Student entrepreneurs - is university a gateway or a barrier to business?

As one of the first generations where higher education was open to all, it was the modus operandi of parents and schools across the country - get the kids to university! 

For many school children, the path was more train track than true choice. Work hard at your GCSE’s so that you can take good A-levels; do well at your A-levels so that you can get into a good university. Take a strong degree so that you can get a well-paying and fulfilling job. But the truth is, for most, life after university is anything but clear.

As any employer will tell you, experience is key - meaning many students leave university qualified but untested, needing experience to get the job, but the job to gain the experience. It’s a cruel chicken and egg that leaves many graduates with a sense of confusion - things are not what they were meant to be.

The truth of it is that for many professions, rather than giving you the keys to the car, a degree merely lets you into the showroom. This has prompted many graduates to take matters into their own hands - taking unpaid internships or volunteering, whilst working other jobs to get by.

Some, however, have taken a different path, taking the plunge into self-employment with the mindset of creating their own job, rather than trying to fill another.

While the notion of juggling a business along with the other stresses of student life might seem daunting to some, the combination of entrepreneurship and education might have some surprising benefits - but do these outweigh the challenges?

I chatted with some business owners at the small business community Welsh Innovation Centre for Enterprise, all of which either started their business during or shortly after university. I asked them how prepared they were for self-employment, what they gained from university and what advice they have for other student entrepreneurs.

Student life can provide a buffer

The maintenance loan is the lifeblood of any university student. It is a true moment of fleeting financial brevity, met with rejoice on each installment, and scorn with each repayment in the years that follow.

Read: Getting around the rules to start my business as a teenager

One luxury the student loan undoubtedly provides is breathing space. As long as you have been sensible and not chosen a lifestyle above of your means, your loan (and overdraft) can give you time and space to focus on study. But is that all it provides?

Owner of design studio, That Media Group, Kevin Mansell-Abel started his venture whilst studying a full-time Graphic Design degree. Kevin said that University provided him with the perfect buffer from many of the pitfalls encountered by start-ups.

He said: "Whilst university did provide me with some live opportunities - which I eventually converted into my first client; the core content was certainly not focused towards the real world of work. Things that I, as an employer, now look for such as commercial awareness and resilience, are not something I felt was achieved through university.

"It did, however, provide me with a fantastic buffer with which I could start my business. During university there is no expectation for earnings, meaning there is less pressure. I was able to steadily build my businesses as I progressed through my study. It was an ideal opportunity with no other commitments and would have been far harder to achieve were I in employment."

Whilst it is not the job of a student loan to supplement a fledgling business, one could argue it is the job of a university to provide its students with the tools and qualifications necessary for a career. Perhaps then it’s a fair trade-off that some students make the most of the grace-period of full-time education?

For those entering self-employment immediately-post university, the task appears to be far tougher.

Starting after university is challenging

Cariann Emanuelli is the Managing Director of Wize Virtual Administration (WIZE). Cariann initially ran a small fitness class business during university, before taking a leading role in her family business, WIZE. Cariann said "I started looking for work three months prior to graduating.

"Despite strong grade predictions, there was very little out there for someone without experience. My mother and I had set up WIZE a few years prior and was looking for someone to take a more leading role as she had other business commitments.

"I jumped at the chance, but quickly learnt that managing a business fresh out of uni was challenging. Firstly, you have fewer experiences of working in large teams, as in school, group work tends to be smaller. It’s also tough financially at first; I was lucky in that the business was already healthy when I took the reins, but to start from scratch with no other income would be an arduous task."

As well as the financial implications of trying to start a business fresh from university, there’s also the issue of credibility - both in terms of securing business and of more homely aspirations.

Kieran Abbott, founder of digital solution agency, Big Lemon Creative, came up with the idea for the company whilst studying for his MA. However, he found that whilst he had the skillset, he lacked proof of credibility: "I had started freelancing in my third year of undergrad and by the time I completed my MA I had built up a base of clients. However, I lacked that ‘big agency’ experience which can be important in the creative industry. I also wanted to buy a house, and as a self-employed person fresh out of university, there was no way a mortgage company was going to look at me twice.

"In the end, I took a job working full-time at an agency for about a year, securing both a mortgage and helping me build a network of relationships with some international brands."

Gateway or barrier to business?

The issue of how well university prepares you for working life was a prickly one amongst the business owners, with mixed feedback from the group. Some felt their course was too focused on the subject, rather than its application in the real world, while others said they garnered skills that they use in their business every day.

Jordan Phillips started his company 11:FiftyNine with his classmate Saul, whilst studying for an MSc in Strategic Digital Marketing. The pair say they had an idea for a marketing company that built its ethos around data-driven evidence, rather than the ‘trial and error’ approach that some companies take.

Jordan said that he uses the skills he developed at university every day: "Whilst my MSc was only a year in length the pressure it put me under was an invaluable experience. During my last year, I was writing my dissertation as well as working on behalf of our first client.

"The work was very intense and demanded a strict work ethic, as well as a lot of planning - all of which has served us well as far as running the business is concerned. Starting a business towards the latter stages of university was beneficial as I felt I was already in work-mode - it felt as if we were embarking on a second year of study - except we were getting paid for it."

Similarly, David Williams, founder of the Youth Development Agency (YDA) found that studying remotely through the Open University prepared him well for his international business: "One of the reasons why I opted to study through the Open University was due to the flexibility it gave me to start the business and raise a family. 

"During my study, my course mates were based all over the world. I can remember one instance when working on a group project, where I was in Cyprus, and the other group members were in Argentina, France and the UK. As someone who now works around the world, that international perspective was extremely valuable, and would have been hard to attain otherwise."

However, others felt university was less helpful.

GreenNova Productions is a video production company founded by Christopher Deakin-Eades whilst he was completing his undergraduate degree in Film. Christopher said that the best part of university for him was being around like-minded people.

Chris said: "I felt like university didn’t prepare us at all for running a business, but more to hone filmmaking craft. We applied to an enterprise scheme that the university was running but never heard back. We were taught how to write CV’s and to improve business cards, which I suppose means they had an idea that business skills were necessary, but that was all.

"However, I did meet the other members of GreenNova at university, as I sought out other talented filmmakers that had the skills I lacked, and, importantly, equipment. There were some great tutors on the course who looked after us, but I can honestly say that we have learnt more in the three months working as a video company than in the three years at university - especially when it comes to business."

Research into revenue

One business owner found that his study led directly to the founding of his company.

Robert Stones, CEO & Founder of Information Security know How Ltd (ISKH) turned his final year undergraduate dissertation into a business. ISKH is aimed at providing the third sector with proactive and affordable cybersecurity. Robert said: "As a mature student I went to university knowing that I wanted to further my knowledge in ICT, but I didn’t expect to come up with my business plan during the course. My dissertation was titled ‘How Prepared is the Third Sector to Secure its Information’, and to cut a long story short - it isn't.

"I incorporated the company whilst carrying out my final project, and haven't looked back since. It’s been very rewarding to directly turn my university work into a viable business - though I understand that not everyone can do that."

Advice

So what should current or potential student entrepreneurs consider when combining business with their education?

Kieran from Big Lemon Creative said to ask around: "Whilst at University I got quite involved with a program called SMUDGE (Swansea Metropolitan University Design Graduate Exhibition) which was really helpful as it focused on entrepreneurial thinking and building personal brand identities to market yourself as a freelancer. We also got the chance for mentorship sessions with Alumni that had started their own businesses following university, which was invaluable. I’d encourage any students looking to go into business to ask your student office what support they can offer."

Jordan from 11:FiftyNine said it’s important to have a plan: "I think it helps if you go into university with a long-term game plan and a clear idea about what you want to do career-wise. The stakes are higher for students today, with the rising cost of living and university fees, many young people no longer see the appeal. However, if you go in knowing what you want to get out of it, there’s no reason why you can't make the most of student life and education."

For Chris from GreenNova Productions, prospective students should identify their goals first: "University is not for everyone, and I would really consider what it is you want out of it, before heading in. If it’s to start a business then consider if there are other alternatives that will provide you with time and support to start. I would have much rather have used the £36,000 I now owe in course fees and student loan to start the business, and then worked on it full-time."

Finally, Robert from ISKH said: "I believe that students and graduates often have great business ideas, born out of their academic studies, and these should be harnessed. The difficulty is in finding a way to turn that passion, knowledge and research into something that is profitable. That’s the challenge, but if you can make it work, it’s also the biggest reward on so many levels."

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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