16th Mar 2012
Lucy George, director of Wordville, sees the new Mary Portas TV show in which the retail expert sets out to transform the UK manufacturing industry as an open university of business lessons.
The first episode of Mary's Bottom Line aired last night with Mary Portas taking on the challenge to design, source and manufacture a line of all-British knickers. Gung-ho Mary again demonstrates a compelling mix of persistence and warm-hearted enthusiasm for her idea and takes us along for the ride.
We know what to expect from the formula. A well-chosen challenge, hurdles and heart ache along the way, and a result that we can actually see in the real world. However, the current programme and, in particular this episode, provides more information about starting a business than any other Mary series.
Firstly and most importantly, she has one simple, good idea. She wants to produce an all-British line of underwear. It's a business concept that can be explained in one sentence. She's got a bigger goal to help support manufacturing in the UK and an emotional objective to help some people find the work they desperately need. Her big picture thinking motivates her but it’s the focus on one straight-forward idea that gets the programme and the business off the ground
Too many businesses start with an unclear idea, perhaps thinking about an end goal of selling a multi-faceted, multi-national business, or seeing their name above the door of an impressive building. If you can't explain your product or service, you can't sell it. It doesn't have to be the most original idea in the world, but it needs to be clear, be easy to price and be something that you know there’s a market for.
Mary starts by researching the market – a trip to an industry show, an on-the-street survey, a review of the trends in the sector. It's difficult when you're starting out and full of energy to hear views about your market that appose your own. You can always find someone who agrees with your assessment of the opportunity. Mary finds an expert who agrees that people are willing to spend more on a higher quality product. Our offices are moments away from Oxford Street and the queues outside Primark, Top Shop and New Look make me beg to differ. However, time spent getting to know your market is important, finding out what’s sold worldwide, what are the margins, how do rival businesses cost, charge for, make money on the business idea that you have?
The interviewing, shortlisting and hiring of staff takes up a large part of the programme – and so it should. From a business perspective it's where you're going to need to make some of your hardest decisions and for a TV programme it’s where the most entertaining moments are going to come from. The programme strays slightly into X-Factor territory in how it’s edited at this point but the process of advertising, interviewing, short-listing and testing is supported by experts at Skillset which provides another good business lesson. Ask experts where you can and follow a process for hiring. I’ve relied on one recruitment agent that I’ve built a relationship with, to screen candidates and hunt out the individuals that will fit in our business. My own view is that it's not always the experience to date that is of interest when considering a new hire. The unique qualities of the person, their will to work and their ability to be a positive part of the existing team are what matters. People can surprise you.
Mary lets us see the emotional side of hiring staff, the interviews that show how desperate some people are for work, the pitiful state of some candidates who obviously had no idea how to prepare for the interview or speak about themselves in a professional way. Hiring is hard work. Because it takes time, it means a lot to the business to get it right, and the decisions you make will change an individual’s future. But that’s the point too.
Becoming an entrepreneur is a big step and requires a Mary Portas-like focus to find an idea, research the market, prototype the product, secure the resources and build the workforce. It’s easy to get swept up in the high-energy mission to build a bottom line. However, there are moments of realisation for me when I think that the money we make at Wordville, goes to pay people’s rents and mortgages and nappies and food and nights out. Small businesses do contribute to the economy on paper. But they also contribute to people’s lives and we see a glimpse of that in Mary Portas’ Bottom Line. There’ll be more, no doubt, of the highs and lows of hiring. And I'm interested to see how Mary investigates and interacts with the supply chain for her product. It's something she’s brilliant at doing. I, for one, am going to watching like a hawk for more business lessons from Mary.