As the current series of the Apprentice approaches its finale, I caught up with Alana Spencer, the winner of series 12. One of the youngest contestants of the programme and the first winner from Wales, Alana secured the £250,000 investment from Lord Sugar to develop her indulgent cake business in 2016 – Ridiculously Rich by Alana.
Alana has scarcely had time to draw breath since being hired – or rather, going into business with Lord Sugar. Working closely with Lord Sugar himself at the start of the business, Alana has had the benefit of working with a team of people that all start-up businesses would love – accountants, lawyers, marketing experts. Then again, if you have just given someone £250,000 of your own money, it would be prudent to make sure it is put to good use!
Testament to how worthy Alana’s business idea has proven to be is that, at just 27, Alana has been able to buy Lord Sugar out of the business. With around 100 ambassadors and ‘cakepreneurs’ across the country selling products baked by Alana and her team in her brand new facility in Aberystwyth, they are continuing on the path that Alana took when first setting up her business:
“I always wanted to sell more cakes and when I used to do farmers’ markets I also did the local food festival. Seeing how much more ‘treats’ people would buy when it was a once a year thing rather than a once a fortnight thing, it really surprised me because I think if people are going to a food festival, they are going to spend; they’re going to treat themselves. So, it made me realise that if I went to food festivals, I’d sell a lot more cakes and I started going a little further afield, travelling around Wales and then went across the border into England and then, before I knew it, I was travelling 4-5 hours every weekend each way. It did take a lot out of me but it served me well; I did it for seven years running my business by travelling all around the country.”
It has been a busy time for Alana as she has just brought all production of her cakes back in house to an industrial unit complete with an onsite retail shop which is open every Friday for those that want that well-earned end of week treat. This comes also on the back of launching a series of retail cabinets in services and selected stores so that you can be sure of finding a quality, indulgent treat whenever you want – similar to those that you may have seen for a well-known donut company. Initial results have been very successful and Alana sees them playing a major part in her plans over the next three years as a way of not only building brand awareness, but also making her quality products easily accessible to everyone.
Likewise, Alana is confident that by bringing production back in house, she will be able to improve marketing of their on-line offering and is excited by decisions they have taken with regards to removing single use plastic for all online ordering. It may well shorten the shelf life of the product from ten days to four days but that will be ample time (well, in my house anyway!) to finish the cakes ordered.
I asked Alana if it was it always in her thinking that she would enter the Apprentice. She has been in the food industry since she was 16, first selling chocolates to her friends and local businesses under the name of Narna’s – her younger sister’s pet name for her:
“Well, it was an impulse decision in a way. However, it had been something I’d been looking into or wanting to do for years. I’d actually applied for the Junior Apprentice when I was 16. Knowing what I know now about the audition process, I got quite far in. I got to the end of the first stage and then I applied again the following year but because I was 18, I had to apply for the adult version. I did terribly; I got very nervous and couldn’t get my words out. Then, I left it for about six years and then the advert popped up that said apply. I had a chat to my partner, Bart, and said I’m going to go for it. And I went for it! It was kind of bizarre, it sort of just happened…”
Series 12 is renowned for being the series where one candidate in the show didn’t wait to be fired – Aleskandra King walked out. Being on the show is a very intense experience and despite a grueling application process during which candidates are exposed to a range of emotions intended to mirror those they are likely to encounter whilst on the show itself, King felt it wasn’t right for her. Alana believes that it was the right decision and was grateful for the gift of a bottle of lavender spray King left for her to help her sleep. (King left everyone a small present when she left).
There can be no doubt that in common with other ‘reality’ shows, participants are members of an exclusive club due to their shared experience and Alana is still in contact with some of the other contestants:
“I’m still in touch with Grainne (McCoy) and Courtney (Wood). Then I speak to Rebecca (Jeffery) and Oliver (Nohl-Oser) as well who is absolutely lovely. He owns a sausage company and he came to the bakery launch so we had chance to have a catch up. The thing is that when you come out, you’re like “these people are my true friends, better than my friends before” and you really feel like that. Then you realise over time that what you have is a bond based on an experience that you’ve had that no one else really understands as it’s a really unusual experience. Then over the years, you realise that “okay, these are the people from the experience who are my true friends” and they’re the ones you keep in touch with.”
Alana can affirm that the prize at the end of the show is real and most of the previous winners have gone on to have very successful careers although it is also an entertainment show. The intensity of being followed everywhere and being isolated from family and friends can lead to a feeling of going a bit stir crazy. Some careful editing does perhaps cast the contestants in not such a favourable light but does make for entertaining viewing.
When it came to the semi-final and the interviews, Alana felt that she was well prepared for the intense questioning around her business plan. Without a chequered past, the most awkward question she had to face was whether she would be prepared to sack her boyfriend if needed – a situation faced by many who go into business with their partners.
Happily Alana hasn’t had to yet sack her partner, Bart, who is still very much involved in the business, be it helping out with fixing machinery, marketing or generally supporting Alana in getting the new factory unit up and running by turning his hand to whatever task needs to be done.
Alana has been fortunate enough to have had the full support of her family throughout her career to date – indeed, Alana’s love of chocolate and baking started at 16 when her mum gave her a book on how to make and temper chocolate. Enjoying being able to express her creative flair, no doubt taking after her mum who is an artist and art teacher, Alana was soon selling her chocolate creations to friends and family as well as local businesses.
Putting the compulsory school work experience week to good use, Alana worked in a local restaurant. This led to on to job with them working for a day at the weekend. It wasn’t long before they were buying a few items from her in exchange for letting her use their kitchen one day a week in the evenings. This informal arrangement suited Alana well whilst she was still at school.
When it became apparent that Alana was serious about her chocolate business and decided that she didn’t want to go to university, instead preferring to concentrate on her developing her business, her parents offered to build her a bespoke kitchen extension on the side of their house.
“They could see that I wasn’t just doing nothing. The reason I was off school work was because I was so focused on my business. What happened was that I kind of outgrew using their place because I was using it in the evenings and so I needed something for that next step. I looked at various options but my parents I think, could see that it would be the most amazing thing – and it was! They kindly said that they’d build it.”
One of the pieces of advice Lord Sugar gave Alana was to always keep an eye of the figures:
“He would always say ‘just watch the numbers; always keep an eye on the numbers. If the numbers aren’t working, then stop, reassess, look at the numbers and then carry on because if something isn’t working then you need to change it. If something isn’t making you money, then it’s not a business’”. Fortunately, the willingness and foresight to stop and reassess has been integral to Alana’s business philosophy and is what led to the move away from selling chocolates to cakes. The wastage due to the short shelf life for fresh cream truffles made Alana reassess her offering and move to cakes. Her advice to anyone about to embark on their own business start-up journey would be along similar lines:
“My advice would be not to be too hung up on your own ideas. If something is not working, like the chocolates weren’t working, be prepared to change it and try something new because I think that ultimately that’s why a lot of businesses fail because they are so set on their own ideas that they struggle on for too long. Sometimes it’s only the tiniest of changes that can make a big difference.”
For Alana, the only challenge in being willing to rethink her original business ideas at the start of her business journey is that she has an assortment of kitchen equipment kits and related items from ideas that never really took off – but luckily none of these resulted in a big loss for the business.
In addition to her supportive parents, Alana is grateful to be able to call on her uncle as a sounding board. He too left school at 16 to start his business and given his wife is heavily involved in the business, Alana sees parallels to her own business set up with her partner.
“[My uncle and his wife] got together when they were 16 and it’s their business. It’s kind of how it is here – I am the one that seems to be getting all the praise but there is a lot of work being done in the background by my team and especially Bart, my partner, being one of them. It’s very similar there. She is keeping everything moving and is incredibly intelligent and lets Nick be the guy making it happen and then she’s working incredibly hard in the background. They’re a great team and it’s inspiring to see a couple out them doing it because that’s what Bart and I are doing.”
Excited by what the future holds for Ridiculously Rich By Alana, she continues to plan for the future but is mindful of the need to be flexible and willing to adapt should market conditions dictate. She is confident that, despite the best efforts of governments and their advisers, people will continue to look to indulge their craving for the occasional sweet treat. Suggestions that the obesity crisis we are facing can be averted by extending the ‘sugar tax’ to more products are not the answer. We all need to take responsibility for our own health and fitness and for the decisions we make in respect of what we choose to eat. I for one, believe she is right… it may cost more, but I will still buy that amazing millionaire’s shortbread from Alana.