(Contains Spoilers for the Apprentice episode 2. Also probably only worth reading if you watched that.)
So, the Apprentice task this week was to create a piece of “wearable technology” – combining fashion with technology to make an innovative new product within a day. Unsurprisingly, both teams produced a horrendous piece of unsalable rubbish and did very badly, but there were a lot of interesting ideas floated in the episode that got passed over by everyone employed to analyse how the candidates did.
It’s worth bearing in mind that the customers for the product were John Lewis, Firebox and JD sports. The episode reveals this eventually, but not in time for viewers to consider it while they’re designing products. It’s important to consider this in your design, and the obvious target here is a piece of sportswear. JD sports will buy it if it’s sporty and quite cheap, John Lewis will buy it if it’s good quality, and Firebox will buy it if the tech is interesting or quirky. So long as you have anything remotely salable, at least one of these three will buy your thing. If you get it to good value, quality fashion and decent tech, you’ll score all three, but what are the chances of that?
This task did feel like a bit of a grenade. If you sit back and think, what “wearable tech” is there in the market that people actually buy? We’ve got the future possibility of Google Glass, which is a computer display on your head, and could turn out great, but costs thousands of pounds and years of development. And coming soon, we have smart watches on the way (like the apple watch) which largely duplicate smartphone tech – but less well. There isn’t any “wearable technology” on the market that people actually want
Not to say that this isn’t a potential market that companies are massively hyping, and that investors are waiting to jump on. The miniaturisation of electronics required for making a good smartphone mean we’re getting to the stage where we can make very lightweight electronics that you could put into clothing or wearable items. It’s just a question of finding something that people will actually find value in. It’s not happened yet.
Josephine and I had a few ideas. We figured that various fashionable clubwear with built in LEDs might sell to customers like Cyberdog, but that’s quite a niche market. I quite thought that a collar-like item which you could send text to via a smartphone app, to produce scrolling text could sell to such a market fairly well. The best thing we could think of would be a nice set of necklaces, where you could change the colour of the gems via a smartphone to colour-match them with your outfit. If classy, John Lewis and Firebox would go for it. For these customers, a sweatband that replaced the need for a pedometer/heart rate monitor might sell to joggers, because it’s a nicer item to wear for jogging than an electronic device. These all within about 10 minutes of discussion, all better than what actually came out of the show. Entrepreneurs? pah. We’ve got three or four ideas that might actually sell products, without even trying.
Our intrepid candidates split into two teams. “Team Summit” ended up coming up with a natty grey jumper with some christmas lights stuck to it, and a camera stuck in the middle. Team “Tenacity” with quite a nice ladies’ suit jacket, with heatpads in to warm you up at the hips, a phone charger built into the pocket, lights discretely in the lapels. All looked fine, apart from powering it from gigantic solar panels gaffa-taped to the shoulders. Needless to say, both ended up looking abysmal. Tenacity won, because they were ever so slightly less awful – but, had the power come from a discrete battery pack chargeable from USB, the heated jacket would actually be quite a nice product. I know people who’d love one, and you can get similar things on the market already – although I’m yet to see formalwear come into that equation. There’s a good idea there for a product that could sell.
Summit had a different product. Nobody would ever, ever buy such a ridiculously bad product, and they were sunk from the start. After firing one candidate for not having the guts to lead the team (despite being told to do so) Lord Sugar fired the actual project manager Scott, for the abysmal failure of the task – and let’s be honest, Scott didn’t manage the team very well, and on balance deserved to go.
Scott’s biggest failure as a manager was to leave the team so chaotic and directionless that they produced a dog’s dinner, but even despite that, I think he could probably have saved his skin with some canny fast-talk, but to do so, he’d have needed to make big arguments, about where they could have come good… but none of which he managed.
1) The team he was a part of spent a lot of time crucifying Scott for failing to provide any leadership to the “tech team” who built and designed the product they ended up with. “He wasn’t even with us, he was with the fashion team” they said. “Why not just make Robert (The fashion designer) leader of the fashion team, and come to the tech meeting?” Yes, okay, that would have been quite smart – but when they split up into two groups, Scott knew they had a solid product, and no fashion design, and it was a sensible choice to go with the fashion team at that point. That their product idea later turned out unfeasable (due to already existing in the market) was hardly his fault, and to survive he needed to point out why going with the fashion teem was sensible when he chose to do it.
2) The tech team built the worst product the show had ever seen, as a result of their first idea being sunk. However, that team contained Solomon, who had previously proposed a reasonable product with a good chance of success – Jogging trousers (or leggings) with a light strip down the side that could react to your heartbeat, or your running rhythm, or your music, or whatever. You could sell that to JD sports. You might sell that to Firebox. When their first idea was sunk, the tech team sat around for an idea trying to think of a backup, and Solomon should have gone to his previous idea and resurfaced it. He didn’t, and that’s the big reason the team failed. Anyone on either sub-team could have realised this and reminded Solomon to go with that idea, and nobody did, but Solomon was the best placed to remember it, as it was his idea in the first place. Point this out, and Solomon probably leaves the show.
3) When selling to Firebox, the first thing they said is “it’s kinda Christmassy, isn’t it?” and the team’s “crack salesman” Daniel replied “yeah, it is, kinda.” There was a brief window here, and if the opportunity had been grabbed, perhaps Firebox would have jumped for their product after all. The conversation goes like this. “That’s kinda Christmassy, isn’t it.” “Yeah… actually… you’re onto something awesome. Look, forget all this for a moment. I know Firebox sell a lot of quirky Christmas products. I get a catalogue every year and usually buy something for my family. What if we were to redesign this as one of those comedy knitted Christmas jumpers, with a big tree on the front, and the camera at the top. Customers with young families who wanted to film their day might really go for that, it keeps your hands free whilst you film, and there’s actually a market for that. Whaddya say?” – It’s not a huge market, but it’s big enough to win the task.
Bring Daniel and Solomon in with you, but argue that the task could have been saved by those actions, and you probably stay on the show.
At the end of the day, I still don’t think there’s a mass-market for “wearable tech”. One day we get to the stage where you can weave some kind of nematic-pigment into threads, and power them, or similar with lighting. Once we can make colour-changing fabrics, you can do some really awesome things with fashion… but until then it’s nearly impossible to come up with anything you’d want in your clothing that you don’t get in a smartphone.
If anyone knows of a company selling formal ladies’ jackets with built in heat-pads though, I know a lady who’d like one.