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7 lessons start-ups can learn from ‘The Apprentice’
by Richard Tidswell

Being aware of future challenges and pitfalls in the early years of running your business can save you time, money and heart ache in the long term.

Setting up and running a business can be a steep learning curve. Whether you’re a start-up or a fully established firm. We all make mistakes and they can provide valuable lessons that we all can learn from.

The actions of contestants on The Apprentice can impart some important lessons:

1. Understand what market you’re in.

In series 3, Paul Callaghan tried to sell mass-produced English Cheese in a French local food market.

It’s vital to understand and research your market. It’s easy to fall into the trap of trying your hand at everything and becoming ‘busy fools’ – doing lots of things, but not checking if this productive or value enhancing. Instead, identify your top 10 customers, understand why they buy, and see if there are opportunities to sell more. Remember, your most valuable customers are those that value most what you do best.

2. Check your numbers.

In the first task of this year’s series team Nebular failed considerably by simply not sticking to a price strategy and selling goods well under the price valued, losing out on valuable profit.

Instead, check and double check costs in order to avoid mistakes which will affect your margins. If numbers are not your strong point, seek help from an accountant to keep an eye on the details.

3. Adapt.

In series 11, Team Connectus made an embarrassing profit of just £1.87 when they failed to make their target of 300 fishcakes. Chef Brett was too set on sticking to the recipe, rather than creating smaller cakes and adapting to their needs.

Instead, ask yourself the ‘what ifs?’ For example, what would happen if there was a change to the economy or technology? How would it impact on you and, more importantly, how can you ride on the wave of changes to grow your business?
Rather than driving through the rear view mirror and being reactive, take a considered view of the main trends in your sector and adapt.

4. Stop trying to do everything.

Also in series 11, Charleine Wain put herself forward to pitch to Waterstones, rather than delegate it to fellow team member Richard Wood. It proved costly and Lord Sugar criticised her for not taking her strongest sales person in.

As business owners it can be really difficult to let go. It’s our baby; we set it up and we know how we like things done. But can you really say that you are best at everything? Of course not. Instead of doing things you don’t like, or are not very good at, get someone else to do it. Find someone who loves those things and is really good at them. You can find better ways to spend your time.

5. Take yourself out of the value equation.

In the retail task of this year’s series, project leader of Nebular, Grainne, dismissed her team when they suggested numerous times throughout the task that Rebecca should be part of the window display to attract more foot fall to their department. Frustrating and de-motivating for the team as well as this being advised by the retailers, this could have affected their performance massively.

We can be driven by ego or a fear of letting go rather than what is actually best for business. Ask yourself, do you operate a ‘hub and spoke’ operation in your business?

Don’t become a single point of failure. Instead, encourage your team to speak out and have an input. This ensures they are involved and continue to develop, boosting morale. In turn, it can prevent us from being blindsided by bad ideas.

If your business is dependent on you to run it every day, you have a worthless business, ultimately limited by your capacity.

6. Take responsibility for your actions.

Candidates in the boardroom often try to shift the responsibility for task failures or mistakes onto others. However, shifting the blame doesn’t change the outcome. It also makes you look like you aren’t ready or willing to learn from your mistakes. So whatever your work involves, make sure that you take responsibility for your actions.

7. Never stop learning.

If you stand still, someone will run you over. So, think about how you can continuously improve. After every major project or order, take time to reflect on what went well and what didn’t go so well.

Ask yourself, ‘If I were to do it again, what would I do differently?’ This can then be used to develop processes, behaviours, interactions and to drive improvements.

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