The Apprentice knows nothing about entrepreneurs – five mistakes that prove it

Do we really have to go through this again? This time last year the Centre for Entrepreneurs (of which I am deputy chairman) produced a survey slating TV programmes such as Dragons’ Den and The Apprentice for their poor portrayal of entrepreneurs. In summary, the survey (among entrepreneurs) concluded that the programmes were more interested in good television than in generating an accurate portrayal of the entrepreneur, meaning they discouraged rather than encouraged entrepreneurship.

With a new season of The Apprentice underway (BBC1 9pm Wednesdays) – my mix of fascination and irritation remains unabated: not least because The Apprentice seems not to have changed its format one iota. Again, the result is a reality-TV show that makes great TV but harms the cause of entrepreneurialism.

Certainly, the rigours of The Apprentice process are poorly-suited to finding a winning entrepreneur. Of course, they could (probably) find a lackey for Lord Sugar’s various business interests – as was the programme’s original intention. But to find an entrepreneur capable of turning seed capital into gold: I doubt it.

Rather than learn the lessons, this year’s candidates seem simply to confirm the point. Most show “entrepreneurs” (as they all claim to be) in a very poor light. Many seem to have been selected for their Machiavellian convictions and apparent arrogance rather than for any nascent start-up business acumen. That said, the show’s format hardly helps – bringing out the worst in people that cannot possibly behave so ridiculously in any normal walk of life (and certainly not in business).

Five mistakes, in my view, prove the point.

  1. They lack any spirit of co-operation. Entrepreneurs are often outsiders, but they can only succeed through co-operation. Synergy is a key need for entrepreneurs – working with others to spot and fill market opportunities. They’ll end up lonely (and angry) dreamers otherwise. So why are the tasks set up as if jostling for position in some Machiavellian royal court? Back-stabbing – a key skill in corporate life – will have you quickly ostracised in a world dependent on networking. Indeed, many people become entrepreneurs because they hate office politics. Meanwhile, such dark games rule the roost on The Apprentice,
  2. The lack of humility. Confidence is great – though is usually built from getting things right and building on small victories. Confidence isn’t arrogance. It’s not an unfathomable and evidence-free conviction in your own omnipotence. That way lies disaster (though they’ll always be someone else to blame). Entrepreneurs are mostly misfits, but they’re rarely overly-cocky misfits. In fact most are strategically humble – meaning they have worked out that giving others the credit is a great way of generating successful teams. Again, The Apprentice is all about not taking responsibility – about shifting blame and grabbing credit. Again, Machiavelli would approve. But he wasn’t trying to create sustainable businesses,
  3. The overly strong focus on leadership. Are entrepreneurs great leaders? In fact, many are very poor leaders – that’s why they became entrepreneurs. Great leaders run major organisations and bend them to their will – often through great vision and a compelling narrative (which inspires others). Entrepreneurs (mostly) fiddle about on the edges – often creatively – and then build small alliances as needed. In a war, the entrepreneur would not be the guy leading others over the top. Entrepreneurs would more likely be the ones working out a way of winning without having to fight the battle. So why does The Apprentice focus so much on leadership?
  4. The obsession with hard selling. There’s more to entrepreneurship than selling. I guess the focus on “margins” in last week’s task proved the point but nearly all the tasks involve inventing something before flogging it – either in the street or to established practitioners. This is a very narrow interpretation of entrepreneurialism and led, last week, to the self-deselection of Lindsay Booth. She said she’d best “stick to swimming” and, pretty-much, “fired” herself. Dig deeper, and its revealed that – prior to being mangled through Lord Sugar’s soul-mincing machine – Lindsay had set up swimming academies across Leicestershire: profitably teaching 100s of kids to swim. She’d been a highly-entrepreneurial person, in other words, without a market stall or sour-faced purchasing manager in sight,
  5. The focus on youth. Very few of the contestants are ever over 30. Sure, the focus on youth seems ubiquitous in the modern world. And, in The Apprentice, it may reflect a reluctance for older people to submit themselves to such a ridiculous and humiliating process. But most entrepreneurs start their businesses when in the 40s or 50s, having learnt their trade, as well as a few vital lifeskills (such as co-operation), along the way.

In many respect the attributes of the true entrepreneur are the opposite of those required to be an “apprentice” for a large organisation. So why does The Apprentice insist on dragging people through the same process? Good television’s fine – but you’re painting a damaging and distorted view of entrepreneurship that potentially harms Britain. I hate them for it, though I’ll carry on watching, of course.