Listen to this article
This month I watched the series finale of the British version of The Apprentice. In the US, where it originated, the show is fronted by Donald Trump; in the UK the “You’re fired” verdict is delivered by Alan Sugar. The contestants no longer compete for a job with the serial technology entrepreneur turned property developer, as they used to, but for an investment – said to be worth £250,000 – in their start-up idea.
Having watched this latest UK series, the ninth, I can’t help thinking that whichever side of the Atlantic you live on, there must be easier ways to raise finance for your business idea than to take part in a 12-week-long reality TV show.
The two finalists in the UK show had very different business ideas. One planned to wholesale hardware for the baking industry. She clearly understood the world of cakes, in which she already operated. It would be a reliable if low margin way of making money, and Lord Sugar, while never having previously operated in the baking sector, does have a record in manufacturing.
The other was a relatively newly qualified junior hospital doctor who wanted to start a chain of clinics offering basic cosmetic treatments. This was a higher risk, as she was very young and had no prior business experience. Sugar has no prior experience of cosmetic treatments, not even, as he made clear, as a customer.
His dilemma was clearly between the familiar but reliable, with a natural cap to its outcome, and the unfamiliar and risky with no cap on what it might achieve. Sugar opted for the riskier approach, deciding to invest in the beauty clinics.
I have faced a similar dilemma of choosing between the risky and the reliable in the run-up to the Edinburgh Fringe festival, which opens on August 2. I have spent many hours deliberating whether to develop a new version of the show I took to Edinburgh in 2010, which I performed in a kitchen (with baking products and someone on hand to bake them with a flourish) or to try out something different altogether. The 2010 show did very well, and while we didn’t exactly make money, we didn’t really lose any either. On the other hand, repeating the show in its old format won’t develop me as a performer, and the venue limits me to 40 people a show. So, I have decided to do both: stage both my old show and a completely new one.
The new show is as different as Botox is from cupcakes. It is a live chat show with audience participation, celebrity guests and a musical act. It’s called Mrs Moneypenny’s Money Clinic Live and its theme is money.
I have also decided to limit my risk by performing it just once a week, for three weeks only.
I have managed to line up some great guests. In the first week there’s Michael Moore, cabinet minister and secretary of state for Scotland, and Ali Velshi, a former CNN business commentator now with Al Jazeera America. In week two Nicola Sturgeon, member of the Scottish Parliament, will put the financial case for Scottish independence. In week three, I have Nancy Dell’Olio, the entertaining Italian lawyer and former girlfriend of England football manager Sven-Göran Eriksson. We will be performing in a 600-seat venue. This is my version of Lord Sugar’s Apprentice decision – a high-risk strategy to invest in a format and a show in which I am completely untested.
Will the shows sell? Even writing about them in the FT is no guarantee of that. As of now, the chat show is languishing behind the kitchen one in ticket sales, so I am close to seeing if my venture into the unfamiliar was a big mistake, or the start, as Lord Sugar’s could be, of a whole new adventure.
Mrs Moneypenny is at the Edinburgh Fringe in August at the Aga Showroom
More columns at www.ft.com/moneypenny