Apprentice finalist finds all the ingredients in Brum to cook up new venture

Birmingham’s Nick Holzherr didn’t win The Apprentice – but he’s whisking up the business Lord Sugar rejected anyway. Ros Dodd talked to him.

Whisk - Nick Holzherr in kitchen

Whisk – Nick Holzherr in kitchen

Not quite winning The Apprentice meant Nick Holzherr was free to launch the business venture he pitched to Lord Sugar anywhere in the world. He chose Birmingham.

Not just because the city has been his home for the past eight years, but because he reckons there’s no better place to start a company from scratch.

So, despite being advised by the former S’Alan to look to America for backers and notwithstanding the allure of London, the 26-year-old entrepreneur will unveil Whisk in Birmingham this summer.

“I can only sing the praises of Birmingham as a place to set up a business,” says Nick, who stayed on in the city after graduating from Aston University with a first-class honours degree in international business and modern languages. “It’s a great city; there’s lots of talent to employ and the business community is very supportive. There’s more support here than anywhere else.

“So when I didn’t win The Apprentice, I thought, ‘do I set up in London or Birmingham’ and I decided to stay in Birmingham because of what I’d experienced.”

That experience comprises setting up two previous businesses here – QRky, which uses Quick Response (QR) barcode technology to link contact details and multimedia information to high quality business cards, and Co-Go Coffee, a four-metre tall coffee cup-shaped pod on the Aston campus providing ethically-sourced, quality coffee to on-the-go consumers.

The enterprises earned Nick, at 24, the title of Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year 2010 by Midlands Business Insider magazine. The following year, he bagged the entrepreneurial category in the Birmingham Young Professional of the Year (BYPY) awards.

He has since sold Co-Go, and stepped aside from QRky to take part in The Apprentice and, now, launch his latest venture.

Whisk, for those who didn’t watch hit BBC1 show, is an ingredient-finder website and smart phone app that allows users to add multiple online recipes to a single basket. The site tracks down the necessary ingredients and takes the user to sites where they can buy them.

“We are in the process of opening an office in Birmingham and will be launching the business in five or six weeks’ time,” he says. “Whisk will be very much what you saw pitched on The Apprentice, although that was edited quite a lot.”

It’s a sophisticated idea: for example, users can register the ingredients they already have in their cupboard. “So when you search for recipes, it remembers what you have already in terms of ingredients.”

Whisk is free and it doesn’t require culinary enthusiasts to purchase the ingredients online.

“If you want, you can just print out a list and use that,” explains Nick, who at the age of nine earned money by selling lost golf balls back to the golfers who misplaced them. “We expect that the majority of people will use it offline. Most people don’t shop online at the moment, although the online grocery market is quite substantial and growing.”

Whisk will make its money through advertising and affiliate fees through, for example, matching recipes with wines.

Those who watched Nick battle it out on The Apprentice against 15 other hopefuls over the course of 12 tough tasks were won over by his charm and, err, artfully-arranged shock of hair. Dubbed “a cross between One Direction and Boris Johnson”, the Swiss-born entrepreneur attracted an army of female – and male – fans.

Nick Holzherr

Nick Holzherr

He has become something of a sex symbol on Twitter and has even received two pairs of pink Calvin Klein pants from a gay admirer. Is he flattered by the attention or has it been an unwanted distraction from his serious business persona?

“It’s very flattering, although I don’t understand it. But it’s nice to have people say nice things about you. I really like the fact that I didn’t act too much like a t*** on the programme. And, no, it’s not been a distraction.”

He is equally sanguine about losing out on Lord Sugar’s £250,000 investment.

“Not having Lord Sugar on board isn’t the end of the world; the feedback we’ve had on the concept and the app has been really, really positive. It’s obviously disappointing not to have £250,000 and Lord Sugar, but it’s an opportunity, and if I’d won there would have been certain restrictions, because you’re bound to Lord Sugar. He may not have been the best person to have on board, because he’s not necessarily an expert (in this type of business). I would have loved to have had him on board, but time will tell.”

Despite rejecting Nick’s business plan in favour of Ricky Martin’s proposal for a new niche-market recruitment company specialising in the science industry, Lord Sugar has been in touch since The Apprentice finished.

“He’s been in contact to say he will introduce us to his contacts,” says Nick. “I think he still liked the idea, but wanted something that was safe.”

Not quite clinching the eighth series doesn’t worry Nick.

“My aim was to get to the final, which I did. I wanted to present my business plan and have it looked at. Lord Sugar ended up with four credible business plans on the table.”

It says a lot about Nick that he is forging ahead with a business model Lord Sugar rejected and that he hasn’t let the “sex symbol” tag go to his head.

“What makes me feel good is when young people say that I have inspired them to set up their own business. It’s great to know that people watched me on The Apprentice and were positively affected by it.”