Does “The Apprentice” remotely represent business?

I am writing this blog as the titles roll at the end of the second BBC The Apprentice. And probably like most business people across the country, despairing of this as any kind of representation of business.

Where does it go so badly wrong?

1. Who would go into business with people you don’t know or trust?

Business is about leadership and delegation. You need to know what the skills of your team are and to get the best person doing each task.

The idea of a new business with people who have never met, don’t know or like each other ….

2. New products and services need proper market research

You only have to watch that other TV stalwart, Dragon’s Den, to know that no matter how brilliant you think your product is, it could not matter less unless people want to buy.

Research doesn’t have to take months, but it sure has to take more than an hour’s brainstorm meeting.

And they never seem to have access to the internet, calling their friends and contacts – how ridiculous is that?

3. The customer never gets a look in

Rarely is there much discussion about who the customer is and checking whether the product will work. Once in a series, there is a focus group – but the customer is never at the heart of any of these programmes.

4. The competitive element stifles creativity and success

Innovation requires failure. And competition does not bring out the best in people. An element of competition is healthy but not make or break.

5. You cannot achieve a new product to market cycle in a week

Zara set the pace by reducing its design to high street time from six months down to a phenomenal 10 to 15 days. And this is one of the slickest retailers going.

We are all for speed, creativity and innovation and challenging the status quo. But suggesting you can create, test, manufacture, market and sell a product in 48 hours as the norm is just wrong.

Despite these shocking negatives, there are elements that are worth taking out of The Apprentice:

  • Businesses can be set up quickly and succeed
  • You don’t need a lot of money – or to borrow – to start up
  • The focus on results and making money – completely right
  • All elements of a business matter – the people, the product, the selling, the profit
  • Recessions can provide some of the greatest opportunities of all – you can set up and do things quicker and better than the slumbering large corporates.

Now that would make interesting TV – get the apprentices to target a household name and find a product to compete in their market.

What have I missed here – or do you think it’s a realistic representation of business?

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Victoria Tomlinson is founder and owner of Harrogate-based PR consultancy, Northern Lights. A former director of Ernst & Young, she started her career as a graduate trainee for Plessey and later with Bradbury Wilkinson, the banknote printers, travelling around the world to sell banknotes to foreign governments. She joined Arthur Young as part of their start-up marketing team and was made a director of client services on the management committee and managing a 100-strong division. Victoria sits on the boards of Bradford University School of Management, Northern Ballet Theatre and Common Purpose North Yorkshire. She is a Prince’s Trust mentor.

  • Matthew Leitch

    Does The Apprentice represesent the real world of business? In general, no. Of course you’re right and it’s a very artificial situation. However, I’ve noticed that it captures enough realistic behaviour to illustrate some of the things I’ve been looking at over the past decade or so.

    I’m interested in how people cope with uncertainty at work, and how they can do better. The Apprentice does seem to capture some realistic behaviour in this respect – if anything exaggerating it because of the higher-than-usual levels of uncertainty the candidates face.

    I wrote about a classic episode in the 2010 series to explain this:

    Perhaps this will be of interest to you or other readers.