Back in the day - late 80's, early 90's, I used his products (Amstrad PC1512, PC8230) to write pitches when I worked in conference production (even to write to Nick Hewer, then Lord Alan's PR svengali - to get onto the pitch list for Amstrad's product launches) and followed closely Amstrad's move into satellite (via Rupert Murdoch, BSkyB) and of course, the infamous em@iler product. I read his autobiography (more on which later) and of course, like millions of others, watch The Apprentice every Wednesday, now with my iPad and Tweetdeck fired up, to see what the watching public think of what's going on.
Last Wednesday's episode was no different, until the Boardroom firing, when he uttered the words "I have never yet come across an engineer who can turn his hands to business".
Now, that's quite a sweeping statement. Of course, the Boardroom Firing segment of The Apprentice is a pretty pressured one - after all - he's investing his own money in backing a winner, and potentially has £250,000 to lose if who he backs blows it up down the track.
But, to make such a sweeping - and to be honest - unexpected statement, shocked me.
I'm known for embracing social media - to power up word of mouth into the global #WordofMouse, and after about 30s of reflection (still a bit stunned, actually) tweeted firstly:
- I'm a Mech. Engineer. So is James Dyson. C'mon @Lord_Sugar. DYSON. KING OF SHAVES. FUTURE... #engineerEntrepreneurs #theApprentice #MAKE
- @Lord_Sugar So Saddened by your comment re Engineers & not being Entrpreneurs. So out of touch. Sorry. B.Eng. Mech. Eng. = King of Shaves
Almost immediately, my tweets started getting RT'd (I have about 4,100 followers) and the next day, was contacted by a couple of online business websites to comment further, namely Real Business & Smarta websites.
So, waking up this morning, to see that the "Sugar Says Engineers aren't Entrepreneurs" furore had hit page 2 of the FT (including a name check for me & King of Shaves) suggests that something potentially impactful might be spooling up.
For many years, via my blog posts and talks, I've tried to explain Britain's economy is fundamentally unbalanced, should be knowledge led + manufacturing and rebuild its skills base in the world of export led manufacturing and knowledge leverage. Many of my talks are given to schools and universities (young people) - as my parents are both retired teachers, 'getting 'em young' seemed to be a good long term strategy. So, might this comment by one of the UK's pre-eminent entrepreneurs allowe Engineers the chance to get Engineer & Entrepreneur = The Future in the same sentence? Put to bed the fact that, as the FT neatly puts it "Kevin Webster off Corrie = boiler suited engineer?"
What do Engineers do? Well, put simply, they make things.
What do Entrepreneurs do? They make things happen.
Surely encouraging engineers (software engineers, chemical engineers, mathematical engineers, mechanical engineers, civil engineers) to become more entrepreneurial (perhaps through an Engineering Entrepreneurial semester as part of their degree courses) may make this happen?
I have spoken at a number of leading business schools on 'entrepreneurialism' - most recently at the London Business School, as well as Henley Management College - often to MBA students, who are trying to grasp what being an Entrepreneurial MBA might be like (this is perhaps often an oxymoron).
Could this be the Sweet spot (sorry) for the Government to embrace the fact that A) it seriously needs to invest in us Making Things again (engineers) and marketing them in an Entrepreneurial fashion?
Lord Sugar's business success was largely based on him having the conviction to boot strap his way up, buying and selling boxes of electronic products, on a margin. As he explains in his very readable autobiography, he was able to identify consumer demand for items such as electric aerials for cars, better car stereos (from Japan), import and sell them on in increasing numbers, then moving into TV's, HiFi's and the ilk.
However, had he had an engineering background, or perhaps - appreciation - when he came to do the same in computers - Amstrad at one point had an approximate 35% European market share of PC's with its products - eat your heart out Dell here - he may have made a couple of smarter decisions. One, he could have bundled Microsoft software in with his Amstrad boxes (remember, Microsoft in the mid-late 80's was nothing like as omnipresent as it is today) and secondly, had he embraced the fact that there was an industry standard for the GUI - what we call a 'mouse' - he could have made his computers massively relevant to large corporate buyers.
Amstrad was ultimately let down by its hard drive suppliers (Seagate, if my memory serves correctly) who supplied him faulty hard drives, which led to a long running court case (which Amstrad won) and almost certainly, by Lord Alan being distracted by the Tottenham Hotspur saga, which he admits, made him take his eye off business for about 10 years.
Many people often pose the question "Are engineers born or made? Discuss". Well, to be an entrepreneur, you have to have a number of characteristics - and you have to stick to them. I don 't believe I was born an entrepreneur - I became one when I was made redundant, and decided to take control of my own destiny, and make something (and make it happen). For sure, my engineering degree knowledge wasn't necessarily as useful as simply picking up the phone and asking for a sales order - but over the past 18 years, especially since the development and launch of our Azor system razor, which has involved me working with designers and engineers, it has been of tremendous value.
Can all Engineers be Entrepreneurs. No. But, with the right encouragement, MANY COULD - and I guess this is where Lord Sugar's comment, in front of millions of TV viewers - sticks in a sour way.
He's saying they can't. I'm saying they can.
I guess the proof of the #EngineerEntrepreneurs pudding will be whether, will be in the eating, in 10-20 years time, tastes sweet or sour.