“You can’t buy a bottle of entrepreneur juice! It’s either there or not”
Almost everyone who has heard of Lord Sugar knows that he started out selling to a rag-and-bone man and found his early returns on car aerials before moving up the technological pecking order to computers. At 63, TV’s favourite entrepreneur is still putting in the leg-work. This week he hot-footed it around London, with Smarta in attendance, promoting his memoir What You See Is What You Get.
The multi-millionaire founder of Amstrad has always been a grafter. But, had he fully grasped the hi-tech nettle, Sugar could have been the UK equivalent of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Some irony then that one of the events to promote his book was held at Apple’s Covent Garden store in London. Surrounded by gleaming Macbooks, iPads and iPods (who can forget his ill-fated prediction: “Next Christmas the iPod will be kaput!”), The Apprentice star dished out familiar wisdoms to questions on his business-savvy and success.
Asked about starting up a small business in the current climate, Lord Sugar’s response was: “There are no free lunches!” A refrain almost as ubiquitous as the Apprentice star’s “You’re fired!” catchphrase. In a typically uncompromising mood Sugar revealed that he was “getting fed up with people moaning about banks or not being able to get this or that. You need to be able to start something from scratch.”
“Back in the sixties when I started,” continued Lord Sugar, “Nobody was doing anything for anybody. No bank loans, no government schemes – you had to do it yourself. Don’t rely on the government or anyone else to do it for you because it won’t happen.”
This back-to-basics principle is going to inform the next series of The Apprentice, a move that has come at Lord Sugar’s behest. “After the first series, I naively allowed the production people to go off the rails a bit and it started to get a bit too close to Big Brother. The candidates were there for the wrong reasons,” he said.
Sugar was on barnstorming form. He criticised the new generation of entrepreneurs, citing the “expectancy culture” as the enemy of entrepreneurship. “There’s too much of this fast-track, make a quick buck culture and it’s got to go,” he said. Sugar firmly believes that entrepreneurial spirit is something you either have or haven’t got. “You can’t go into Boots and buy a bottle of entrepreneur juice. It’s either there or it’s not,” he joked to the delight of his audience.
However, Lord Sugar was taking no prisoners during the Q&A. As Smarta predicted, he gave a number of people short shrift. One of the audience members present was a civil servant who was worried about losing her job in the wake of the Comprehensive Spending Review. She asked Sugar if he had any jobs or contacts that could be useful to her. The multi-millionaire founder of Amstrad replied with a flat “No”. Poor Adrian Chiles, the host on the night and former presenter of The Apprentice:You’re Fired, tried to rescue the situation by asking what her skills were. But Sugar was not to be moved. As she attempted to explain her knowledge and experience, Lord Sugar told her she’d better learn to properly “pitch and present yourself”.
It wasn’t all fire and brimstone from the peer. He did have some genuinely useful advice for wannabe business moguls. “Some young people might think this is stupid, but, to take a job in the fish department at a Waitrose store and become an expert in that area would be a great career move, you could become the boss just like Terry Leahy [Tesco CEO] did.”
Being top dog is something that Lord Sugar clearly revels in. His elevation to the House of Lords in 2009 was icing on that cake and one that had special nuance for him: “We came from council flats in Hackney,” he said. “So to walk through the House of Lords with the title ‘Lord Sugar of Clapton’ was a great moment for me and my family.”
During his transition from a Sir to a Lord Sugar discovered that he could keep the title of Sir but, in an Apprentice-esque moment of levity, he told Smarta he had “considered flogging it to Simon Cowell.”
When it comes to the X factor for Sugar, it seems it is all about knowing when to let go. “If you’ve got problems that can only be sorted out through admission of failure, then admit failure and get on with it,” he said. But admitting failure is clearly not something that comes easily to Sugar: “I have a virtual baseball bat which I use to think about problems and smack them out of the way.”
At the close of the event, battered by Sugarisms and age-old business maxims, Smarta had to wonder: if Lord Sugar were to start from scratch now, and follow his own advice, how far would he get? TV producers, take note! This would be a far more interesting premise for a TV show than yet another round of The Apprentice meets Big Brother.