Life after Sugar

Life after Sugar

What happens to all The Apprentice candidates who don’t win? Steve Dyson puts ‘Twenty Questions’ to three ex-Apprentice candidates from the West Midlands.

Q. Where and when were you born? Nick Holzherr: “Technically I’m a Londoner – I was born there in 1986 – but moved to Switzerland at just six months’ old. My family lived there for seven years before coming back to the UK.” Ruth Badger: “Wednesfield, Wolverhampton in the very late 1970s.” Joy Stefanicki: “Southampton, UK. You know you should never ask a lady her age! I expected more of you BQ… ;)”

Q. What was your nickname at school/college? Nick: “At university I was nicknamed ‘shaggy’ because I had shaggy hair. Most people called me that!” Ruth: “My nickname at school was ‘Sick Note’ as I never went!” Joy: “My nickname has pretty much always been ‘Joyous’, started by an ex-boyfriend. It works for me.”

Q. What’s your link now with the West Midlands? Nick: “I first came to the West Midlands to study International Business and Modern Languages at Aston University. When graduating I started my first business here, with Aston Uni acting as our first ‘landlord’ by renting a space to put a coffee outlet on. I then started working out of Birmingham Science Park Aston, when I set up a software technology business.

“When founding Whisk, I decided to stick to Birmingham because of the great experience I had setting up my other businesses here. I don’t have any family ties to the West Midlands, but truly believe it’s one of the best places in the country to set up a new business. There’s lots of talent to hire, the professional community is both high-quality and very supportive, and everything is far cheaper than London.”

Ruth: “My whole family still reside in Wolves so, although I live in Manchester, I visit the city once a month and still call it home.”

Joy: “Birmingham is my second home. I was there from 2000 to 2012, bar a year in New York. I’ve still got an apartment in Birmingham city centre that I rent out, and I visit every few months to catch up with my nearest and dearest. Although I’m based in London now, I’ll always support the West Midlands. I can easily see myself coming back some day.”

Q. What was your first real job, and what made you want to be an entrepreneur? Nick: “I had more than 10 jobs before setting up my own company. When I was 14 I worked in a hardware retailer organising builder jobs on a Saturday and in a fish and chip shop in the evenings. My first real job was working for Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt, in the international investment banking team. It was then that I came up with my first business plan, so decided I’d take the plunge and break away from corporate life to set up by myself.”

Ruth: “My first full time job was as a YTS in a local Job Centre which I used as my first stepping stone. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to own my own business and be rich. I think this was founded by being brought up in a loving family but a working class family which pushed me to want more.”

Joy: “I worked for my parents who ran a pub from the age of 13 washing dishes and chopping veg. I had weekend jobs in a supermarket and video shop until I discovered waitressing and bar work, which saw me through university. My first role after graduating was as a PR executive at Citigate Dewe Rogerson. Fiona Tooley hired me after I did some work experience. I definitely have an entrepreneurial spirit and it’s in my blood to work hard and be ambitious. My parents have always been self-employed so I know how difficult it can be, as well as how rewarding.”

Q. What made you apply for The Apprentice? Was it an easy process? Nick: “A friend forwarded me an application and it was only a few lines of text in a few boxes, so I filled the form in without really thinking about it. When asked to go to the auditions I thought ‘maybe I’ll meet someone from The Apprentice...’ and it was only 10-15 minutes from my office. It was a surprise to be offered a contract to go on the show and, after lots of advice from friends and colleagues, I decided to do it. It was fantastic fun and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The process was intense – very long hours, huge pressure and totally new environments and scenarios. But a huge amount of fun.”

Ruth: “I fancied a change from what I was doing as I had reached the level of sales director by the age of 26 and was unchallenged. I love being tested and The Apprentice gave me one of the biggest tests I have ever done. The process to get in was easy for me but I only went through three interviews and a two-hour assessment, so I had it easy!”

Joy: “When I applied for the show it was to earn a well-paid ‘Apprenticeship’ with Lord Sugar, an employer I thought would make the most of my personality. That’s what appealed. I had just been made redundant from a job in the USA and was setting up by myself. It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’m not afraid of taking risks and this was one of those opportunities I thought was worth a shot. It wasn’t a difficult process, but there were quite a few stages to it.”

Q. Once selected, how long did your ‘reality TV’ experience last? Nick: “I still get recognised in the streets. Sometimes it’s nice, sometimes not – it depends on how tired I’m feeling! The most intense ‘reality TV’ part is two to three months after the show. People still recognise me in business – it helps to have a reputation.”

Ruth: “It hasn’t ended! I filmed the show for two months, went to work for Lord Sugar for six months and have profited off the back of it since!”

Joy: “About five minutes as I was out in week two!” Q. Did you really get to know Alan Sugar? Nick: “We spent a lot of time with Lord Sugar in the boardroom and in project briefing sessions. They are not as short as on TV and can last several hours each. However, we don’t go backstage to have a cup of tea with him and a casual chat. We only see him in formal situations. The production company do it to uphold our ‘respect’ for Lord Sugar – we’re not actors so they need to make the entire process as real as possible for us candidates.”

Ruth: “Candidates who say they know him don’t! The only two who can say they know him are the finalists, as they are employed by him.”

Joy: “No. I believe that the finalists meet him off camera, but for the most part you only see him while he’s on camera during filming.”

Q. What about his assistants, Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford and, since 2010, Karren Brady? Nick: “We see a lot more of Nick and Karren. They spend days with us on each task. Both are very nice people, although quite different. I have a huge amount of respect for Karren – she’s a very switched-on lady. In tasks she was always sharp, understood situations well and helped us navigate the process. Nick Hewer is very funny. It’s obvious he’s a ‘media man’ and knows how to work the cameras with his scowls and facial expressions!”

Ruth: “I really liked Nick and Margaret and have a great fondness of them as you have more contact with them in the show than Lord Sugar. I have kept in distant contact with Nick.”

Joy: “Not them either. Again, my personal experience was that we only got to interact with them while we were filming. I’d met Karren Brady around town before, but we didn’t talk during the show. It’s quite strict when you’re in it!”

Q. What did it actually feel like in front of the board? Nick: “It’s a scary process. The production company builds up the pressure by making us wait in silence for long periods of time and it’s all very formal. The total silence and presence of Lord Sugar makes all of us nervous. His questions are also very short and he always gets to the point immediately – you can’t fool the man.”

Ruth: “I can honestly say that the boardroom experience isn’t for the faint hearted! You have to be brave, strong and ready to fight, so naturally I loved it!”

Joy: “Way more intimidating than I expected. The atmosphere is all set up to freak you out and it works. I guess after a couple of weeks you’d know what to expect and it would stop being so surreal, but I just couldn’t believe I was in the boardroom in front of him. I mainly grinned in disbelief the entire time I was in there!”

Q. What about the moment you were ‘fired’… how did you feel? Nick: “Getting fired is obviously disappointing, but because it was in the final I wasn’t too upset. I could see it coming from the interviews – the advisors didn’t see the value in my business idea. However, you don’t 100% know because they do also need to make it ‘look’ tough for the cameras!”

Ruth: “I was never fired, so if you watch the show back I must still be in the boardroom.” [Ruth was runner-up.] Joy: “Frustrated. Disappointed. Embarrassed.”

Q. Do you think you managed to put across who you were on The Apprentice? Nick: “Yes, I think it is an accurate view of everyone. It’s a bit of a caricature – they make everything more extreme than reality. That’s also partly because to battle against a lot of strong egos you do need to act more loudly and brashly than in real life. The show’s focus is on mistakes and faults, which obviously makes it such compelling viewing for people. But I was presented reasonably well. It may of course have turned out differently had I been fired in week one or two!”

Ruth: “Yes I do, although I don’t say ‘without a doubt’ every five minutes! The only point I would make is I am far slimmer, younger and better looking in real life.”

Joy: “I think people who know me were surprised at how quiet I came across and I’m sure a lot has to end up on the cutting room floor. I wasn’t unhappy with how I came across, though. I demonstrated professionalism and kept my integrity, which was always important to me given the context of the show.”

Q. How often did people stop you in the street afterwards to ask: ‘Were you on The Apprentice?’ Nick: “Straight after the programme, I would be stopped multiple times every time I went somewhere. Sometimes I couldn’t walk a few metres without someone noticing. Most people say something nice and want a photo. It does get a bit freaky when I get back from a shopping trip and I have three or four tweets detailing where I’ve been that day and saying what I’ve bought in the shops.

“Now, I get a couple of people recognise me when I go on a shopping trip and a few ‘I’ve spotted you’ tweets a day. It depends where I go – sometimes I get noticed loads of times and then sometimes not at all.”

Ruth: “I have a very familiar name and went on to do two other TV series, so I get stopped daily and strangely people know my voice as much as my face.” Joy: “While the show was on air it happened quite a lot, but very rarely these days. I have been asked in the middle of client meetings and I always find it highly embarrassing.”

Q. What did you learn from The Apprentice? Nick: “Firstly, I learnt how a TV programme is made and how having TV exposure can help open doors in business. It was a great experience to run projects in so many different environments – every task requires candidates to work in a different field and use new skills. Getting to know all the people on The Apprentice was also a great experience.”

Ruth: “The Apprentice taught me so much, it pushed me right out of my comfort zone and made me realise what I enjoyed. I think that when you have worked since the age of 16 and climb the ladder you forget the basics and how much fun you have doing sales and marketing, as you are caught up with management and finance. The whole experience was fantastic and very memorable. One of the biggest lessons was to deliver what you promise, as most of the other candidates didn’t!”

Joy: “Being on the show did wonders for my confidence. It reminded me that I was very capable at a time when I needed that boost. I also learnt a lot about TV and all that goes with it. It was a great adventure.”

Q. If another budding entrepreneur was considering The Apprentice, what would be your advice? Nick: “I’d say be yourself. Let common sense guide you. Stop yourself regularly and question whether you’re being sensible. It’s far too tempting to over-analyse and over-engineer solutions to simple tasks. When leading a task go with your gut instinct and be firm when setting the project strategy. Don’t let the loud opinions of others set you off track. And try to get on with everyone and you’ll do well.”

Ruth: “Do it for the right reasons. I had no desire to be famous or to be on TV. The show really does show the good and bad about you so, if you think you are good in business, make sure you are before you appear otherwise you will look like a prize tit!”

Joy: “Go for it! As long as your eyes are open and you weigh up the risks properly. Give it your best shot and make sure you’re as prepared as you can be before you enter so you are ready to capitalise should you come out earlier than you anticipate.”

Q. On balance, has The Apprentice helped or hindered your career? Nick: “Before going on the show I asked the advice of my mentors and friends, and overwhelmingly the advice was to not go on the show. I had built a business reputation in Birmingham and had won a few awards for setting up my businesses – so people said it was too big a risk. I did it because I thought it would be fun and I had always shouted at the characters on the TV that I could do better – so I wanted to prove that. In hindsight, it was a great decision. They presented me well on the show and the exposure has had a significant positive impact on my businesses and career as an entrepreneur. I think I was incredibly lucky though.”

Ruth: “Helped 100%.” Joy: “It’s impossible to tell as I don’t know what would have happened if I didn’t enter. One thing is for sure though, I am Googlefu**ed. Probably forever!”

Q. What have you been doing since your appearance on TV? Nick: “The business that I pitched to Lord Sugar on the show was called Whisk, an online tool that allows anyone to create ingredient shopping lists for online recipes in the click of a button. Once ingredient lists are created – users can purchase all the ingredients from online grocery shops (Tesco and Waitrose currently, with others coming online soon) by entering their supermarket credentials and the items are automatically purchased. “On the show, Lord Sugar didn’t invest but since coming off the show we’ve raised over £0.5m in funding and have a team of 15 software engineers and business people working on Whisk full time. Our apps are also available on iPhone and Android smart phone platforms. We’ll soon be releasing features like individual wine recommendations for all recipes you find online, and tools which will work out what ingredients you’ll have left over after cooking, and suggesting recipes for you to cook with them. We’ve had great coverage in newspapers and magazines after coming off the show and so far we’re building a strong base of users.”

Ruth: “When I left the employment of the lovely Lord Sugar I decided to do two things: my own TV show that then linked into the business I opened called the Ruth Badger Consultancy Limited. The show was called ‘Badger or Bust’ and it was based on me helping failing businesses. “The Ruth Badger Consultancy Limited has been trading for seven years and provides the following services for SMEs: small business mentoring, sales consultancy, start-up mentoring, sales training and business turnaround. We are not normal consultants as we do more than we talk and always deliver. Since 2006 we have helped over 300 businesses successfully start up and in the last two years helped over 30 businesses who were failing increase sales and profitability.”

Joy: “Joyous Communications, my own full-service marketing and communications offer, has kept me busy for most of that time. It was born at the same time as auditions started in 2008. As Joyous Comms, I ran the West Midlands Graduate Internship scheme with Aston University, Graduate Advantage and what was then Advantage West Midlands. I also worked with Birmingham Professional DiverCity and Clarke Willmott solicitors. “One of the most exciting things I got involved with was CCHQ, a technology start up in the Jewellery Quarter where I specialised in social media. The sector is one of personal interest and it was brilliant to immerse myself in something that was then so new. About six months ago, my personal circumstances changed so I decided to move to London where I joined Tag Worldwide, a global media production and creative agency based in Farringdon, where I manage the DHL account.”

Q. TV aside, how well do you think the West Midlands helps entrepreneurs, and what could it improve? Nick: “When leaving The Apprentice, I had a choice of where to set up Whisk. My previous two businesses had been in Birmingham and I’d had a great experience. When evaluating other cities I made the decision to stick to Birmingham as I genuinely think it’s a great place to start a company. There is a superb talent pool available to hire, it’s cheaper than lots of other cities and the local business community is really supportive. I sometimes get asked why we didn’t choose London and the answer is simple: talent and price. Personally, as one of the lead ‘sales’ people of the company, I spend two to three days a week in London. As it’s only just over an hour and a half from Birmingham it’s about the same commute as living on the edge of London. I am super-productive on trains so appreciate the commute. “Basing our team in Birmingham was definitely the right decision and I recommend any other start-ups to do the same.”

Ruth: “I think the Government has an impact on how an area helps its entrepreneurs and as the current Government is shocking, no area is doing all it can. I think the West Midlands has been hardest hit by the recession in relation to retail and opportunities but I do feel entrepreneurs can grow and with the right mental attitude and passion can build a successful business within the West Midlands – even in this climate.”

Joy: “When I was setting up on my own, I found I had a lot of support from encouraging individuals and my network – especially in terms of practical advice. This was invaluable to me because personally I got nowhere with organisations like Business Link or even Birmingham Forward who I knew well. I struggled a little in the early days with knowing how to go about some of the detail. I had money coming in but needed practical advice with my business plan and contract terms. You don’t always want to admit what you don’t know when you’re trying to get things off the ground.

“Thankfully my network supported me and I figured out how the theory applied practically to what I was trying to achieve. People were more helpful to me than any of the organisations in terms of practical advice. With regard to what the city can do to improve now, I’m not sure I’m around enough at the moment. It seems to me that it must be doing something right because there are so many great, independent businesses thriving. Glide is an obvious success story, not to mention Big Cat, Urban Coffee Company, FleetMilne Residential, Roar and Orb creative. I love to see West Midlands businesses do well, but I do still wonder if we shout loudly enough outside of the city about those successes.”

Q. Which local business support organisations do you value? Nick: “Most of all I value the business sector in Birmingham – the law firms like Shakespeares, IP specialists like Forresters, PR companies like Clive Reeves PR, accountancy firms like Chantrey Vellacott. They all support us through great service and prices which aren’t stupid like you’d expect from London firms. I’ve also received a lot of support from Birmingham Science Park through their various programmes for entrepreneurs. I also need to thank the various people who’ve invested in our company – MidVen, Finance Birmingham and individuals like Doug Scott and Peter Dines.”

Ruth: “I’m not familiar with many in the West Midlands that I would support.” Joy: “Birmingham Future is an exceptional organisation for young professionals, and I am a particular fan of Birmingham Young Professional of the Year. I think on top of the opportunity to build real and lasting relationships, the organisation enables young professionals to enhance their skill set in ways they might not otherwise get the chance. “Without Birmingham Future and the Chamber of Commerce, even the Institute of Directors, I wouldn’t have the network I do. That in turn means I wouldn’t have had the support I did. I think they are invaluable for networking. I also think Graduate Advantage offers an excellent low cost recruitment service. It supports businesses looking to take on graduates for the first time or can provide valuable internships. The upshot here is that we keep graduates in the region, which can only be a good thing.”

Q. Who is your local mentor? Nick: “Simon Jenner was my original mentor and still someone I call upon, although we’re also great friends. I now have a lot of more formal support through the company. Peter Dines, our non-exec chairman and founder and ex-CEO of Surgi C Group, has almost weekly sessions with me to help me be a better leader.

“It’s been great to have a board of investors for our company because everyone has input on how I can improve and they all bring a wealth of experience from various sectors.”

Ruth: “That’s an easy question - my Mom! She’s independent, ambitious and the best negotiator I’ve met.”

Joy: “They know who they are. I am incredibly lucky that there are a few impressive people I am able to call on in that capacity if I need to. One of the things that makes Birmingham so special is the willingness of successful individuals to share their experience. I have tried to learn from these people and to give my time to mentor and support others too.”

Q. Where do you plan to be career-wise in five years time? Nick: “Whisk is my focus until we make it a big success. I don’t have a ‘five year plan’ as such – but at some point my goal is to sell the business and be able to act independently as an investor in other people’s companies. I’d love to be able to share my experience with people starting their companies and add value there. Maybe that will happen within five years – maybe sooner, maybe longer! “It’s very hard to plan a career roadmap when running your own company. I really enjoy running Whisk. It’s a huge challenge and amazing fun. We’re building a business that combines two of my biggest interests – technology and food. We have the opportunity to revolutionise how people cook, help people eat healthier and reduce food waste. It’s really, really exciting!”

Ruth: “Richer, happier and wiser! I have no set plan as, to be fair, the things I enjoy most are the opportunities I pluck when presented. Entrepreneurs don’t plan, they do.”

Joy: “Ultimately I’ve learnt that as long as I enjoy the people, the work and have good earning potential, I’m as happy working for someone else as I am working for myself. I’ve learnt never to second-guess the future. “I am an opportunist, and so I suppose anything could happen. “I intend to continue to enjoy my career, earn some money and keep my integrity. As long as I’m ticking those boxes you won’t hear me complaining.”