The Apprentice: behind the scenes

A Young Apprentice semi-finalist chats to Hannah Langworth about the award-winning BBC TV show

Harry, an A-level student like all the other Young Apprentice candidates, reached the semi-final of the BBC TV show, screened at the end of last year. His team lost out on a closely-fought popcorn making and selling task and were all fired, but then received words of encouragement from Lord Sugar - and his business card. Harry started his first enterprise - selling tickets on the internet - at the age of ten, and is currently developing a five-star hotel review website.

Do you think the fact that so many young people today are interested in setting up their own businesses is because of shows like The Apprentice?

I think TV shows like The Apprentice and Dragons' Den have "sexed up" business. TV is something that really appeals to younger people and when they see powerful entrepreneurs on television - like Lord Sugar, Peter Jones, or Theo Paphitis - it's something for them to aspire to.

Is The Apprentice like business in real life, or is it just reality TV?

What you're seeing is a business environment with people working towards a business goal. There is obviously a bit of editing, because business isn't as high-paced as what you see on the programme, but there is a real business background behind The Apprentice because if it didn't have that, the programme would lose its interest and not appeal to the wide audience it has. You're given a product and you have to sell it. The customers don't come to you, you have to find the customers and sell to them. The cameras actually probably make it even harder, because a lot of people don't want to buy things when there's a camera in front of them.

The show

What preparation did you do before going on the show?

I did a lot of rewatching of old series and that came in handy because from watching you can take things away and learn from them - if you've seen someone make a mistake and it hasn't gone down well, you think to yourself "I won't do that".

Were you introduced to any of the other candidates before filming started?

There was nothing formal, but as part of the auditions we had a group round. They actually picked about half the candidates from the group I was in. One of the worst things was that James, who was also on the show, and I really clashed in the auditions - it was absolutely horrendous. He said he thought I was useless and that I should get fired straight away. It was then the weirdest moment when I walked in [when we started filming], sat down, saw him and was like "Oh no."

Everyone on The Apprentice always looks very smart. Do contestants get a lot of help with their appearance?

Not at all. The biggest nightmare is that you're not allowed anything with a logo on and when you go into Top Man or Next, everything's got logos on! I actually sewed over, or got my mum to sew over, all the logos on my clothes. Before you go into the boardroom, there's a makeup artist there.

How much contact did you have with the outside world during filming?

Before you start filming you have to hand in all your electronic devices. You're not allowed access to your phone, apart from a ten minute phone call once a week. You can't even speak to your parents - they can send letters to you, but you can't reply.

You're not allowed internet access or access to newspapers and you're not allowed to watch TV - even the news. The Apprentice was actually showing on TV at the time, but we weren't allowed to watch it because they said they wanted us to focus on our own game and not get caught up in what was on TV. So it's a real Apprentice bubble, but a fun bubble. As candidates, you tend to get very, very close because there's nothing to do except speak to each other.

What was it like living in the house with the other candidates?

It's intense and you really do get to know people. It got a bit surreal because you're living in a house and everyone is so different outside the process. But by the end of it we all got on really well. On our days off, we'd do things like going to Hyde Park and hiring a pedalo, going bowling or making pizzas.

Back at the house they want to make you as relaxed and as at home as possible because they want to see you at your best on the task. We could cook for ourselves if we wanted to, but one of the members of the production team was also a chef, and there was also a catering company who would bring things round every so often. With sleep, they'd say to us: "You've all had a long task today, so we want you to go to bed at 10pm and we don't want to see you again until 10am." Some people loved it, but I'd be thinking "I'm really not that tired" and would be lying in bed wondering if I could go downstairs yet!

The tasks

What's it like when you get set a new task?

You know it's a task day, but you don't know what the task is or what time the call is coming. I always really wanted to answer the phone and we'd race down the stairs and I would get really annoyed if someone else answered it. It got to the point where we all got up too early, so when the camera crew arrived we'd all be dressed and they'd want to film us getting up and we be like: "Oh - sorry!"

There are no clues about what the task is going to be all about, but they'd put objects in the house that were hints as to what the tasks were. So there was an ice cream task and they'd put a massive ice cream in the house, and there was a popcorn task and they'd given us a popcorn maker.

Did you go into the tasks with a strategy?

You have to remember that, although you may be working with six other people, at the end of the day that there is the potential for you to lose the task and out of the team one of you will have to go - do you want that to be you, or are you going to do everything you can do to ensure it won't be you? There's only going to be one winner. If you're the best salesperson in a company, they're not going to fire you. So the tactic I took was to think about what was important to each task and focus on that.

Once you get going on the tasks, do you get given any help that we don't see on TV?

You have a dossier of information about the task and what you need to to do, like deadlines and whether you need to cast models. Sometimes they'll be a few options and you get to pick, but that's the only guidance.

What's it like not being able to use Google?

It's frustrating because I think sometimes people think �That's a rubbish idea", but you don't have anything to go off - it's just you all sitting there putting your heads together.

What were Nick and Karren like?

When we're on a task, Karren and Nick just observe. But when you're in the breaks between filming - say on your lunch break - you would get some interaction, but all on a social not a business level. I got on really, really well with Karren - she was so nice, such a genuine person, very straightforward, but actually a lot more bubbly than I would have thought. Nick is pretty much the same guy [that you see on the show] - what you see is what you get. He has some of the best one-liners you could imagine and so many stories to tell. I really enjoyed working with both of them.

What was it like being filmed?

You grow to be comfortable - you always have some awareness that the cameras are there, but it never influences your behaviour that much. I got on really well with the production crew. It's so funny because sometimes you say something and the production crew struggle to hold back their reaction and you see them smiling in a corner and you think "Oh no, what's going wrong?"

In terms of the editing, what I always think is that no matter how I came across, I can say I got to the semi-final. When everyone has forgotten about the individual episodes, that will reflect my performance.

The boardroom

How much preparation would you do before going into the boardroom?

We'd finish the task one day and then then next morning we'd have the boardroom. Straight after every task, everyone is separated and called to do an interview on camera. Back in the house on the night before the boardroom, I could never sleep. I'd be thinking, "It's the boardroom tomorrow - I need to know what I'm going to say." I'd be reaffirming what I did, why that meant I should stay, and thinking about the other candidates. Just before we went into the boardroom, we'd have to wait in a little room and they'd ask us to sit in silence and think about what we were going to do.

What was the boardroom process like?

The process is quite long - it's a three hour stint each time. [What you see on TV] is pretty authentic. There is the odd occasion when something needs to be rephrased, but it generally is how you see it. I found it quite comfortable - you're just going through the task and talking about every single detail. If you're confident in what you've done, it's a relatively straightforward process.

How much interraction did you have with Lord Sugar?

I was actually able to get quite a rapport going with Lord Sugar, just because I saw him so frequently as I kept losing! Lord Sugar probably comes across as a bit more direct on screen than he is. He genuinely wants to see people do well - he wants to help you to become the best that you can be.

I have been in touch with him - I haven't quite braved giving him a phone call yet, but I've had a few emails - I'll send him a few ideas, to see what he thinks. He sends very nice emails - kind of concise because he probably gets a huge number of emails, but he does always send a nice reply, signed "Lord Sugar".

Beyond The Apprentice

What business insights will you take away from the show?

Before [going on the show] I thought you can just have a great product and a cool brand and then everything will go great, but then I saw that they need to link up because when you're explaining it in a pitch or in sales, you need to have something that connects them together.

Do you think students who want to go into business should aim to find a mentor?

Mentors are obviously helpful in terms of trouble-shooting and advice and helping you to get to the next level, but it's not essential. I wouldn't say to anyone don't do something because you don't have a mentor.

I think what is always important is that you make your own mistakes, because ultimately what makes a good entrepreneur is having something go really wrong and turning it into a good thing.

The new series

You've already set up a few businesses of your own, but what would you do with the £250,000 that the winner of series 8 will receive from from Lord Sugar?

At the moment I'm testing the water with different ideas to see what works. For me, [the time for investment] would come once I have an idea and it's working and I want to take it to the next level.

What advice would you give the new candidates, and other young people interested in business, on the basis of your experience on the show?

I was given some advice by a friend and it really helped me: step back - it's very easy to get caught up in an idea, but think "Does this idea work and make sense?" By taking those steps back, you generally tend to find you have a product that's more pleasing to your customer.

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