The Covid-19 pandemic has vastly altered the traditional nine-to-five office job. With many new industries emerging, graduates around the world are beginning to make the most of the changing landscape to develop their own business ideas.
Building your own business as a university student requires huge amounts of creativity, resilience and vision, but it can be an extremely rewarding path.
Below, three successful entrepreneurs share their top tips and guidance for starting a business at university.
1. Make the most of your university’s resources to develop your idea
Many universities have their own entrepreneurship centre or venture studios, which can help students develop their ideas and access resources and mentoring.
For example, Hadeel Ayoub came to the UK from the Middle East as a mature international student to do a postgraduate degree in computational arts at Goldsmiths, University of London. While there, she founded BrightSign, a company that develops assistive technology such as the BrightSign Glove, which translates the wearer’s sign language into texted speech.
For Hadeel, the support available for entrepreneurial students at Goldsmiths made all the difference.
“Goldsmiths supported me in learning the fundamentals of becoming an entrepreneur, like how to register your company, how to do your taxes, and how to create projections and use them to build a business model,” says Hadeel, speaking at the THE Student Festival: UK in October 2021. “I was also matched with a mentor, who gave me invaluable advice and guidance,” she adds.
Hadeel was later selected to represent her university at the annual Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards, where she won the People’s Choice Award for her work on the BrightSign Glove.
Amar Mehta, an international student from New Zealand studied for a master’s in neuroscience at King’s College London before joining the university’s King’s20 Accelerator programme. Through this scheme, he has been working on the development of Advicely, which uses artificial intelligence in digital advertising for small businesses.
“I have been really impressed by the level of support at my university, all of which has tangibly helped my business,” he says. “I was offered monthly catch-ups to check my progress, access to office space and time with experts associated with King’s, to name a few examples. I even found my current developer through contacts at the King’s Entrepreneurship Institute.”
Accelerator programmes such as King’s20 can also provide funding and visa sponsorship to international students like Amar. After finishing his neuroscience course, Amar was able to get sponsorship for a year-long start-up visa from King’s College London as a member of the King’s20 project. When a new cohort began on the programme the following year, the university offered Amar the chance to remain as a start-up-in-residence to coach the incoming group of entrepreneurs, and it supported him through a new visa application to extend his stay.
While there, Tanuvi joined Falmouth’s Launchpad, a venture studio, where she co-founded Data Duopoly to solve visitor congestion and lack of data insights at venues such as theme parks and museums.
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2. Know your market
If you want your business idea to succeed, you need a deep understanding of the sector you want to go into, including what’s missing from it, what problems your product or service would solve and what potential competition you might face.
Many students who pursue a subject other than entrepreneurship and business will go on to found companies based on innovations specifically needed in their field.
For Hadeel, studying computing was pivotal to becoming an entrepreneur, as it was during her degree course that she first encountered the machine learning technology that she later applied to create the BrightSign Glove.
“Once I found a new application for the technology and realised people wanted to buy it, my business grew organically out of that,” she says.
“Don’t discount universities as a market in themselves. If you’re a student, you’ll already know about the sector and have contacts within it,” advises Tanuvi. During the Covid-19 pandemic, she shifted gears to apply the technology she developed with her business to help Falmouth University students return safely to campus.
“Focus on building a business and not coming up with an idea to get a visa,” advises Amar. “You need to have a strong business idea that can genuinely provide value to the UK or wherever you want to be located. Make sure you really understand your market and what your audience actually wants, and test and learn as much as possible. Expect your first assumptions about your business to change quickly as you get feedback from your target audience,” he adds.
3. Play the student card outside your university
As well as finding mentors and networking opportunities through your university, you can use your student status to your advantage to seek external advice.
Making inroads into external networks and support systems will also help to ease the transition into the business world once you graduate.
Even if your idea is still in development, there’s no harm in getting in touch with potential mentors, or any incubators and accelerator opportunities early in the process.
“You really can use the student card anywhere,” says Hadeel. “From mentorship, promoting you to their network or even offering you free office space, people want to support you to get your idea out there.”
“If you are booking tickets for trade shows, say that you are a student. You can often get reduced price tickets,” advises Tanuvi.
“Also, take advantage of your long summer holidays,” she adds. “Get to work on your idea or look for a relevant internship that will complement your business.”
4. Don’t try to do it all alone
The portrayal of successful entrepreneurs as totally self-made and self-reliant can be misleading. Even the most visionary businesspeople will have had a strong support team behind them and will be wise enough to listen to advice from others.
“If you have an idea already, university is a great place to test it,” according to Tanuvi. “Higher education institutions can provide you a safe space to try and fail, while surrounding you with people who are willing you to succeed.
“I would recommend co-founding your business with a partner,” she adds. “You’ll need that person by your side to help you commiserate the lows as well as celebrate the highs.”
Hadeel says: “At the beginning of my journey developing BrightSign, I thought I could do it all on my own. I quickly discovered the very hard way that I couldn’t.”
She points out that as a student at Goldsmiths, she was able to get access to alumni across all University of London institutions, which was a great step up when it came to networking and finding support.
“Once I had the right help, things accelerated fast,” Hadeel says. “I know I lost time from not seeking advice earlier in my journey.”
5. Prepare for long hours
If you want to start your own business, you need to be ready to commit your time.
“Be prepared for long hours,” says Tanuvi. “Working well over 40 hours is not unusual in the beginning.”
“In the early years of building a business, putting in a lot of your time is pretty unavoidable,” adds Amar. “If you’re balancing your business with your studies, this can be really difficult – you’ll need a supportive team you can rely on, and I’d recommend setting strong boundaries of how you’re going to allocate your time.”
Making realistic work plans are key to avoiding burnout. If you’re planning to put in a lot of hours over a certain period, make sure you allot some time for rest and relaxation to recover.