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Stick Alan Sugar in the Dragons’ Den

Since The Apprentice, Sugar’s business has become talking about business. But put him in a room with potential investors, and what would he come up with?

“If Will.i.am can build a hardware business, what could you do?” That’s the question posed on the cover of the new Wired magazine and if it reads like a slightly backhanded compliment, there is no doubting the sincerity of the 10-page feature that lies in wait. It introduces Will.i.am as: “Musician. Trend consultant. Hardware mogul. Will.i.am is a new kind of tech entrepreneur.”

He’s got some robotic stuffed animals coming out for Christmas, but the hardware that Will.i.am has been moguling so far is an expensive and ridiculous iPhone accessory that allows users to clamp an unwieldy camera attachment to their handset. It is a terrible product, but merely getting this item in the shops means that Will is qualified to bill himself as a business visionary. The business world, and especially the technology sector, is a sucker for gurus and supposed opinion-formers, but for every Steve Jobs there are a thousand dubiously qualified charlatans whose purported success in chosen fields leads to imagined success in others.

It’s celebrity culture in a suit and tie, just as The Apprentice is The X Factor with a boardroom where the shiny floor should be, and there’s no better talk-the-talk merchant than Lord Sugar, a man whose last successful business plan read: “Point at idiots across a table. PS ask Joe Pasquale if he has any spare jokes.” Last week, Apprentice candidate Jordan Poulton was chucked out of the “process” (read: gameshow) on a technicality when it came to light, in a format-flawtastic twist, that he didn’t own the company with which he was hoping to go into business with Sugar.

In any case, it is unlikely he would ever have been Sugar’s new business partner. A week earlier, Sugar had looked agog when it turned out that Poulton had already found a collaborator to handle the coding for his proposed business idea – a framework for creating mobile games. You would assume Sugar knew the importance of getting software right early on. His Amstrad word processors used 3in discs that weren’t compatible with PCs, had no mice, and came with ropey dot-matrix printers, yet the software was perfect for the job, and the units were a huge success. But Sugar’s last notable product launch was the E-m@iler phone in 2000. It was terrible for numerous reasons but, crucially, the software simply wasn’t up to the job. Of course, Sugar didn’t hand-code either product’s software any more than he boxed up each item at the factory.

“He’s the technologist,” Poulton said in defence of his choice of business partner. “I’m the creative visionary and the person worrying about strategy and sales and marketing and that sort of stuff.”

This was portrayed as absurd. In fact, it was perhaps a little too close to home for Sugar, because it is the “that sort of stuff” area in which Sugar is now a leader. His chairmanship of digital TV platform YouView lasted two years, his role as government enterprise tsar lasted less than two years, and he stood down as Amstrad chairman in 2008. In 2013 his business is talking about business rather than doing it, but the cult of the business celebrity ensures that if Sugar is involved, things will happen.

Regarding another Apprentice candidate, Margaret Mountford sniffily noted in last week’s post-interview grass-up session that “she wants your black book of contacts”. “Quite rightly so,” Sugar replied. “I can pick the phone up.” Most people in 2013 would send an email and, if they did phone, they would use a mobile, rather than the landline Sugar’s mime suggested, but let’s play along with his game. So you would pick the phone up and say what, exactly? “Hiya, haven’t really been doing much over the past decade or so”? Of course not: in 2013 Sugar’s communications are about the sender, not the subject line.

I talked to Chase & Status recently about their upcoming album, and they mentioned recording with Nile Rodgers. Here’s a chap who is now hotter than ever but couldn’t get arrested in pop circles for well over a decade because people assumed he was a spent force. When I started to see him working with younger artists a year or so ago, I thought he was probably being recruited on the strength of his name alone, as a great angle to put on a press release. Actually, Chase or Status said, this wasn’t the case: spend time with him and his “two-billion-dollar guitar”, and he’s still got it. One wonders if Sugar has, indeed, still got it: put him in a room with potential investors – actually, let’s put him in Dragons’ Den – and what do you think he would come up with? Perhaps he could “do a Nile Rodgers”. But perhaps this is why the new Apprentice format – searching for someone with a business plan he can jump on, rather than for someone to work for one of his existing businesses – suits him well.

Poulton was kicked out of one Apprentice grilling after being told he was a parasite. He might not have been qualified to win this year’s series, but he might well be qualified to replace Sugar for next year’s.


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