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Lessons from an audition for “The Apprentice”

Lessons from an audition for “The Apprentice”

These days we seem to be looking for our leaders on reality TV. Who are these campy characters we root for from our living rooms? I decided to find out firsthand by attending the casting call for the latest season of Donald Trump’s NBC show The Apprentice.

I awoke at 4 am, donned a suit, and took the 5:04 train to Penn Station, New York.  From there I hopped a cab to arrive at Trump Tower before 6:30. There was already a line.  A looong line. Stacks of empty pizza boxes and lawn chairs meant a number of intrepid souls had spent the night on Fifth Avenue and made a party of it.

Banishing a momentary impulse to bail, I took my place at the end of the queue. Trump had thrown down the gauntlet so as far as this motley assemblage was concerned, it was game on. I started out by making some new friends. There was the blonde twenty-something nurse and her downsized sales rep friend who had made the midnight drive from Massachusetts. There was the  determined, square-jawed buttoned-up MBA candidate.  Then the outspoken lady microbiologist from Latvia, and a working suburban mom (shaken from a fender-bender on the way in from Jersey), and a strange, self-professed computer genius who rambled on about how the FBI was after him. Just the folks you’d expect to meet in The Big Apple.

The serpentine line moved glacially slow, reminding me of Star Wars 1977, or Disney World before Fastpass. About an hour into the scene there was a mix-up in the line and 50 people wound up jumping ahead. There were mutters of displeasure as we rued our chances of getting a coveted wristband that would assure a first-round interview.

As we slowly shuffled forward we were approached by camera-toting foreign tourists asking what we were waiting for. Our reality show explanations were met with confusion but they all understood the name “Trump!”

The morning dragged on. One of the greatest tests of endurance is to stand for hours at a time with absolutely no idea of how much longer you’ll have to wait. It should be an Olympic event.

At 11:30 we finally wound our way into the lobby of Trump Tower where our applications and consent forms were double checked. Then seven of us were seated at a table and a Trump aide took our applications and shuffled through them before passing them to Donald himself. He looked through the papers then asked a single question, “Health Care Bill…for it—or against it—and why?” The Latvian microbiologist took the cue, jumped in, and she made an eloquent case in favor of it, citing Eastern European health care successes. Then the MBA candidate fired back with a powerful free market argument against the bill.

Then we all weighed in while Trump and the aid watched and after several minutes the signal indicated our time was up. If we were picked, they’d get back to us. I had a sense they knew just what they were looking for, and I figured the paranoid computer FBI fugitive was a shoo-in.

Behind us, the line of other hopefuls waited their turn. Walking out of Trump Tower we passed all the Trump souvenir baubles and shameless “You’re Fired!” t-shirts for sale. No matter how high class we might think we are, we all have to hawk something.

I came away from the experience with a respect for the perseverance of reality show candidates, even the goofy or “untalented” ones often mocked on these programs. They’re all people willing to dedicate time and effort to chase a dream against the odds. And that’s really the only way it can be done.

Business lessons from “Pawn Stars”

Business lessons from “Pawn Stars”

Negotiation is a cornerstone of business, and like business, it’s an ancient art. There are many books on the subject, from Robert Cialdini’s Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion to Trump’s Art of the Deal. But while watching the History Channel I realized that some key business essentials can be gleaned from the show, “Pawn Stars.”

In the program, a Las Vegas pawn shop is run by a cast of colorful characters including a curmudgeonly “Old Man,” his affable son Rick, and his rebellious grandson “Big Hoss.” The show incorporates a blend of historical insight, humor, and good old fashioned business wheeling and dealing.

Here are some takeaways:

Start with a firm number, not a “hope.” If you are interested in selling something, and asked for your price, don’t say, “Well I was hoping to get $5,000.” No one cares what you are hoping for, and right then and there they know to stick a pin in your balloon of hope and hit you with a lower offer.

Know all you can about a situation. These days there’s no excuse not to run a search on the item you want to sell (or buy) and the people or organization you’ll be dealing with. I’m amazed to watch people walk into the pawn shop without knowing anything about what they want to sell or what it might be worth. P.T. Barnum had a word for people like that and how there’s one born every minute.

Don’t be wishy-washy. Often, sellers on the show say they are “looking to get $400 or $500” for their flea market find. If you say that then the $500 is immediately off the table because you’ve already negotiated with the other side by saying you’re open to $400. Don’t let the other guy help you decide where to start a deal.

Remove emotional attachment. Do you want to sell something or not? Once you have decided to sell then you have moved into the realm of a business transaction, and any sentimental value the item has to you will be irrelevant to the buyer. (“Well, you know, my grandmother used to keep this in her kitchen…”)

Always be ready to walk away from a deal. The Pawn Stars guys regularly turn down unique, cool items not because they don’t like them, but because acquiring them makes no business sense.

Know your business. Business owners can only stay in the black if they can readily sell an item for more than they bought it. If they can’t do this they can’t buy your item no matter what you think it’s worth. Whenever they deviate from their core business and think they can invest more money in an item to fix it up, they increase the risk of losing money.

Retain SMEs (Subject Matter Experts). For Rick and his crew, the job is to run a pawn shop, not to be be experts on esoteric obscure objects of historical interest. That’s why they are quick to call in experts on vintage guitars, toys, currency, or antique weapons. Build your own network of subject matter experts you can call on, legal, tax, sales, marketing, real estate.

Finally…Never underestimate the power of a good poker face.