The Apprentice: Sterling caught napping as Phoenix’s rubbish idea wins

Week two. 5:30am. All the housemates are asleep. Oh, hang on, this is The Apprentice and not Big Brother, isn’t it? For their second task, the teams were asked to design and pitch a new household gadget. Phoenix’s Eco Press food waste compactor proved to be a rubbish-based idea that wasn’t so rubbish, while Sterling’s Splish Splash wipeable bath screen failed to make a splash. Having been caught napping – literally – loud-mouthed, purple eye-shadowed restauranteur Maria O’Connor became the second victim of Lord Sugar‘s Digit of Doom™. You snooze, you lose.

This week’s task

The product-design-and-pitch task has previously brought us startling innovations in beach accessories (who could forget the Cüüli towel-cum-drinks chiller?) and biscuits (anyone for a Bix Mix?) In fairness, the ‘invention’ part of the task is one of the most difficult assignments the candidates face. If it really was that easy to come up with something innovative and commercial we would all be doing it, wouldn’t we?

Tom! In his underwear! Please God, never again ... (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

However, what is less forgivable is how often the candidates mismanage other business fundamentals such as listening to market research, making compelling pitches, adding up numbers and, well, staying awake. Anyhow, I’m getting ahead of myself.

It’s 5.30am at the Apprenti-Mansion™, and the first winner of the Race to the Phone™ is … Ricky Martin, who is clearly livin’ la vida loca. We get a glimpse of wine investor Tom Gearing in his trunks (steady now, ladies!) and discover that salesman Stephen Brady sleeps with one of those breathing-aid strips taped over his nose.

The candidates are summoned to the Victoria & Albert Museum, a showcase for British design. Sugar looks imperiously down on the candidates from a balcony and informs them they must design a prototype for a new household gadget to tap into the £10bn homeware market, and then pitch it to two retailers.

An idea, an idea, my kingdom for an idea

On the girls’ team, Sterling, both Jane McEvoy and Katie Wright the Blonde Slient Assaasin™ volunteer to be project manager. Jane tells the team she has experience launching new products and pitching to retailers. Katie’s credentials are that, er, she really, really wants to be PM. Unsurprisingly, Jane gets the nod. Things are more straightforward for Phoenix, who quickly appoint refrigeration company MD Azhar Siddique, presumably because he’s Cüüli under pressure. Or maybe it’s because he equates himself to a killer whale at Sea World. Personally, I’ve never seen Shamu as a potential Apprentice, but there you go.

Duane's idea was based on rubbish, but turned out to be quite good (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Phoenix quickly agree on Duane Bryan‘s suggestion of a food waste composting bin – a contemporary and quite natty idea – and get cracking with their research. Brainwaves are somewhat less forthcoming for the girls, however. Eventually, mother Laura Hogg suggests a wipeable splash screen for the bathroom, and Katie then offers up a tap cushion/cosy. Like a drowning man offered two straws, Sterling desperately clutch at their two ideas.

Both teams’ attempts at market research are an object lesson in Don’t Try This In Real Business, Kids!™ Market trader Adam Corbally comes up with the idea of washing-up gloves which have scouring and sponge pads on their outsides. (I’ve actually had an idea like this pitched to me in real life before. It was crap.) His sub-team pitches both the boys’ ideas at a catering college. Duane’s bin seems well-received, while Adam’s gloves get a lukewarm response. Naturally, he reports back to Azhar that the gloves are a sure-fire winner. Not that it matters, as Azhar ignores him and goes with the bin anyway, which they have branded Eco Press.

The girls fare little better. Katie, Laura and Jade Nash visit a mums-and-toddlers group. The tap cosy gets the thumbs-up, but in the Apprenti-Carrier™ Jane nevertheless has reservations about the difficulty of designing the product to fit over different taps. (Really? A tea cosy has to fit over different sized teapots – it’s not that difficult, is it?) She turns to her colleagues to ask them what they think, only to discover Maria is asleep – or, as she likes to call it, “thinking”.

Maria (right) busily 'thinking' (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Jane’s sub-team arrives at the studios of interior designer Kelly Hoppen – Maria is awake by now – and starts briefing in their Splish Splash screen, while Katie’s research team start working on the tap cosy. Oh dear. It’s clear there has been a communications breakdown and the girls are functioning poorly as a team, a point reinforced by Hoppen herself on Twitter:

Pitch imperfect

The next day, both teams pitch their products to Amazon.co.uk and homeware specialist Lakeland. (Why only two and not the normal three? Did a third retailer pull out at the last minute because they were worried they would be unable to keep a straight face at the pitches?)

Laura is delighted by the prototype Splish Splash:

Why has nobody thought of this sooner?

Jenna may turn out to have many talents. However, finance isn't one of them (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

In reality, someone probably has – but never managed to launch it successfully. It’s one thing identifying a gap in the market, but that doesn’t mean there’s a market in the gap. Not that that stops Sterling from coming up with some wildly optimistic figures, mind you. En route to Amazon, Jenna Whittingham and Gabrielle Omar are busy crunching numbers and talking about a potential initial order of one million units. Firstly, that’s an awful lot for a brand new company to expect any retailer to buy of what would be a non-repeating purchase. And secondly, did they really think about the size of the opportunity?

I’ve spent five minutes doing some research. There are 26 million households in the UK. Of these, fewer than 8 million contain children under 16 – and in reality the product is only really relevant to children aged, say, four or under. So let’s say that’s 2.5 million potential households (i.e. sales). They want Amazon to place an initial order for 40% of the total market potential? Seriously?!?

Amazon may be big, but Jane overstated their customer numbers somewhat (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

It gets worse, though. Jane starts off her pitch by saying Amazon.co.uk has over 144 million customers, which is interesting – for which read ‘plain daft’ – given that there are only 62 million people in the UK. (She is presumably mistaking number of customers for number of purchases.) And by Jenna’s calculations, Amazon could make a gross margin of 240%. That means that if Amazon sell the product for £20, it must cost them minus-£28 per unit to buy from Sterling. Sounds like an awfully good deal to me. ( I suspect Jenna was confusing ‘margin’ – which can never be more than 100% – with ‘mark-up’, which can.) On the bright side, Maria is actually awake.

The boys’ pitch at Amazon is slightly better – though it could hardly be worse. They decide that none of the non-presenters – including Duane, the product inventor – should speak. Stephen waffles through the pitch and is totally unconvincing in dealing with questions, until Duane cannot bite his lip any more and explains the product concept clearly, succinctly and passionately.

At least Phoenix learn from their error when it comes to their Lakeland pitch, as Stephen smoothly hands over to Duane to explain the product. Sterling, however, end up in just as much of a muddle over their numbers. It all looks decidedly unprofessional. Surely one of the seven – several of whom run their own businesses – should be able to compute basic business maths?

Boardroom brouhaha™

Back in the boardroom, Sterling’s performance is systematically shredded by Sugar, Nick Hewer and Karren Brady. Jane attempts to defend their optimistic volume forecasts, saying:

If you don’t ask you won’t get.

But equally, if you do ask for something unrealistically stupid, you will simply expose yourselves as stupid. Sugar said as much when he commented on Twitter:

The boys are less than effusive about Azhar’s unclear and indecisive leadership, raising a few smirks from the girls’ side of the table. Oh dear. What’s the old saying about counting chickens?

Even though they won, Azhar didn't convince his teammates as a PM (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Adam claims he was behind Duane’s product ‘110%’. With maths like that, he and Jenna should start an accountancy firm. Working for Enron. Or perhaps doing MPs’ expenses.

On to the results. Karren reveals that Amazon ordered 7,500 of Sterling’s Splish Splash – in the name of all that is holy, why?!? – while Nick says they only wanted 3,000 of Phoenix’s Eco Press. However, Lakeland dismissed the girls’ product completely, while placing an order for 10,000 Eco Presses. So Phoenix win for the second week in a row: 13,000 to 7,500.

The boys are rewarded with a private room at the Ivy – where Azhar ungraciously attempts to take credit for their victory – while the girls have to put up with a dose of poison ivy at the Cafe of Broken Dreams™. Maria – still awake! – takes three sugars in her tea, incidentally. Riding the sugar rush, she tells the camera, while performing a casual hair toss worthy of a L’Oreal advert:

I’m not taking it lying down no more.

It’s unspoken, but you can just hear her appending “Because I’m worth it” to the end of the sentence.

Back in the boardroom, the evisceration continues. Laura talks about the team discussing “issues we have in the bathroom” – if this was ITV, we would now cut to a tampon ad. Karren points out the girls were desperately short on ideas, moving the finger of blame away from Laura. (And rightly so – her idea may not have been the greatest ever, but it was still better than the utter lack of ideas from most of the rest of the team.) Katie is criticised for constantly blaming everyone else. Jenna and Gabrielle come under fire for their hopeless financials. Jane is criticised for letting the numbers get away from her. Maria draws fire for a general lack of contribution (other than snoring), although no one mentions her cartoonish expressions of shock and the fact that she is clearly the love child of Bugs Bunny and Stacey Solomon. And Jade is, well, there.

After no small amount of hint-dropping from Sugar, Jane selects Jenna and Maria to come back into the boardroom with her. Nick casually observes of the latter:

She’s just a bit shouty, I think. She is a very noisy young woman.

Nick described Maria as 'a bit shouty'. She was also 'a bit purple' (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

You’ve got to love Nick’s talent for understatement. Maria is ‘a bit shouty’ in the same way that Lionel Messi is ‘a bit good at football’.

When asked by Sugar, both Jane and Jenna think Maria should go. The Baron of Cheap Toot™ agrees, sending the sleepy Maria on her way without so much as a “Sweet dreams”.

Was it a fair decision by Sugar? I think so, even though Maria did not directly lose the girls this task and he could easily have fired Jenna instead (or in addition). He correctly identified her as a trouble-maker and someone who, as a business owner herself, passed up the opportunity to contribute to the financial calculations, instead leaving it to the willing but woefully incompetent Jenna to struggle on.

In the Taxi to Obscurity™ an unrepentant Maria said:

I am going to continue doing what I’m doing. I will expand my restaurant regardless of the fact I lost this. I still will have my five restaurants by the time I’m 25 years old. I was here to achieve a business investment. I didn’t get it. I’ll get it somewhere else. Or I’ll make my own money and do it myself.

So, after two weeks, who is looking like a potential winner? Duane Bryan has stood out as level-headed and a doer in the early tasks, but it is often the quiet ones who receive little initial airtime who gradually emerge as contenders – the Tom Pellereaus of this world. In that light, I have my eye on wine investor Tom Gearing, furniture retailer Michael Copp and business development manager Jade Nash, who so far have been relatively quiet and efficient in the background in terms of business contribution, although of course the latter did show off her artistic skills last week. We shall see.

In the fight for Lord Sugar’s £250,000 investment, 14 candidates remain. All of them are awake.

Next week: The teams are tasked with making a new condiment. Who will get themselves into a pickle and find themselves playing ketchup? (I’ll get my coat.)

The Apprentice continues on Wednesdays at 9pm on BBC1. Companion programme The Apprentice: You’re Fired! airs immediately afterwards at 10pm on BBC2.

Link: BBC official website

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