Once upon a time, in a land not so far away, budding entrepreneurs were encouraged to model their personalities on fairytale baddies. Personality traits including kindness, compassion, honesty, integrity and generosity were strongly discouraged. Instead enterprising souls were praised for being ruthless, brutal, aggressively competitive and at times downright immoral. Business was not about ‘giving back’, but about profit and profit at any cost to people and to the planet. In this fictitious land, which may feel all too familiar, the likes of Wall Street stockbroker Gordon Gekko said, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.” The land I’m referring to is of course Media Land.
Tune in to The Apprentice and you’ll see young entrepreneurs being taught the barrow-boy approach to business, wherein the ultimate goal is not the creation of a sustainable enterprise, but the acquisition of a quick buck. “Pile ‘em high, flog ‘em cheap and don’t ask too many questions about where they came from, or who made ‘em, just in case they fell off the back of a lorry coming out of a sweatshop in the Developing World” is the message. Responsible businesses are encouraging their executives to find low carbon transport options, but not Sir Alan’s enterprise, which transports the apprentices about in private jets and Bentleys. When they aren’t notching up Britain’s C02 emissions or flogging unsustainable products and services, the apprentices are busy backstabbing in the boardroom, as Sir Alan encourages them to slate their teammates. Apprentices that don’t make Sir Alan’s grade are of course “fired” and fired in the most humiliating and demeaning fashion possible; a fashion that in the real world of business would probably result in a tribunal.
Dragon’s Den promotes an equally unsustainable and unethical approach to business, for while of late the dragon’s have been paying plenty of lip service to sustainability, make no bones about it, the dragon’s have made their millions out of investing in generally unsustainable businesses. Dragon James Caan rose more than a few eyebrows, when he took to the podium at several high profile sustainability conferences to tell us how to do green business. The man may talk, but he certainly doesn’t walk sustainability. He is however a man who offered plight-stricken Pakistan flood victims £750.00 for their baby girl, treating the baby like a commodity to be bought and sold. When they are not making insensitive and insulting comments to victims of natural disasters, the dragons are busy making insensitive and insulting comments to British inventors and innovators. Comedian David Mitchell was on the nail when he pointed out that as a rule real world investors “don’t sanctimoniously tick people off nor do they spend 10 minutes thinking up a weak pun which combines their wish not to invest with the field of the invention in question”.
In television ‘show business’ becoming a successful entrepreneur requires modeling oneself on Ebenezer Scrooge or Cruella de Vil, but to quote a lyric by Irving Berlin “there’s no business like show business, like no business I know.” However, the line between enterprise fact and fiction has become blurred, as the business pantomime we see paraded on our television screens transcends into real world activities. While older and wiser investors understand the fact that Dragon’s Den is an entertainment show, not a fly-on-the-wall style documentary, I’ve met one too many a young investor who has clearly taken the show seriously and modeled him or her self on one of its famous cast. While it’s tempting to name names, in the name of discretion I’ll hold fire.
Greedy, grabby, arrogant, rude, brutish individuals did not found Britain’s biggest and best-loved brands, with two good examples being Cadbury and Marks and Spencer. John Cadbury was not a man who’d sell his granny in the name of profit, he was instead a Quaker, pacifist and social reformer, who influenced by his temperance beliefs, campaigned against child labour and animal cruelty, forming the forerunner of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. When Thomas Spencer bought a 50% share in Michael Marks business in 1894 he didn’t ask Marks what his exit strategy was. Nine years passed before the company was limited and in the interim period partners Marks and Spencer built their business on trust, shared vision and skills sharing; values that are still central to the brand today. Cadbury and M&S exemplify the benefits of Slow Business above Show Business; of doing business the right, not wrong way, focusing on the long, not short term, building a business on principles, not profits.
Contrary to what The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den would have us believe, the very last thing the world of enterprise needs is investors and entrepreneurs of the ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen’ variety. What are needed are men and women with the same moral substance that the likes of entrepreneurs Marks, Spencer and Cadbury exhibited. The entrepreneurs and investors building the world-leading brands of tomorrow aren’t thinking about profit and loss sheets, when their venture will float on AIM, how early they will retire or when they will make their first billion. They are thinking about how they will make a positive impact on the planet, how to make their business as environmentally friendly as possible, how to give back to their community and how to genuinely help those less fortunate than themselves.
While the Dragon’s Den may sound like the name of a fairytale, it’s no excuse for the show perpetuating fictitious ideas about the business world, ditto The Apprentice. In the real world it doesn’t pay for investors to breath fire on entrepreneurs; in the real world it pays to be nice.
Melissa Sterry – Founder of Societás and NEW FRONTIERS