Alan Sugar is not a patient man. Nor does he suffer fools lightly. But the Amstrad founder, Apprentice boss, and recently appointed Lord, is without question one of the best-known entrepreneurs in the UK. With that title comes the privilege, and burden, of being a role model for young and aspiring business owners but Lord Sugar has proved time and again that he’s not interested in telling people want they want to hear. Candid, brutally honest, and often downright offensive - nobody can accuse this peer of not speaking his mind. While promoting his autobiography, What You See is What You Get, Sugar gave a talk at the Covent Garden Apple store and Startups went along to hear what he had to say. Here are a few pearls of wisdom from a man so fiery, he makes the Dragons look like pussy cats.
On whether entrepreneurs are born or made:
I try to explain to young people about entrepreneurial spirit. It’s something you either have or you don’t. You cannot become an entrepreneur, just like you cannot become a concert pianist. If you locked me in a room with a piano teacher for a year, I might be able to come out at the end of it and give you a quick rendition of Roll Out the Barrel. Would I ever be a concert pianist in the Royal Albert Hall? Not in a billion years. It’s not in me, I don’t have that talent. You cannot go into Boots and buy a bottle of entrepreneur juice. It’s either there or it’s not.
On his fiery boardroom reputation:
The boardroom scenes at the end of an episode of The Apprentice take about two and half hours to film which they squeeze down to 10 minutes on the show. In that period there’s quite a lot of joking and laughing but the producers decided in the first couple of series that they’d rather show the table banging. I’m not bothered by it personally, but I did get it in the ear from the wife and family over the way I’m portrayed.
On what he gets out of doing The Apprentice:
I’d spent a lot of time speaking at universities, schools and colleges all over the country and I try to encourage young people to be realistic and help them get into business by being frank and honest with them. Now every school in the country has some kind of apprentice-style initiative and it’s become part of the unofficial curriculum. The day it stops inspiring people is the day I’ll stop doing it.
On the ‘quality’ of The Apprentice contestants:
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. At that point I put my foot down and said we needed to be more credible. Having said that, you’ve probably watched the last episode and might ask me how I can put up with such a load of braindeads! They’re not though.
On aspirations of wealth:
Money doesn’t mean anything, I can promise you. Beyond physical money, my wealth is my family. Being wealthy was never what drove me, I just wanted to be self-sufficient. I was born into a very poor family and I didn’t want to struggle. I never had aspirations to make millions of pounds - things just got a bit out of hand.
There’s too much of this fast-track, make a quick buck, culture and it’s got to go. Some young people might think this is stupid but to take a job in the fish department at a Waitrose store, and over a period of time become an expert in this is a great career move. One day, just like Terry Leahy [Tesco CEO], you could become the boss.
On small business support:
Back in the sixties when I started, 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. There are no free lunches. I’m 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.
On becoming a Lord:
I would have liked my parents to have been able to see it. We came from council flats in Hackney so to walk through the House of Lords with the title Lord Sugar of Clapton is something only I can understand. It was a great moment for me and my family.
When it comes to debating in the House, I speak on subjects I know about, so I’ve been involved in debates on small business. I tend not to jump up and down like a jack-in-the-box on subjects I know nothing about. But I’m the young boy in there. I’m the apprentice at the House of Lords.
On his number one business maxim:
I have a virtual baseball bat which I use to think about problems and smack them out of the way. I will logically work out a way to get through them. If you’ve got problems that can only be sorted out through admission of failure, then admit failure and get on with it. If you need to pour money into something, or give something up, then be realistic about it and move on. Don’t cry into your beer afterward.