Starting a business at university

Being a university student can be the ideal time to start your own company – as long as you’re prepared to make the sacrifices, writes University of Sussex student Hlanganiso Matangaidze

September 4 2019
Starting a business at university

According to my parents, I have always been an ambitious individual.

My late father was probably the one who encouraged my desire for entrepreneurship, as he was a businessman and hoped that I would follow in his footsteps. It was from him that I learned that you ultimately decided where your life will be in 10 years’ time, right now.

At 14, I started my first business as an in-house personal tutor working with my classmates and peers, teaching three or four students biology, chemistry and physics each week.

Then, aged 15, my friends and I started a company with our pocket money selling personalised emergency contact information wristbands to Duke of Edinburgh expedition students to wear in case they got lost. 

I was first inspired to start my current company RED when I was in my first year studying economics and finance at the University of Sussex.

I went back to Zimbabwe (where I lived until the age of five) on holiday and I was shocked at how bad the blackouts were. Looking into the issue, I was surprised to find that 67 per cent of the population did not have access to electricity, while in neighbouring Malawi it was 88 per cent.

In fact, 1.2 billion people globally live without energy access. To me it seemed strange in this day and age that roughly one in seven people globally live in darkness.

As soon as I saw these figures, I saw an opportunity. Not just a business opportunity, but an opportunity to potentially improve more than one billion lives. Further research revealed that many living off the grid were people from developing countries with corrupt governments and unreliable or non-existent electrical infrastructure.

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After a few months I started the work with some of my peers to develop small-scale, low-cost vertical wind turbines, capable of producing sufficient power for basic household appliances.

The toughest challenge of growing my company while studying at university is definitely time management. Over the last two years, I’ve realised you really need to be disciplined and manage your time well. 

It has forced me to make some tough sacrifices, drastically reducing the amount I go out with friends. I love what my business does, so if I have to give up a few nights in nightclubs to help improve the living standards of others, then I will happily make that trade-off.

You need to be resilient when building a business from nothing because there will inevitably be setbacks. For RED, there have been setbacks trying to find the right investors. Finding investors hasn’t been that challenging, but finding an investor in line with my vision, and who I can work with in the long run, has been tough.

Negative experiences of bullying as a child have made me stronger and more resilient. I often hear comments from people wondering how I can run an energy company, but I am able to look beyond them.

The greatest benefit of running a business at university is the opportunity to figure out what your passion is and what motivates you. When you run your own business you have to be very self-motivated and responsible. 

Whatever your business does, it has to be something you are really passionate about, something you always think about without getting bored. My happiest moment came when we provided electricity to people during our first pilot scheme and we could see our idea progressing from being just a thought into something more tangible. 

I’m not sure what RED will be doing in five years’ time. Maybe we will be providing credit finance for home-solar schemes to the end user or working with governments to increase clean-tech accessibility in developing countries.

Regardless of what business model we take, my main focus will be to positively affect the living standards of as many people as we can because I firmly believe the best reason for starting a company is identifying a problem that affects many people and coming up with a solution.

My advice to any student thinking about starting a business at university would be just do it. You don’t need to know all of the answers right away, you just need to take the first step and have faith that you will learn and figure it out as you go along.

In some ways being at university is the ideal time to start a business. You have access to so many resources and you will most likely not have any dependants or a mortgage to pay off.

In 10 years’ time, would you rather have tried, failed and learned, or never have taken the first step and live with the regret of “what if”?

Read more: Why universities should encourage student entrepreneurship

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