Warning: there’s a lot of Twitter in this story.
The first time I met BBC Apprentice 2011 winner and Lord Sugar’s business partner Tom Pellereau was in 2014. At the time, I was still buried in the blue-carpeted office with windows sealed with cement, wondering about things such as – in chronological order: how the hell I had ended up working there, how the hell I had become so dreadfully skinny as I was still having a whole jar of Nutella per day if my female colleagues and I were really belonging to the same species or God was playing dice with the Universe, and how much annual leave I had left before I died.
Then, one morning, where our
boss livestock guard dog was busy pissing off somebody else somewhere else, my then-colleague decided she absolutely had to introduce me – the old dinosaur – to Twitter.
You know, she’s quite pleasant to have around where you cannot throw yourself out of the window because all the windows happen to be sealed with cement. She’s excellent at what she does. She gave me so many proper reasons to hate a wide range of individuals, including children, labourists and foreigners. When I presented her with the evidence that I am a foreigner, she said that well, I was fine, provided that it was just me; if, for example, there were two of us making pasta and singing Pavarotti, then it was not fine, she said.
She’s now working for one of the most important men in the UK; believe it or not, she manages the Twitter account (!) for him – but no, I’m not telling you who this important man is, and I won’t tell you who my former colleague is either.
She’s quite touchy about things like that, so I’ll call her Polly Jane.
By calling her Polly Jane, I’m essentially achieving two core targets: protecting her privacy and pissing her off. I’m 100% sure she won’t like Polly Jane. At all. She would certainly see herself more as a Philippa.
So, that day, Polly Jane insisted it was absolutely necessary for me to understand how Twitter works. She dragged me in front of Lord Sugar’s official Twitter profile, where I was shown an incomprehensible feed of tweets and retweets overlapping each other – to my greatest confusion. At that exact moment, Lord Sugar retweeted a message from Tom Pellereau, the inventor who won the BBC Apprentice back in 2011 and got Lord Sugar’s investment to launch AvenTOM; Tom was the man who kind of stole my heart by inventing the emergency biscuit EmerCrunchy: “to be eaten in an emergency, or when there is an emergency you buy this packet”. You know what, you tell me things like this with a serious face like that, I’m yours forever.
Tom was recruiting hand models for his Stylfile range of nail files, and apparently, I’ve got nice hands. And he was twitting this stuff live, during my first seconds on Twitter: that must have been a sign of destiny! In four minutes I was applying to be a hand model, in four days I was modelling for Tom Pellereau in North London. In four years, I am finally interviewing the man.
Four years ago, had Polly Jane predicted that I would start a magazine on my own, in English, whose content I use Twitter to promote, I would have laughed right in her face.
Someday, somebody must tell me how can this ever happen.
To change every minute and still remain the same stubborn and annoying humans since the day we were born.
Hello? Can I speak to Tom?
Good afternoon Silvia, how are you doing?
Em… hey, yes… umh*… hello Tom, how are you? Can you hear me? It’s for the interview, can you hear me? And do you remember me? (*it’s embarrassing for me when somebody is so perfectly polite with me over the phone. I hate the phone. I keep asking “can you hear me?” every three seconds like an idiot even when it’s absolutely clear that they hear me. I hate not to know where my interlocutor’s eyes are. Plus, in this particular case my interlocutor speaks such a perfectly plain English that makes me feel nervous and intimidated as hell)
I do, I do, indeed. We have met at Frank PR company’s offices.
Yeah, yeah, I have modelled for your nail files a long time ago…
Yeah, and you had amazing hands…
Oh, thank you ☺ So, thanks a lot for accepting to do this interview. It’s now been six series (and seven years) on from winning The Apprentice and you have been the first candidate to win Lord Sugar’s investment, so I wanted to talk a bit about how you feel and the things you’ve learned…
It’s been an absolutely incredible journey with Lord Sugar; I don’t think anybody could imagine just how involved he has been over the last seven years. We meet at least once a month for one hour for a meeting, and we speak on the phone two, three, four times per week. My business is very related to what he knows and loves; he started his own business designing products and bringing them to market, working with retailers, marketing and selling things through – which is – you know – exactly what I’m trying to do. Mine is in the beauty area, and the most recent invention, the StylPro Makeup Brush Cleaner & Dryer has just been an incredible success in the UK and globally; Lord Sugar has been hugely influential in making that happen.
Yeah – it’s such a great invention – I like it!
Eheh, thank you!
And I wanted to know: why do you always choose to focus on beauty problems – on women’s problems, essentially?
The beauty industry is where I started with the nail files, the Stylfile range, and it has kind of grown from there, because once you understand a certain industry then you know the retailers, you know the exhibitions and then you meet more people, and more people… and then more people ask you to solve problems. And the beauty industry is mainly for women but actually, there are lots of men in the industry, whom I get to work with, as well.
As the problems basically come to you in order to be solved, how do you decide where to focus your efforts for the next invention?
Oh – this is a very difficult thing, because my job is to try and match a problem with possible solutions, and so, the problem of, for example, cleaning and drying makeup brushes was something that was mentioned to me at an event that I did, and it took me two years to try and find the solution; what was interesting is that someone mentioned that cleaning and drying brushes is horrible because they are all covered in bacteria. So I was like: Ok, I’ve never thought about this before, so I managed to borrow dirty brushes from consumers, from professional makeup artist and from beauty counters – you know, beauty counters in shops, in high streets – and I found a laboratory to test them. And a brush that was supposed to be clean had about a hundred of organic matters – you know – like bacteria and all these things. On some of these brushes, we found over 30 thousands types of bacteria and organics.
Oh. My. God.
Yes, clearly there is a big problem here because one of those brushes that counted over 25 thousands of bacteria had apparently been cleaned the night before. So you could have walked into that shop, you could have used that brush, on your face, and it could have given you any number of problems. So, as soon as we found out that, it was like: Oh, wow, this is a serious problem that clearly needs to be addressed, and then it took time to find a way, to invent a way to clean them. And what was interesting with that problem is that we found out that actually, the drying was the most difficult thing: so, washing brushes is a little bit boring but it’s ok – but drying, it takes a long.
Absolutely: it can take up to two days to dry a makeup brush…
Yes, exactly that – and at the beginning, I had no idea that this was the real problem, so I designed something that would clean them very well but didn’t dry them so fast; and I didn’t find the solution until I reached to try to spin the brush, because I wanted to clean right into the middle, I wanted to open the bristles so I could clean into the centre of the brush, and the result was that when I lifted the brush out of the liquid it would come out so dry. When I showed the invention to some people, they were absolutely amazed: they couldn’t believe that we could dry a brush so fast: and then you know that this is a product that you should invest your hard time into.
Such a great story! You studied Mechanical Engineering at University, so why do you call yourself an inventor and not an engineer?
I think in the UK there is a perception that an engineer is a mechanic, that an engineer is a person who comes to fix your telephone or your photocopier.
And not somebody really creative…
Yes, unfortunately. I think in Europe, in different countries there are different perceptions of an engineer… are you from Spain or South America?
Oh, ok. So, I think in Europe, especially in France I think, an engineer is really different, but also – there are many inventors in the world, so, being an inventor is what I love doing the most, so I like to call myself an inventor; I enjoy inventing, so the title suggests what I love to be doing.
Are you half-French? You’ve got a French surname.
Oh yeah, but from a long long time ago my family was French, but unfortunately I don’t speak any French, so I’m not really French… I wish I did speak more languages, this is probably one of my biggest failings, my lack of linguistics!
What was your plan B if you didn’t win The Apprentice?
That’s a good question. So, after I graduated from University – I did a Mechanical Engineering Degree as you said – and over the following 10 or 12 years I had many different jobs, working as a consultant or an engineer, or a designer, or a business person, and I always loved inventing and bringing products to market, so my plan B if I didn’t win was to try to raise investments separately, and then bringing products to market on my own. There are many platforms and fundraising platforms you can use… I was only just starting when I was in The Apprentice, so if I had lost I would have tried to raise money by myself, and I would hopefully still be inventing.
What was your dream job as a child?
Well, I think I have always wanted to do this – I had a dream of having my own products or products I would be involved in on the shelves in the shops that I could go and buy… I think from very early I have always wanted to be an inventor… a designer… something like that. Luckily, I was good at maths and design, and science, and at making things… and I studied all the subjects to allow me to do it.
And the dream came true!
Yes, I wanted to be an inventor and I am an inventor! It’s sort of amazing.
It is! And I think this is the only way people really can make amazing things when they’ve got this kind of passion for what they do!
It’s incredible, isn’t it? And we are now into plenty of other markets with the company, such as Australia, Europe, Japan, India, America and Thailand… with distributors and retailers… it’s just insane, it’s absolutely amazing.
How did you realise that you didn’t want to be just a regular employee and that you wanted to work for yourself and for your business?
That’s a good question… my family, well, about all of my family run their own businesses, so it was not unusual for me to want to do my own thing, and I could see the kind of independence that brought them. You know, my dad runs his own business and he was able to come and watch my sports games during the week, so if on a Wednesday afternoon there was a hockey or a football match, my dad would be one of the few who could come and watch. And I realise this was because he was in his own business and he could take the time off to come and watch during the afternoon; he obviously had to work much later than most of the other people, and he would work while we were on holidays… I could see the benefits, the pluses and the minuses, and I started working with him very early. I was about 10 or 8 and I would work in his offices during the holidays, putting letters in envelopes to send out – and things like this. I sort of always imagined being running my own business. In what I do, in product development, in engineering, it tends to be like if you actually have to go and work for big companies, and I actually would encourage people to try working for differently-sized companies when they’re young especially because you can try and you can learn different things.
What is the main thing you have learned from this experience with Lord Sugar?
The main thing I’ve learned and the thing with I struggle the most is to try to keep things as simple as possible; the world is a very complicated place, and you have to make things very obvious to people. So, for example, if you have a range of products, and you have one that is a nail file, another that is a buffer, another that is something else, you have to make them in very different colours, so people can see they are different products.
But not in too many colours, otherwise you’re giving people too much choice…
Exactly! And as you communicate, at the same time you have to build the brand, and then you have to build the range within. So you have to have the 2017 product, the 2018 product and so on: people want the new version for the new year, so we are just finishing off a Christmas range of products which we will be launching in September… and it takes a long time… so you have to keep things simple and do the basics.
Alright, I think I’m done with the questions, as you even answered the questions I didn’t ask, so I’m fine. Do you want to add anything else at all about new products, projects or whatever?
Yes, please. I’d love to have this interview in Italian… I visited your website but maybe I’ve only seen the English part…?
No, the magazine is only in English, there’s no Italian part, I’m sorry. On the other hand, you can spot Italians everywhere in the UK. Literally everywhere. Even in Aberdeen. We’re everywhere in the world, for God’s sake.
Thank you for your time, Tom, it’s been a pleasure.
Read all our interviews with all the BBC Apprentice winners from 2011 to 2018: Ricky Martin (2012), Dr Leah Totton (2013), Mark Wright (2014), Joseph Valente (2015), Alana Spencer (2016), James White and Sarah Lynn (2017), Sian Gabbidon (2018).
And this is why we don’t work with reality tv contestants anymore.