SUCCESS STORIES: Tim Campbell - on The Apprentice & Entrepreneurship

11 min read

Tim Campbell MBE won The Apprentice back in 2005, and has come full circle to work alongside Lord Alan Sugar to judge the candidates in the latest series (2022).

He is currently Regional Head of Africa for the global proprietary trading company OSTC, and has set up numerous businesses of his own. He chatted with us about how he got to where he is today, his advice for any budding entrepreneurs, plus tips for overcoming failures.

Tell us a bit about you, Tim.

I grew up in East London as the son of a single parent and the oldest of three children. My mum believed that education was the key to success, so I always had this in my head, even if I didn't know what I wanted to do with education. I went from school to college to university - and she was very happy with all those steps - but...

...I didn't really know what to do with my degree. 

I fell into the world of human resources. I was working part time for London Underground who had a graduate programme which I applied to and did for a number of years. I then became slightly disillusioned with the progression opportunities and realised that I would have to wait until my boss retired or died, and I wasn't going to try to kill him, because you go to prison for that!

So I took a sidestep into a different part of the business and retrained as a project manager. I did that for a couple of years, which was a lot more exciting.

I think retraining can be really important, because sometimes the linear approach to success is not a reality.

You might have to take backwards steps, sidewards steps, left to right, do a bit of juggling in the middle, but that’s all part of the game, isn’t it? 

Then after a couple of years, I went on The Apprentice, which I was really proud of, however, I realised that from moving from the public sector to the private sector there was a much better way to measure my success outside of what I was doing beforehand. I worked for Lord Alan Sugar for two years. It was a huge risk for me going down that particular route, but I got a huge amount of experience and knowledge by working for a great entrepreneur in a very flat structure.

What was it like being on The Apprentice?

You know what, it was amazing. For me, it was an incredibly challenging and stimulating opportunity to go and test the confidence in my head amongst my peers to see how I'd get on. I love challenges, and I've always been quite inquisitive; I'm always getting told off for going into places that I shouldn't. 

Coming from East London, I had what is now called Imposter Syndrome, where I worried that I wouldn’t be able to perform against other people who had gone to better universities, had better careers, resources, or lived in better houses. All of that was irrelevant. 

The beauty of The Apprentice was that it created a level playing field where it didn’t matter about your race, ethnicity, gender, qualifications, or how much money you had in your bank account. Everyone was competing equally, which is very rare. In the world of work, there are issues around discriminatory practices, unwritten rules of progression, dealing with power, and all these other things. In a situation where everybody is actually the same, the best can actually come to the top. 

The reality however, was that the best bit of the show was when it finished (and that's not because I didn't like the show!) 

It’s because I actually got to work with Lord Sugar himself, and working with a mentor like that was unbelievable. He came from Hackney, a place that I associated well with in East London, as well as coming from an immigrant background who was going against the grain with things that people had told him he shouldn’t be doing. Working for someone like that was mind-blowing because it revealed the possibilities that were there, as well as removing any excuses about what I couldn’t do.

Although I’m not advocating for everyone to go and become a TV star, because there are so many other ways that Sortyourfuture and other places can help you navigate your way, the knowledge and experience that I gained from it was the best thing I took out of it - not going on television. 

And I’ve now come full circle. 15 years ago I was the winner of The Apprentice, but now I'm going to be on the advisory panel sitting next to Lord Sugar as he picks candidates. So having gone from sitting on the other side of the table, I’m now sitting next to him judging the next candidates.

You’ve got to remember that with your career, where you start is going to give you all the pieces you need along your journey to get you to the position where you want to get to, even if you can’t see where that is.

I never could have imagined that I’d start my own business, or help 700 kids start their own companies. 

I also never could have imagined that I’d be chair of governors at the same school that excluded me either!

After working as a project manager in the health and beauty division, I then set up a health and beauty company, rubbing creams on the back of my hand, selling it out into the open market for two years.

I then set up another company (Bright Ideas), which involved investing in startups. We helped young people between the ages of 18 and 30 to set up their own companies. We raised a couple of million pounds, invested in and helped start over 700 companies. It was very exciting and inspiring watching young people gain the knowledge of how to start a business and how to put their ideas into reality and generate an income for themselves. We did that for 10 years.

I eventually closed that down and was working in human resources again, for a global company called Alexander Mann Solutions (AMS). 

My current work with OSTC involves attracting new talented traders, as well as taking our business into the continent of Africa - a very exciting challenge. 

Overall, I’ve had a very varied career; it’s never been linear. It’s never been normal, but it’s always been exciting.

The most important thing for me is I’m in a place where I can be authentic and I’m doing things which I really believe in, while building a career that will have a great legacy. 

No matter where you start from, you never know where you’re going to end up, particularly with a lot of the changes in the market around automation, artificial intelligence, the power of the metaverse, or even pandemics. You’ve got to be as open as possible to different opportunities that might be out there. 

Do you have any tips for aspiring entrepreneurs?

I want people to get rid of the feeling that the only way you can be really successful is to start your own company. There are different ways you can be successful, and there’s no right or wrong way.

There’s only the way that’s right for you - like a fingerprint, it’s individual and bespoke for you. 

If you are going to go down the entrepreneurial route, know your onions. By that I mean do something or get involved in something that you know intimately because it’s not just about being authentic. Overcoming the challenges of a business is hard enough, without having to learn something brand new. 

For example, I could say I want to be an artist and start my own gallery because I love pictures and paintings. I want to start a gallery but I have no experience of running a gallery - I’m not an artist, I’m not creative in any way, shape or form - I’d probably fail. 

However, if I’ve worked in a gallery and built up the knowledge and skills, and then wanted to start my own, I’ve got a better starting point than somebody else who just has a dream. Really focus on something you know intimately. 

So I usually encourage people who want to be entrepreneurs to go and work for somebody else, to learn the processes and systems of big businesses to see how you can make it better.  

That’s the great thing about being an entrepreneur; you solve a problem that helps you to generate money from the value of solving that problem. Go and be open to lots of different things and experiences.

Know your onions, understand the problem you’re solving and follow the money. 

For business people (those who work in corporates), try to find an environment that is reflective of the person you want to be. 

Of course there are going to be the annoying bits where you’ve got to send invoices, chase people, or empty the shredder, but there’s always things that we don’t want to do in life. At the heart of what you do, you’ve got to really love it. 

When you’re in work, do two things:

Give more than you get. 

Make sure you’re helping lots of people. I’ve always been known as the problem solver and always smiling - ‘Tim could fix it’. I was always optimistic and keen to learn which has become infectious. It’s got annoying as I’ve got older...

Really get your personal brand nailed down. Whether you’re great at C++ or JavaScript, at managing people, or organising data on a spreadsheet. Be known for solving a particular problem, because when everyone’s looking around, you want to be the person’s name that’s mentioned. 

Try to find a sponsor AND a mentor

A sponsor is different from a mentor. A sponsor literally takes you under their wing and says “I’m going to fight for you in corners that you can’t see in rooms where people have discussions that you can’t have. I’m going to be your advocate.” 

Lots of people at senior levels in organisations are more than happy to help as they’ve been through their own difficulties and want to make sure that somebody else doesn’t suffer that same thing. Find somebody that’s willing to be your sponsor - doesn’t have to be your boss or even known to you (they could be in a completely different department).

The trick is always send a letter to their PA to see if they’ll sponsor you.

Share with them your vision and be vulnerable.

They might say they’re busy or can’t, but then ask if they know somebody else. 

A mentor is like a driving instructor. A driving instructor can see around the corners and give you advice and guidance on how to be better at what you want to do. You could have several mentors. 

Don’t think - like I did - that you have to do this all by yourself. No matter how confident or happy you are, you do not know everything - and that’s a superpower - to be open to the fact that you don’t know everything. 

What would be your proudest moment to date?

I think my proudest moment is the investments that we made at Bright Ideas, just the fact that we helped young people to start up their businesses against the tide, when people told us that we couldn't do it for these types of individuals, and to see some of them grow successful companies, to sell their businesses, to employ other individuals, and to get the confidence to do it by themselves. That is actually my proudest moment.

This was recognised with an MBE, which I received on behalf of the team at Bright Ideas. 

In work and life, altruism is really important, and I think I've got the most joy out of helping other people. The karma effect of that has been tremendous in what that’s enabled me to do. 

Whether you’re on a T level course, an apprenticeship, on a graduate programme from a Russell Group or non-Russell Group university…what I care about is do you want to make the world better? And how are you going to do that? It can be a really small thing from turning up on time to do the best you possibly can, or a massive thing. 

What would you say is the biggest hurdle you’ve overcome to date?

I’ve made so many mistakes. I’m now more comfortable in the learnings that have come from those mistakes. I’ve lost lots of money, failed at companies, failed my first year at university, failed projects, failed my driving test…

There are two things I’ve realised when you fail. 

One, is that most people don’t give a monkeys because they’re so worried about their own failings. It’ll be forgotten in a very short period of time. 

Two, is that as long as you learn from what happened, that’s okay. If I kept failing my driving test, I’d be pretty annoyed.

But the point is that it’s okay for things to go wrong. I’ve failed tremendously. Most times, you only need one success and people forget about all the other stuff. 

Put it into perspective - there is somebody somewhere in the world right now who is desperate to be where you are right now. 

What is your goal at the moment?

My goal for the future is to empower 100,000 young people better through financial education, access to employment, and better jobs. I’ve done a huge amount of getting people to start their own businesses, but now I want to switch my attention to better employability and financial literacy. 

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