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Apprentices not entrepreneurs

Updated Tuesday, 27th May 2008

Does 'the Apprentice' give a realistic picture of what being an entrepreneur is all about?

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It is now almost thirty years since the term enterprise culture entered the UK business vocabulary as a newly elected Conservative Government (under Margaret Thatcher) started to restructure the British economy by instilling the ethos of private enterprise and supply-side economics. As the large bureaucratic state-owned enterprises were de-layered and privatised a new breed of entrepreneur was being championed. One of these entrepreneurs was a young man by the name of Alan Sugar who made his fortune in the 1980s by selling low priced Amstrad word processors.

Both the UK economy and Sir Alan Sugar have done well for themselves since those early days but what about the original philosophy of the enterprise culture. As unemployment rose to record levels during the1980s the government was desperate to find new ways of redeploying employees who were too young to retire but unable to find work and were 'pushed' (GEM 2003 Executive Report) into setting up their own businesses. Today, with comparatively high employment levels, the story is different. Enterprise is now taught in schools and universities and the emphasis has changed towards creating a 'pull' mechanism (GEM 2003 Executive Report) for attracting young people to become entrepreneurs. Part of the pull mechanism is the media’s attempts to make entrepreneurship sexy with programmes such Sir Alan Sugar’s Apprentice.

The boardroom. Photo: Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright:
The boardroom.

The key debate, however, is how much of a contribution does such a programme make to the development of entrepreneurs and what skills are nurtured by such programmes? As everyone already knows the candidates are all forced to work in project teams in order to perform pre-selected tasks before being hauled into the board room for a ritual grilling. The drawbacks of this process is that any entrepreneur setting up their own business would be selecting their own team and would not under any circumstances allow themselves to be answerable to an autocratic bully such as Sir Alan Sugar. Research (Ettinger 1983) has revealed that one of the main motives entrepreneurs had for setting up their businesses was to be their own boss and to have independence and freedom from the corporate hierarchical structures that stifle innovation.

When managing a small team empathy and emotional intelligence are critical and learning from ones mistakes are a key part of this iterative process (Kolb 1996). However, the nature of the programme structure makes this impossible since the team members end up covering their backs and ultimately being fired. In terms of higher level marketing skills, the teams very rarely have any opportunity to research customers but have to make assumptions based on gut feelings and hunches which invariably prove wrong. The only skills that do seem to emerge are the ability to produce a sales pitch and to negotiate. These are skills which Sir Alan Sugar excels at and since Amstrad (and its subsidiaries) are basically trading companies driven by a power culture (Handy 1997) this is hardly surprising.

The Apprentice is unquestionably a popular business-themed reality show but is it sending out the right messages to budding entrepreneurs who may want to leave school or university to set-up their own businesses.

According to Sir Digby Jones:

Alan Sugar does everyone a great disservice by doing it. Young people will be turned off because they think they will be shouted at by a horrible, fat, rich, old bloke”. (Financial Times 2007)

On the other hand, David Frost of the British Chambers of Commerce says:

What it has done for a lot of young people and their parents is put before them the idea of starting a business. It shows enterprise, competition and working for your self as a good thing. I’m a huge fan”. (Financial Times 2007)

Perhaps the most sensible comments were made by another British entrepreneur, James Dyson who said:

………The Apprentice can be entertaining but in my experience, business is far more complicated and involved than the simplified win or lose situation we see on screen. Good ideas aren’t enough; success takes dedication, perseverance, thick skin and usually many, many mistakes”. (Financial Times 2007)


Reynolds, P.D., Bygrave, W.D., Autio, E., and others, GEM 2003 Executive Report, Babson College and London Business School.

Ettinger, J.C. (1983) Some Belgian evidence on entrepreneurial personality, International Small Business Journal, 1983; 1: 48-56.

Kolb, D.A. (1996) Management and the Learning Process in pp. 270-87, K. Starkey, How Organisations Learn, London: Thomson Publications, p.271.

Handy, C. (1997) Understanding Organisations, Penguin.

John Willman and William MacNamara, Financial Times article: `Dangers of sexy profile for business in Apprentice`, Thursday March 29, 2007, p. 3.





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