Why will Alan Sugar’s search for an entrepreneur in the Apprentice fail?

By | May 26, 2011

The new BBC series of Alan Sugar’s Apprentice has seen the format change from a search for an employee to a search for a business partner – an entrepreneur. However, the format of the tasks so far remains largely unchanged.

Do the tasks set for the candidates on The Apprentice really test entrepreneurial skills? The judges should be looking for abilities such as

  • thinking creatively  and innovating
  • identifying opportunities
  • planning for success – using skills in functional areas of business (such as finance, marketing, operations and technology management)
  • lead a team by articulating their entrepreneurial vision and securing the buy-in needed

However, tasks to date concentrate on the two latter skills, placing little emphasis on the abilities (innovation and opportunity recognition) that are at the heart of entrepreneurship.

Here are the three reasons I think Lord Sugar’s search for an entrepreneur as opposed to an employee will fail.

1. Entrepreneurs are strong willed entrepreneurs can’t necessarily work together

Entrepreneurs are – more or less by definition – strong willed. As Schumpeter said ‘they believe they are right and that everyone else is wrong’. I am not sure how well Lord Sugar will take to being told that he is wrong in his evaluation of different situations? How likely is he to select  an individual who is very much like himself, but without the track record to back up his or her stance?

2. Entrepreneurship is about opportunity and innovation

Entrepreneurs identify opportunities and develop innovations and this is what makes them entrepreneurial. The current Apprentice candidates are not being tested on their entrepreneurial skills – they are simply responding to challenges set. The boundaries of the tasks don’t allow them to identify a business opportunity that they are truly passionate about. As any good employee, they are just finding ways to be passionate about whatever they are told to work on. So, when the time comes, what will the nature of the new business be and who will decide this?

3. Entrepreneurship is situation specific

Lastly, but not least, Lord Sugar’s search will fail because entrepreneurship is very much situation specific. It happens in specific places and at specific times. Take one entrepreneur outside of his or her habitat and they will struggle. Let some time elapse before exploiting your opportunity and or realise your innovation and someone else will have got there first. This is exactly what the programme does – it takes individuals out of their natural environment and drops them in Lord Sugar’s empire then lets time elapse through a prolonged selection process.
The programme concentrates on the game of power, which entrepreneurs working within corporations (often also identified as intrapreneurs) are confronted with: i.e. how to read the politics of the workplace correctly, identify the key players, and make sure that they buy into their ideas.

Ultimately the programme is not about entrepreneurship – it is about television. Young ambitious people developing a public profile. Then, as we have seen many times in the past, they can use this to build a career that is media centred.

Will any of them become entrepreneurs that enjoy a level of success of their proposed mentor? My view is that probably not. If they were they would be out there now … doing it

About Christos Kalantaridis

Professor Christos Kalantaridis, a leading academic in entrepreneurship and innovation, joined the School in 2011. Prof Kalantaridis leads the Innovation Club which helps businesses to break down barriers and share ideas on innovation. He is keen to hear from businesses, entrepreneurs and organisations about their issues and barriers to innovation and carry out research to identify how to ensure good ideas are sustainable.

Christos got his PhD in Economics at The University of Salford where he alsoworked for three years as Professor of Entrepreneurship & Regional Development & Director of the Centre for Enterprise & Innovation Research.

He is a much published academic and recently worked collaboratively with Aalto University in Finland – a world leading centre for helping businesses to innovate, particularly in technologies – and with partners in four European countries to develop best practice in transferring knowledge from universities to organisations.

Specialties: Innovation, Entrepreneurship, Problem solving for businesses, Knowledge transfer, Business engagement

One thought on “Why will Alan Sugar’s search for an entrepreneur in the Apprentice fail?

  1. Kulbir Sandhu

    A really interesting piece this – I agree entirely with your summary that the programme is first and foremost about television ratings and about the BBC maintaining the profile of this hugely popular show. I also agree the programme’s conception of entrepreneurship is compromised for the sake of entertainment – and let’s face it, this programme provides it in spades.

    How dull would the Apprentice be if had to focus on wannabe entrepreneurs struggling to identify opportunities? (See definition in above post.) The endless musings, failed attempts and so on probably wouldn’t make good TV – at the very least, it should be left to another show.

    The point is despite its flaws (and there are many) this programme has explained the business world to a whole generation of young people, where other methods haven’t. Personally speaking, it has taught me how to (and how not to!) negotiate, lead projects and work as part of a team, in a way school didn’t. (Can’t really comment on business education at universities – but a friend who’s studying for an MBA tells me that some business schools have been slow to latch onto teaching entrepreneurship as part of MBA courses).

    So even though Lord Sugar’s search for a business partner might not be fruitful, it will have succeeded in informing a whole generation of young people about the possibility of searching for business partners to raise capital, amongst other things. To others, it will have shown them that it is possible to set up a business and succeed, despite the odds.

    Granted, the Apprentice isn’t an entirely accurate reflection of the business world, but it does have its good points. The boasting, big egos and grand statements are a small price to pay for the education it imparts; and it does make the journey more fun!

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