Welcome to the second series of Small Business Snippets, the podcast from SmallBusiness.co.uk.

Today’s episode features Tim Campbell, an entrepreneur and the first winner of The Apprentice back in 2005. He discusses his views on apprenticeships and the idea behind one of his more unusual business ventures.

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Not able to listen in? Have a read of Tim Campbell’s podcast instead

Hello and welcome to Small Business Snippets, the podcast from SmallBusiness.co.uk. I’m your host, Anna Jordan.

Today we have Tim Campbell, an entrepreneur and the very first winner of The Apprentice back in 2005.

Since working for Lord Sugar, Tim has launched Bright Ideas Trust, a charity for disadvantaged young entrepreneurs and Alexander Mann Solutions, a talent acquisition firm.

We’ll be talking about what it was like to be in the first crop of candidates on The Apprentice and how to give interviewees useful, constructive feedback.

Anna: Hello Tim.

Tim: Hi, how are you, Anna? Good?

Anna: Yeah, very well, thanks. A bit of a grim day but doing alright. How are you?

Tim: Oh, if we didn’t have the weather to complain about, what would we have?

Anna: Exactly! It’s the essence of being British.

Tim: It is unfortunately, but let’s hope for better tidings to come.

Anna: Awesome. Right, for a bit of context, we are recording in the Alexander Mann Solutions offices today – in a sound booth, which is very nice.

Tim: It is indeed. But one of the interesting things that amazes me about London and is very exciting, is the juxtaposition between the old buildings we can see and the new cranes you can see everywhere.

Anna: Exactly, yeah. It’s wonderful seeing the architecture of the new vs the old. You wouldn’t think they work together, but they do.

Tim: That’s the thing about London – we make it work. That sings to the essence and the entrepreneurial nature of individuals from the UK.

My mum was an entrepreneur, but she didn’t call herself an entrepreneur. She was just making ends meet, as it were. A Jamaican immigrant to the country who had three children and brought them all up to be relatively successful. But she always underpinned that with working hard, going out and earning a living. And London has always facilitated that and I suppose the inspiration for me in a lot of the things I do is my mum in that she came over with all the skills and attributes but didn’t have the knowledge, contacts or mentors to be able to do that.

Do you think your mum didn’t call herself an entrepreneur because she didn’t go through the formal avenues of having a grant or a mentor?

Tim: Definitely. She just didn’t have time to worry about the nomenclature, she was just focused on the outputs and I think that one of the things we talk about with the people that we either mentor or support is to strip it down to its bare necessities.

Lots of people are very interested in the successful outputs of getting in business. They want the money, they want the accolades, they want the title and we have to start at the very beginning: ‘What problem is it that you’re solving? What is your business? Then we get some blank looks and they say, ‘We just want the money at the end. Can’t you just give me that?’ And I say, ‘Well, no actually – there’s a process to it.’

I think with my mum and me and the people we try and support, we try and encourage them not to focus on what the title is because titles are for corporate environments, whereas when you’re a business owner it doesn’t matter, particularly when you run a micro or small business, you do everything.

But essentially, you’re focused on the output and delighting the customer. As long as you keep that at the forefront of your mind, then you can enjoy the pats on the back and the celebrations of what you’ve done. But never lose sight of why you’re in this and that’s to delight a customer and make them happy, and then get them to give you money as a result.

The thing I’d like to talk about is your time on The Apprentice. You were on the very first series before anyone even knew what it was.

Tim: A long time ago, neither did we! We didn’t know what it was. For the 14 contestants on the first show, there were probably only two people who did the investigation to find out exactly what The Apprentice was, which is a bit stupid to admit, but I’m going to be very honest.

Anna: Was one of them you?

Tim: Yeah.

Anna: Oh really?!

Tim: No, I didn’t. I was very naïve, I actually applied for a job with the main focus being to get the six-figure salary. That’s what I wanted. Because [the programme] wasn’t as popular as it is now and didn’t attract the millions of people watching every single episode, so it was a different beast.

But when I applied, it was about securing a salary that would look after my family. And naïvely, I just applied thinking that 1) I was going to work with a great British entrepreneur in the then Sir Alan (as he is now Lord Sugar) and 2) it was a sizeable multiple on the money I was earning at the moment. I thought, ‘What could I lose?’ Little did I realise what you could actually lose, but that’s why I carried on with the application and thankfully it was a positive outcome.

Yeah, that’s it – because people who apply now see it as a platform for a business idea that they might have and obviously you get the investment at the end.

Tim: Correct. I suppose the thing for me is that the bigger opportunity for a show like that, apart from shouting and screaming at the contestants who don’t want to do the dreadful things they sometimes have to – or coming out with the ridiculous one-liners they seem to continually do every year without fail – is learning from Lord Sugar himself.

He’s a brilliant entrepreneur in the truest sense of the word, in that he can spot problems, come up with solutions and deliver true value, not just to investors, but stakeholders, customers, in what he would be able to deliver.

From what I’ve seen, there weren’t as many zingers in the first series as there were later on. What else is different between then and now?

Tim: Probably because I was just boring. On the first series, I remember all of the contestants. All of us were really competitive – we just wanted to win. What we agreed on very early, was that the way we could secure victory was by not losing task and not falling out with each other. If we worked as a team, we’d actually do more. That must have been so annoying for the television producers because that’s not what they want to hear, but that’s what we had.

When we went on task, we were going to be polite and civil. And when we were on task, we were going to be competitive, but not devious to the point where we would hurt other individuals. That wasn’t on our agenda. And that sung to our values – particularly me and Saira – who were project managers a number of times. Our values were that you could win without being negative to people. And I think that’s sometimes lost, particularly when people talk about business in general, where the image that people get is ruthless, belligerent character that kills everybody and steps on the heads of minor people to get to where they are. And there are some people who are like that in business, but the vast majority of people I’ve worked with – either on the show or in business in the real world – just want to survive.

Anna: Those relationships are so important.

Tim: It’s critical. What we took from our series was that the power of strong relationships helped you go further.

As you said, the prize in the first series was a job with Sir Alan, back then. You set up his health and beauty division at Amstrad.

Tim: It was a very interesting journey. You were asked on day one to come up with a health and beauty product. And I thought, ‘What is this?’ And what I saw it as was a test. What we were trying to do – and we did successfully, was replicate other multi-level marketing processes. We got other women to sell the products to other women. It was a very interesting two years I spent.

The whole gambit of business was involved in that particular project. I look at it like it was a real-life MBA. It was phenomenal in terms of learning and experience. I still rub cream on the back of my hand now and say, ‘Ooo, isn’t that lovely?’ because I understand how it was all made.

How was the reception of MLMs back then? Now we’re seeing a backlash, particularly with companies that don’t have a great reputation, make false promises, are quite exploitative.

Tim: Yup, and I think people are right to see a backlash against those ones who don’t deliver against what they say they’re going to. The key thing that I learned from Lord Sugar was to deliver on your promises.

The products that we put on were about empowering people to make a revenue from the products that we had already generated. But we had very clear outputs, a very clear rewards structure and had very clear marketing, which had no false pretence behind it. And the good thing about going on a television programme which had multi-million people viewing it is that you get held to account very quickly if you don’t do what you say you’re going to do.

So thankfully, all of the work that we did was regulated, it was checked and verified by independent people and delivered against the promises. What we were really focused on was them learning about business while possibly generating some income for themselves as well as using a good, highly potent and effective product.

If you were to go back on The Apprentice now and win the investment (£250,000) rather than the job, what would you do with it?

Tim: Very interesting. I think if I were to do something today it’d be around artificial intelligence and some form of tech. You look at some of the industry sectors on a medium scale which are accelerating in excess of 20pc every single year and you’re immediately gravitating towards use of tech, particularly in the financial sectors. The fintech market has been amazing.

I think there are some really interesting plays in the insuretech space and the edutech space. Education and people insuring against risk are never going to go away.

If you look at some of the fast-growing businesses at the moment, they’re providing ancillary services behind businesses, so courier servicing, making sure that you can deliver consultancy advice and guidance into business. Or anywhere around tech in terms of promoting business propositions. Those are the areas I would’ve come up with a proposition for him to give me some money for.

I know you’re supportive of apprentices. From a small business owner’s perspective, we’ve seen that some are put off hiring apprentices because they don’t have time to train them or they can’t afford them. What would you like to see that would make things easier?

Tim: I think for small businesses you’ve got to make the decisions which are really important to your company. You can’t just follow on. It’s got to be right for you as a business. The difficulty with a small company is if you make a mistake the impact is much bigger than in a bigger company where you make a mistake, it might not be right, but you can move around and you’ve got the resources to absorb that.

Small businesses have to make really critical decisions around can they take on an additional wage because when you take on an apprentice, it’s not a free resource. In my opinion, you have to pay them the living wage – and the London wage if you’re in the capital. Then you’ve got to work into the equation how long the value add is to you as a business owner. They’re going to have to learn the ropes and get off the ground before they become of value to you as a small business.

And the training that comes with an apprenticeship – how valuable could that be to an organisation in making an assessment? It’s not for every small company, with the amount of supervisory element to an apprenticeship programme, the resources may not be there for a small business to be able to go along that journey yet. But it’s something that should definitely be on the agenda and maybe for the smaller to medium-sized businesses that are growing, as opposed to the micro businesses who are at the beginning.

I’m going to take what is typically seen as a more morbid turn here. I understand that you are the director of a company called death.io.

Tim: Yes, I am indeed. And rather than scaring lots of people, it should fill them with joy. What we have done, and when I say we it’s me, my co-founder Paul Wiseall and our chairman, Tom Ilube, have come together to start a company which is using artificial intelligence to help people better prepare for the inevitable.

And the rather shocking title of ‘Death’, similar to the likes of Virgin or Google, makes you wonder what this is about, where is it coming from and it’s a bit of a shock factor. We want it to stick in people’s minds that this is one of the last taboo areas that you should be talking about. Because the whole industry is a conversation which happens behind closed doors, in hushed tones, and no one really wants to speak about it.

There are so many different ways to talk about death. What we at death.io have done is utilise technology to help you live forever. We are able to take the essential elements of you as an individual and tell your story, tell us the significant moments of your lives and utilise technology to create a virtual person out of those recollections, which others can interact with.

Is that verbally or in writing?

Tim: Both! At the moment, we have a platform which allows you to talk using typed words back and forward to your avatar. But the developments are quickly incorporating voice into that. So very much like you might like you might tell a speaker to turn the lights or the music on in your house, you will have the ability to talk to yourself via one of those devices as well.

Anna: Oh, that’s kind of eerie.

Tim: In one way, I can understand why people think, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t want that, where would that come from?’

But at the same time, bringing it to back business, I had the privilege of speaking to the head of the Chinese Takeaway Association. It was very interesting – I didn’t know one existed – but one does! What he said is that you’ve got a lot of people who have come over as immigrants to this country and worked really hard to build up fantastic businesses within every single major city in the world. They’ve done that to facilitate a better life for them and their children. What happens though is that these children go to fantastic schools, go off to university, and may decide that they don’t want to run Mum and Dad’s Chinese takeaway. What happens to all of that information? What happens to all of that insight around how you pick stock, how you purchase stuff, how you set up a marketing campaign to get people to do stuff? That information has to go somewhere otherwise it just passes with the individual.

It’s also an opportunity for us to make sure people have their lives in order: have you got the right insurance in place? Have you got the right protection for your family going forward? We have the facility to let people do that in a nice, friendly, social way.

Yeah, from what I saw I like the holistic approach of it, especially with the blog. It’s touched by so many of today’s topics like rapidly advancing technology, sustainability, gender identity.

I like the tone as well – normally with traditional funeral care providers and planners there’s a formal and sombre tone where again, on the blog, it helps breaks the tension around, as you say, a taboo subject.

Tim: We had a great conversation with a phenomenal agency called Ready Ten, started up by a very good friend of mine, David Fraser. He was the only agency that picked up the potential of this in terms of how you could turn this into a positive conversation. Their ideas around how you could really grasp a difficult subject like death – you have to talk about these things because they’re not going to go away.

We want to take the stance of not making light of the conversation, but in lightening the conversation around subject matters that have to happen. Like, if you got sick, what would happen? What’s your blood type? I don’t know – most people don’t know! If you don’t know what your blood type is or you don’t know if you’ve got any hereditary diseases, we have a way to capture that and share the true essence of who you are rather than the curated bit that you might do through other social platforms.

I think there are some interesting ethical questions around grieving, the way that people’s memories are held. Because we touch so many people, you might want me to come back alive, but I might’ve been really horrible to someone else who doesn’t want me to continue on living. What are the ethical implications of all of those?

But for us as a platform, we want to give that ownership and option over to the individual. Where you can sign up to have this delivered in any way, shape or form based on what you feel those around you need. It’s not for us to act as judge and jury around that, but it’s going to be a very interesting development to see how far people want to take it.

Well, I’d love to talk about this a bit more, but I must move onto our last topic. You’re an advocate of the Fight for Feedback campaign, encouraging employers to give interviewees good quality feedback. In your opinion, what makes quality, decent feedback from an employer?

Tim: I think it’s incredibly important that employers to understand that they have a responsibility to leave candidates with a good candidate experience from their resource process. Why is that important? I was always told that it’s important to say goodbye in a nice way rather than just say hello in a positive way. Those people will tell another ten people exactly how you treated them. It’s very important from an employer brand perspective to make sure that employees – whether they’re successful or not in going through a process – leave with a good feeling.

And the best way to leave with a good feeling is to be told ‘No, but this is how you could improve’. As employers, I think we all have a responsibility to raise the level of our candidates, and I think the only way you can do is alert them to what they can do better in the future.

Let me make it clear, because there are lots of very big employers who are saying, ‘Hang on a second, Tim – we see hundreds of thousands of people every year for our placements.’ Yes, that’s true, there are a lot of people coming through. It would not be impossible to put a structure in place which says to individuals, ‘You might not get direct verbal feedback from every person you spoke to but we can at least highlight the areas that we didn’t select you on.’

There are so many candidates who talk about filling out an application, taking the time to nurture a CV and make it bespoke to that employer, write the covering letter, do everything necessary, and don’t hear anything – not even a ‘no’. That’s a very negative seed that’s been planted around that brand and the value that they place around the people who interact with them. And for me, just to be able to say, ‘No, but these are the areas you fell down’ is as powerful as a half-hour phone call with an individual to walk them through exactly what they could do to improve. Now, the scale of when you can do that may alter depending on how far they’ve gone through a process and how senior the actual role is. I don’t mind that.

And the other thing to think about from an employer’s perspective is that it’s a two-way process. You could get some free marketing research from individuals who have interacted with you and they can tell you what they found and that can help you develop and get better as well. You can create a brilliant campaign, attract a fantastic funnel of talent, but you don’t know unless you’re asking them how they are receiving it.

I think feedback is such a small thing to do which can have such a big impact on how people perceive that brand and how they will go and work in the future. So, if somebody has a big problem presenting information in a way, tell them, help them to be better and you never know, they might come and work for you in the future because of that feedback. Plant good seeds; give good feedback.

Anna: Well, that seems like the perfect place to end it on, so I’ll wrap up there. Thanks ever so much for coming on the show, Tim.

Tim:  Thanks so much for having me, Anna. Let’s hope that the sun is shining now in London and elsewhere and that all of our businesses improve. Thank you very much for having me.

Anna: It’s been a pleasure.

You can find out more about Tim at timcampbellhq.com. You can also visit smallbusiness.co.uk for more information on apprenticeships and grants. Remember to like us on Facebook @SmallBusinessExperts and follow us on Twitter @smallbusinessuk, all lower case. Until next time, thank you for listening.

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