Tuesday, May 15, 2007

What an Entrepreneur Thinks of Apprentice and Inventor


There’s a lot to be learned from these BizTainment Shows.
By Alan Brody

When a VC panelist used the Apprentice to describe his ideal management team, we realized these shows have the power to shape our thinking about business life. Even the execs who poo-poo these shows may well be overlooking the way they influence their world and especially, the next generation coming into the business.

Since we focus so much on Start-Ups and Entrepreneurs, and even have our own local TV program, The Start-Up Show, the new American Inventor program is of great interest to us because it shows that inventive thinking is necessary for survival in life, business and in this, entertainment.

While American Inventor focuses on people with new gizmo ideas and we focus on new business ideas, there is a lot in common with what makes a judge pick an invention or a VC a business plan. Sure, you could argue that what we do is both harder to understand due to its abstraction. Or that American Inventor is not really about invention in the Edison mold, but silly ideas (like an adult comfort doll), transpositions (applying say, an absorbent pad for other previously unimagined uses), niche solutions (a training device for football catching), or reasonably obvious improvements. Despite even their biggest criticism, that they favor personality over actual ideas, it is still a very compelling and instructive show.

The best of this series is the recent episode in which 3 of the qualifying inventors get a $50,000 check to develop their idea into a viable product. Here we see the product being exposed to a focus group, design experts that have these marvelous fabricating devices to build realistic prototypes. Most of all, we see the inventor/entrepreneur at work, making decisions and showing their real stuff , which is often the kind of thing that keeps VCs sleepless at night. One withers without their "life Partner", the other becomes monomaniacal while another becomes heartrendingly empathetic

The 3 Finalists and their Inventions
The contenders were a struggling black football trainer with an odd, swan-shaped device that straps to the chests of footballers that helps perfect their catching skills. Next was a woman with an umbrella that folds inwardly so you can move from a car without getting wet. Finally there was a janitor with a giant plastic French Fry scoop that is used for filling sandbags in a hurry. The footballer and the janitor have heartbreaking bankruptcy stories due to their product developments and the woman can only function with her life partner.

The Improvement strategies
The Un-Brella is quickly renamed the In-Brella (why have a negative says the judge – but why not focus on the benefit I say, and call it the Car-Brella?) and looks like the favorite since it addresses the biggest possible market: drivers who use umbrellas. But Sheryl McDonald crumples without her partner, loses focus, falls prey to incompetent prototypers whose effort is bulky and faulty even though, in dramatic tests it does function as promised.

Ed Martinez brooks little design input on his Sackmaster, sacking his design team, putting his money in packaging and a shoulder holster. His amazing transformation into a minor dictator, which he considers justified because his sandbagger "saves lives" is topped off with a trip to the hairdresser and the purchase of a fancy suit. Clothes may make the man, but you’d wonder how an EMS worker or a Home Depot buyer would feel about staring at Mr. Armani with a plastic shovel. There were practical errors too: the Scoop may be great for Sandbagging, as the tests prove, but leaf bagging is more common than levee-plugging, or at least we hope so. In that case, it’s bulk is a negative in a retail store where it commands a lot of shelf space for say, $30. He should have developed a stackable version with a collapsible funnel. Instead, he stuck it in a box that made it even bigger. UPS will probably assess an oversize charge if he went into mail-order. The shoulder strap was probably unnecessary but it sure came in handy when he got his marching orders!

Erik Thompson, the football coach, has, at least on paper, the smallest marketplace: football catchers who want to look ridiculous, and possibly catch a ball. But he has a humble, winning way and a sob story. So judge Ed Evangelista, a J. Walter Thompson creative director gives him the nod. It may be a classic game of betting the jockey over the horse, but Ed, a boxing fan, might envision a line of sports training devices led by Erik. Or perhaps he sees more uses for this thing (our favorite: the datecatcher, a device that keeps teenagers’ dating nice and clean.)

The Symbolic Message
Whether the outcome was fair, it does show that investors apply great symbolic value to behavior, key gestures and attitude and may well bet accordingly. After all, if people do strange things in the courtship stage, they will probably get a lot stranger when the checks cash and the pressures mount. In my opinion, if the Car-Brella is truly patentable, then Sheryl should find a great designer who can make it compact and easily stored under a car seat, license it to an umbrella company, take her royalty and staying dry. Likewise, the Sackmaster, now that it has had some publicity, might actually sell well to firehouses and relief workers, landscapers and so on. If all else fails, Macdonald’s might take it on just as soon as they begin supersizing fries again.

The Apprentice
Donald’s show has been slipping in ratings now that it picks contestants for looks over personality and it has been a while since the finalist have comprised the sort of winning ream our VC so prized: a manager, an operations guy, a visionary and most of all, a salesman. Worse, they have become a shill for corporations whose product placement somehow doubles as one of their tasks. The low water mark was the episode where Yahoo, supposedly backing a child cancer fundraiser forbade the contender from showcasing the charity or asking for money. For good reason, the candidate who should have stood them down, lost. So did Yahoo, and so did the show which has seen its ratings decline ever since.

Where we are different
The Start-Up Show and the iBreakfast puts real entrepreneurs in front of real VCs where real multimillion dollars enterprises are made. But that is only half the story, the entrepreneurial spirit is more than chasing a dream or making a mint, it is about fostering a state of mind that enables people to reinvent themselves in an economy of constant changes and long separated from the basics of manufacturing and agriculture.

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