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Science, Maths & Technology
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  • 5 mins
  • Level 1: Introductory

Technology, you're hired!

Updated Tuesday 13th January 2009

Sir Alan Sugar and Fiona Bruce discuss the success of Sugar's technology business throughout his career.


Copyright BBC


Alan Sugar: The home computer business was starting to boom, it was a consumer electronic product as far as I was concerned, not a computer. Pregnant calculator I think is the name I gave them because the early day ones were the Sinclair, Commodore, Amiga and Atari and things like that, and all they were, were like just a fat calculator that you plugged into a television, a 14” television.

What I decided was, our computer was going to look like a computer. In other words, the offering that we made was going to look like a, what people perceived to be a computer in those days, nice big keyboard, a separate screen so you don’t need to use the television in the home. It looked like the thing like when you go to the airport in those days, Gatwick Airport or Stansted or whatever, Mum and Dad saw the woman checking in on this type of thing with a green screen there, that’s a computer you see.

We’ve got engineers that know more about certain subjects than I do, and so there’s no shame in saying to them right, we’re going to make a computer, I know about making hardware, I’ve looked inside the computer, that thing there is a black chip, it’s made by a company called Intel, we’ll phone them up and we’ll find out the price of that, don’t need you to do that. Okay. This is a switch over there, this is a socket over there, we know who makes them and we know who makes them, with respect don’t need you to do that, we’re good at that. So how do I make this computer work? Well, you need something called software. Ah.

So, okay, point made, where do we get the software from? Oh, where do we get it? Oh dear oh dear, I mean, you could be talking 17 trillion million million million man hours of writing software, you will need a floor of five thousand people working all these ... Hold on, no, we don’t want to do that. Where else can we get it from? Oh, we can buy it in from Harry over there. Well why don’t we just do that then? So, and that’s what we did, you know, we bought in some ready-made software and put it inside the computer and we were at the races.

The next thing was to try and make something more commercial, something more industrial, something more robust that everybody could use, not just kids, but could be used in an office. Office automation was a terminology being widely used, and there was companies, a company called Wang that once existed that made word processors that cost four or five thousand pounds or something like that. So not everybody could afford one, and it was the type of thing that only a big firm of solicitors would have, they would have one of them and one expert using it to draft documents and all that type of thing.

Time to market is one of the reasons for my success. It’s the speed at which we produce new designs and bring them to market, and get a different mentality of engineer tuned in to the fact that things like software that became more and more important in this company’s business in those mid-eighties had to be written in time.

Fiona Bruce: Are you arrogant would you say? Do you think you need to be a bit arrogant?

Alan Sugar: I must come across as it, I must come across like that in business really, because it’s lack of patience, lack of time, wanting to get things done quickly and that kind of exhibits arrogance really, you know. Particularly going into a meeting with people, virtually kind of pre-empting and answering the questions for them. Move on, next thing, let’s get onto the next thing, let’s get onto the next thing. So that can be interpreted as arrogance I suppose, yes.

Fiona Bruce: Do you think it is?

Alan Sugar: I don’t think so. The 2000 series computer was the demise of this company in the computer industry. We lost 30% of the market in a year because we made a lot of junk. We ended up finally realising that it wasn’t our fault, that the hard drives were the culprit and ...

Fiona Bruce: But you think it was your fault though, that you made the decisions that led you to that fault?

Alan Sugar: It was my fault. Yeah, I do, I think it was my fault that we didn’t have enough technical people here to be able to recognise what the problem was at the stage we were having the problem and rectify it quick enough.

We brought out a product called the Penpad, better known to you know as a PDA or an iPod or an iPhone type of thing. We brought that out 15 years ago and it was touchpad, put your name in, handwriting recognition and all that stuff. The trouble is we made 100,000 of them and because they didn’t sell in the first week I canned them. What I should have, what should have happened was that we were in, that technology was the right direction to go in, but I had impatience in wanting it all to happen now so we make a lot of money now so that the stock market is happy, instead of making, I don’t know, 10,000 of those things, selling them, bringing out the second generation, selling them, bringing out the third generation, until we got to the kind of dizzy heights that people like PalmPilot were selling, millions and millions of the thing. Big mistake.

This video extra was produced for The Real Alan Sugar first aired on Sunday 11th January on BBC TWO.

Find out more

Alan Sugar's approach to business - don't keep a huge staff, and buy in software from elsewhere - is a strong example of outsourcing.

Same industry, different approach: Discover what happened when Fiona Bruce met Bill Gates.

Doctor Roshan Boojiha wonders if Amstrad is the best model for British industry: Do we need more Sugar?


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