British-born high-school dropout Simon Cowell is perhaps one of the most recognized figures on American TV. Best known as the acerbic judge on the Fox (NWS) show American Idol (his signature phrase: "I don't mean to be rude, but..." is also the title of his 2004 memoir), Cowell claims that at heart he's a serial entrepreneur.
Cowell got his start at music giant EMI Music Publishing in London in 1979, where he honed his ability to adroitly identify hit-making pop stars. The entrepreneurial bug bit, and he went on to form several record labels as well as a TV production company, Syco.
In 2001, Cowell hosted a TV singing competition in Britain, U.K. Pop Idol. The U.S. version, American Idol, has been a ratings winner since it debuted in 2002. Two years ago, Cowell launched the operatic pop group Il Divo, composed of four young opera singers of different nationalities.
Cowell is now on the prowl for talent of a different sort: In March, his next competition show, American Inventor, will debut on ABC (DIS). Fledgling entrepreneurs from across America will compete to see who can come up with the best new product concept. The winner will receive $1 million and the opportunity to develop the idea into a business. Following that, Cowell will be executive producer for Fox's Duets, which will pair professional singers with celebrities in a competition, à la ABC's Dancing with the Stars.
The man you love to hate recently spoke by phone from London with BusinessWeek Online Staff Writer Stacy Perman about entrepreneurialism, success, reality TV, and the new show that will combine them all. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
You're best known as the tough judge on American Idol, but do you consider yourself a music man or an entrepreneur?
An entrepreneur. I've always treated the music business as a business. Whether I'm making TV shows or signing artists, you have to do it by the head and not the heart -- and I run my businesses that way.
You recently re-signed with American Idol for five more years, and this season seems to be stronger than ever. How do you account for the continued popularity of Idol, particularly when other reality shows are losing their audience?
No. 1, it's a great TV show. The second reason is that it only runs once a year so I don't think the public is bored with it. Thirdly, it's probably the most realistic reality show I've seen on American TV.
There are so many under the banner that have no reality in them. My idea is to make the audience believe that they are looking through the keyhole. That is the true definition of reality TV.
Do you find a difference in entrepreneurialism in America and Britain?
I think America is a hard nut to crack. But once you get a toehold it's a great place for an entrepreneur because people are so enthusiastic, and you have the most enthusiastic audiences in world.
What would you consider essential to being a successful entrepreneur?
Work hard, be patient, and be a sponge while learning your business. Learn how to take criticism. Follow your gut instincts and don't compromise.
What role has failure played in you career? For instance, your label Fanfare Records went under in 1989, and your reality show Cupid was canceled in 2003.
When I was 30 the company that owned Fanfare went bust, and I effectively lost everything. I had to move in with my parents. In hindsight, it was the best thing that happened in my life because I learned the value of money: not to borrow money and not to live beyond my means. And I learned that getting there is more fun than being there. But one thing that I have always been able to do is to own up to my mistakes and not blame others.
As for Cupid, we compromised. We allowed other people to make decisions for us, [but] I don't blame anybody but myself for allowing that to happen.
How did you come up with this idea for you new show, American Inventor?
Somebody came to me with a format six months ago involving inventors, but it was more like The Apprentice. I took the view that it would work with a simple A to Z, where the show ends with what the public thought was the best new invention in America.
And as with Idol, I thought the audience sequence where people come in with weird and wonderful ideas would be wonderfully addictive. We've had 10,000 applications.
How does the show work?
A panel of four judges will see about 1,000 people, then narrow that group down to 100. They walk in and present their idea or invention for two minutes. That [group] is winnowed down to nine. Each is given $50,000 to develop the idea, and the panel decides which three are the best.
The American public picks the final winner. The winner gets $1 million, their product will be manufactured, and they'll get a deal with a retailer to sell it. Like Idol, it's the American Dream, but along the way there are lots of crazy people with outrageous ideas.
Anything from a race track for cockroaches to a stick to beat off a bear if one should encounter them on the way home. We had one woman who said she wanted to save every child -- her product was a cage. We've got the wacky, the weird, and the wonderful.
Why did you decide to launch the show here in the U.S. rather than in Britain, where Idol started?
When I think of invention I always think of America. You're always seeing ads: "Have you got the next big idea?" There seems to be that spirit in America of inventions and inventors.
Who have been your role models?
I actually really like Donald Trump. I think he's entertaining. There are so many unhappy billionaires, and he's a happy one with a great sense of humor. I didn't think I'd like him. I like people [who] don't take themselves too seriously.
Any other new shows on the horizon?
Yes, I just sold a talent show to NBC with singers, magicians, everything. It is a mixture of Idol and The Gong Show [to run this year].
You have this reputation of being tough and smarmy, but you've been quite charming and nice. What is with your reputation?
When you tape a show it's a 12-hour day. I think I am nice to more people than I am unpleasant. I guess they only seem to show the unpleasant bits. I try not be nasty for the sake of it. I try to put humor into a ridiculous situation.