The Dragons have rarely been genuinely bowled over by a business idea during the current series - and a recurring theme is that they have tended to back personalities more than products. The trend continued in last night's episode, where two businesses secured investment even though their propositions were a little rough around the edges.
One of these was a creative agency called Old Bond whose main product was a piece of technology that allows graphics to be displayed on bicycle wheels while they are in motion. There were a few issues raised around the outdoor advertising model, most notably from Peter Jones, who felt that bicycles move too quickly to convey a sales message effectively. Still, the innovation on show was undeniably impressive. Theo Paphitis and Deborah Meaden were convinced enough to invest £90,000 in the company for a 40 per cent share.
A big selling point was the two highly intelligent Belarusian entrepreneurs behind the company - and the night's other successful investment-seeker had a similar track record of academic excellence. Oxford graduate and former barrister Dupsy Abiola secured £100,000 from Peter Jones for her online recruitment platform Intern Avenue.
Abiola promised that her website would revolutionise the way employers find qualified students and graduates for their businesses. The basic idea is that it starts with the person rather than the placement. Companies can create a profile and search through prospective interns to find candidates with the exact skills and personal qualities they are looking for - rather than posting a regular job advertisement that attracts all manner of applicants. Abiola plans to add extra features such as online interviewing to make the proposition even more compelling.
Internships are more or less mandatory in some professions and are commonly offered in certain industries. However, there has been a general resurgence in internships and apprenticeships recently - and Abiola stated in her pitch that her timing is right because she is engaging with an issue that is becoming more and more of a public concern.
In the capital, for example, the Evening Standard has recently launched its 'Ladder for London' campaign, which aims to help the city's 16 to 24-year-olds into employment. At present, 120,000 young people - a ratio of 1 to 3 - are unemployed. The government offers a grant of £1,500 for every apprentice a business takes on, provided they meet certain criteria. Companies of all sizes are being encouraged to take part, and the Evening Standard last week reported an excellent response from the capital's businesses in the first seven days of the campaign.
Perhaps hiring an intern or apprentice is something you should consider for your start-up or young company. The most obvious benefit of doing so is the low cost involved - but interns should emphatically not be viewed as a source of cheap labour, because giving them an opportunity to learn and develop is part of the deal. I also believe that a young, fresh pair of eyes can be invaluable to young companies because they can see the business from a detached point of view. This is often not possible for owners or founder members who get "too close" to the company because of their strong emotional investment and high level of commitment. Our current intern at Make It Cheaper, Anuj, provides a good real-life example because the insight he offers into the company is refreshingly frank.
Here's another thought. You may know that Google allows its engineers one day a week to forget about their regular job and work on pet projects - and it's been reported that more than 50 per cent of the company's revenue comes from plans that are hatched during these periods.
Most start-ups or young businesses are not in a position to put 20% of their employment costs on the line in the same way as Google - but one way of utilising interns is to offer them an opportunity to conceive and develop their own ideas with a degree of creative freedom; perhaps significantly more than a fifth of their time.
It could reap huge dividends - but to maximise the possibility of great things happening, businesses should treat the recruitment process of interns with the same rigour they apply for paid employees. If Dupsy Abiola really delivers what she promises, it appears Intern Avenue offers an opportunity to do exactly that.
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