I don’t watch The Apprentice so have to tread carefully here, but the reaction to Tom Pellereau’s win has been interesting. Now clearly labeled Tom the inventor and nice guy, he’s this year’s default role model for inventors. So how does he measure up?
His invention credentials thus far rest on a curved nail file, some unspecified means of predicting back pain, and some unspecified design of chair to alleviate it.
None of these is impressive. As a long-time metal nail file user, I struggle to see what practical benefit anyone would get from a curved file – though to give him his due, even Tom apparently doesn’t think this is an earth-shaker. The means of predicting back pain seems fanciful, and when it comes to orthopaedic seating, Tom would do well to look at the large range already available.
(An aside: while back pain is a known problem for office workers, it’s more likely to be caused by poor posture than poor seating. And office work tends to be lean forward activity, so the backs of most seated workers may rarely contact the chair. The greater risk is probably deep vein thrombosis.)
All this seems to suggest that Tom may be prone to the condition many would-be inventors suffer from – a penchant for ideas with limited commercial potential.
The real hero of the hour though may not be inventor Tom but entrepreneur Alan ‘I am a product man in my heart’ Sugar. He seems to have recognised that someone brimming with ideas can be an asset to a business based on new products. And it’s encouraging that at least some viewers of The Apprentice recognise it too. One Daily Telegraph reader sums it up: ‘He (Tom) may produce a few more lead balloons but will eventually come up with a winner. Alan Sugar will need patience.’
That’s the sting in the tail. Alan Sugar is not noted for his patience. But the need for patience – and confidence, and trust, and proper support – reflects reality. If Alan Sugar isn’t just sounding off for the camera, we need a lot more like him and a lot fewer of those who won’t lift a finger to help or encourage an inventor until the risk to themselves is reduced to zero. Which it rarely is, because few inventors can bear all the risk and survive. So a depressingly common scenario is invention development grinding to a halt as the inventor runs out of money, and the bean-counter looking smugly on and saying, ‘Told you so’.
A great deal of invention comes from failure, and a great deal of innovation comes from patience. The triumph of Tom the inventor may possibly be short lived, but the lasting lesson from The Apprentice may be Alan Sugar’s – and the public’s – recognition that business skills and invention skills needn’t necessarily reside in the same individual. Put them together in a partnership of mutual respect, and good things may happen. Keep them apart, as though inventors carry plague, and nothing will happen. As the UK economy now sails permanently close to recession and needs all the innovation it can get to steer free, which do we prefer?