on both your strengths and weaknesses. Often, entrepreneurs are more ideas people who concentrate on that side of the business while recruiting staff to look after sales, operations and so on. Don’t think you can do it all – you can’t.

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