I started three businesses at university and was the president of the entrepreneur’s society, gaining a tremendous amount of experience that got me my dream job after graduation. Since graduating, I’ve started one business which I took through a startup accelerator. These things are known for their *network effect*, but I must say I believe the *network effect* at uni was second to none.
The potential to start a business at university that caters to the student or wider market gain experience and potentially grow that business beyond University is enormous. This guide will take you through the core basics of starting a business at University and key areas, including:
- Generating a business idea (or student based business idea)
- Raising finance for your business (grants and competitions)
- Utilising fellow student talent and skill to build your business
- Free & cheap University marketing channels
- Marketing your business through societies & clubs
- Life of as a student entrepreneur
Generating a student business idea
There are plenty of different businesses you can start at University; however they all generally fall into four categories.
- Entertainment businesses – Where there’s learning, there’s playing! The entertainment industry is massive in every student city, and I’m not just talking about nightclubs. Universities thrive on entertainment, be that dancing, drinking, eating or even campaigning.
- Online businesses – There are endless ways to make money on the internet. We could probably come up with at least 50 online business ideas.
- Academic businesses – Universities are by default places of learning, the education industry is a vast market, and there are plenty of different businesses you could start in this area (book rental, tuition…).
- Services businesses – Let’s face it, the stereotypes about students can be pretty accurate… particularly the ones about being lazy. If you’re motivated to make money and willing to put in the hours, this presents a tremendous growth opportunity (cleaning, laundry…).
Raising finance for your business (grants and competitions)
When I was at university, I had no idea that the university itself was offering money to students for free. I was the president of the entrepreneur’s society and the founder of 3 student businesses, and I still didn’t know until I stumbled across it last minute. So this is another short section – more about awareness than targeted advise.
Universities all want to be seen as promoting entrepreneurship. It’s great for them, gives them amazing success stories when people go on to finding big businesses, and it’s a very appealing quality to attract prospective students. Universities win when their students succeed, and they’re doing everything they can to help make that happen!
These grants can vary massively in size. I won £4,000 ($5,000) in a business plan competition in my final year. That’s a vast amount of money that can transform a business, and it’s a grant… so it’s free money. When entering these grant competitions, it’s essential to focus on a few key things.
Forecast, but be conservative
Financial forecasting is a typical requirement for any business competition. However, let’s face it if you’re starting you have entirely no idea what’s going to happen in 3 years, and you’d be a fool to think you did. This is less about the specific numbers and more about the thought process that got you there. Be conservative. A business starting from scratch with nothing but a £4k grant is not something that should be forecasting £1m/year returns within 36 months. Everybody likes realistic targets. It’s always better to exceed expectations than miss goals by a mile.
It’s okay not to have all the answers
At the end of the day, you’re a student and probably not an experienced entrepreneur, but more than that… nobody has all the answers. The point is, they won’t expect you to know it all and it’s far better to admit that you don’t know the answer (I learnt this the hard way) than to wing it and hope it works out.
When presenting, less is more
It’s a standard cliché, but it’s 100% true. Watch any old video of Steve Jobs doing an Apple product release. Say powerful things and make sure you pause between points.
Confidence is vital
Another cliché, but another true one. If you project confidence by standing up straight, dressing smart and speaking with authority, your audience will naturally have confidence in you. It’s not voodoo; it’s psychology 101!
To find out what grants are available at your university, contact your enterprise department or Google your University and the words grant or competition.
External grants are also available
Just like the above, there are some external business grants available and targeted at students and first-time founders. The two I know about in the UK are:
- Shell LiveWIRE – if your business fits their criteria, you could be an application form and a video away from £5,000, and they give that prize out every single month. Shell LiveWIRE was a competition that I won with one of my university startups. Back then, it was a £1k prize, but it was the first cash and validity that I ever got in the business.
- Unltd – this is like Shell LiveWIRE but for social enterprises, so businesses that have a social goal and are not entirely profit-orientated. Unltd also offers more support beyond the initial grant. The more successful your business with them, the more finances you can gain access to.
Utilising fellow student talent and skill to build your business
Let me be very clear – you should only ever engage in a non-commercial (free) relationship with another student if they’re 100% happy to do the work (see below for why). This section is not about exploiting student labour and should not be used as such. When you think about it, pretty much every single resource you could ever require exists at your university, such as:
- Development – If your business is web-based and you’re not technical, you’ll need somebody to build the site for you. Everybody you need exists in your Computing/IT department.
- Design – Whatever your business, you’ll need some form of design. This could be web design, leaflets, business cards, email templates and more. Students study design, web design, art and a whole host of design-related subjects.
- Photography & Video – This can interlink with a design quite a bit, but you’re likely to need one of these two services. Entertainment businesses will need promo materials, web-based companies will need high res photos.
- Marketing – Any university has a host of marketing and business-related subjects. The average management course will include at least 1 module on marketing. This takes many forms and applies to all business models. Everybody needs marketing support.
- Legal – I’d try to stay away from this as much as possible in the early days. As a student enterprise, you don’t want to get bogged down with things like shareholders agreements when you can pull generic templates from the internet to get you on your way. However, depending on the nature of your business and the speed of traction you’re getting, it may help to have a legal friend look over everything and support where needed.
- Finance – If you’re like me, this stuff bores the hell out of you; but we’re talking about building a revenue-generating business here so it cannot be ignored. If you get off the ground, you’ll likely need support filing accounts as well as various tax things.
Four different ways to convince/provide value for fellow students
In my experience, there are four different routes to take when engaging other students for their help with no upfront costs – they also all start with ‘E’ :
Probably the most common and very relevant for design/development/photography. Most entry-level jobs these days require two years of experience (I know!), so being able to state projects you worked on outside of your studies is a huge help. Students can work for your business in return for a reference and be able to add work to their portfolio.
Depending on what service you need help with, one thing potentially more potent than experience can be exposure. Putting a photographers name or brand on your materials (like a watermark on a photo) can provide them with excellent exposure to the outside world. There are a bunch of forms this could take, so it’s worth a discussion.
This is very easy to give away and very hard to get back, so tread carefully. If you’re looking for a long-term partner/ co-founder and not just one-off support, you can give shares in your business away in return. We did this with a fantastic designer whom we wanted to work with indefinitely on multiple projects, but we did it after engaging them differently the first couple of times. You want to be 100% sure that it’s the right play for both parties involved before you do anything.
At the end of the day, the people you’re engaging may only care about money. That’s a problem if you’re starting, but it’s not impossible. You could consider some form of performance bonus, i.e. they get 5% of all earnings up to £5k ($6.2k) in revenue, then 1% beyond that. That way, there’s no upfront cost, and everybody is incentivised to make the venture a success.
When it comes to engaging students to do this, it’s quite simple:
- Network – Physically go to the department where you need support and start talking to students.
- Email – Have dept leaders (see the next section on university marketing) email their students about the opportunity. This is the route I always took when looking for developers.
- Refer – Ask your friends! It’s highly likely that you know people in those depts, and they, in turn, know even more people. Tell them you’ll buy them a burger and beer if they successfully refer someone to you.
One final thing to point out to make sure you’re covered: Depending on what you’re doing, I suggest you get a simple agreement in place saying that you, as the business owner, own the work that the student does on your behalf. This doesn’t have to be complicated, just a 1-page document explaining the scope of the project and both people signing it.
Free & cheap university marketing channels
Universities themselves present a boundless opportunity for free/affordable marketing as long as you’re offering value in return to the establishment. Here are some of the best paths to take:
This is the event where external companies pay to exhibit to all the new students. Businesses pay for a stand and typically incentivise data captures like sign-ups/emails with freebies like free pens and sweets. Stalls at these events can cost upwards of £600 ($750), so it’s a significant expense for any student enterprise.
Given that thousands of new students attend this event every single year, it’s a tremendous opportunity to market your startup. If budgets are a challenge, speak to your union about it. Most universities want to promote entrepreneurship and want to help, but people don’t ask because they assume it’s not possible. Reach out to the team that runs this event and ask to get involved.
Say you can stretch for the print media, but the stand itself is out of scope. They’ll probably give you a significant discount or give you the stand for free. You can also offer to go in the worst spot at the event if it’s free – companies pay more to be near the entrance.
Instead of companies, this fair is for sports clubs and societies trying to gain registrations for the upcoming year. There are two things in play this time around… First, you should still pursue a stand if you can (as mentioned above). This should be easier as societies/clubs don’t pay for their stands, but you may hit a roadblock in the fact that you’re a commercial entity.
Secondly, you should aim to partner up with the big clubs and societies – I talk more about this in the next section, but you can fund the freebie item (remember it’s simple, pens/sweets etc) in return for getting your logo on all their marketing materials. You’ll probably spend less than you would on print just by paying for the giveaway.
Most universities/unions run their nights throughout the week. They also typically organise the various big events that take place in the first couple weeks of the year. If you’re running a promotions company, you can make a case for your nights (or organisation) to be used for those big events. If you’re running a different type of company, you can try to partner up with these events.
One obvious route to take would be some form of giveaway competition related to your business (like free apartment cleaning for a month). Give a raffle ticket to everybody that enters the venue, get on the branding (logo on leaflets etc) and make sure that you’re the one making the winners announcement so that you can plug your business again.
This is a paid media channel for local businesses, charging as much as £200 ($250) per post on university social media accounts. It’s quick and straightforward for them to do and easy to make money out of. That convenience is precisely why you should be able to get a shout-out without paying. Take the route of “by students, for students” or emphasising that you’re an entrepreneurial student and appreciate what the university is doing to support your endeavours.
If you’re doing any form of web-based business and only have time to focus on one of the techniques listed here, make it this one. As we know, universities love to empower their students to be entrepreneurial, and there are various ways they can shout about that, but the best way by a mile is to have you do the shouting yourself.
Offer to write a blog post about being a student entrepreneur, make it list based (e.g. ten things to do when launching a business at university) and be complementary to the system. In this article, explain what you do and link to your website – that link is incredibly powerful and will shoot you up the rankings on Google. The reason for the ‘(s)’? Your university has a blog; your union has a blog and… your department/school has a blog.
You probably hate how much content you get through your school email, but that presents an opportunity. Follow the advise above on positioning and ask your department’s marketing or student communications team to send an email to the school about your business. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming this only applies to those of you studying business. I studied electronic engineering and had multiple promotional emails sent out, but make sure you send the request to the business/management dept as well.
Flyering / exhibiting on campus
The best place to engage students? On-site, of course! Businesses pay to have the privilege of handing out leaflets or having a stand on campus all the time. Pick a quiet time of year (like exam time) and ask for a free spot and flyering permission (one of the original forms of direct marketing). Make sure you get consent in writing as people will almost certainly stop and ask you if you’re allowed to be there.
Marketing your business through University societies & clubs
I couldn’t find any statistics on UK universities, but in the US, places like Harvard estimate that as many as 80% of their students actively engage in a club/society. That’s a pretty compelling statistic! If we take that as fact, it means 80% of your target market have kindly associated themselves with a specific group of people that you can now engage with and target. Unfortunately, there’s no blueprint for reaching out to these. Here are some ideas:
- Directory – Most universities offer an index (example) of all clubs and societies along with contact details. Spend a few hours going through yours and build a database of email contacts for every single group. It’ll be super boring, but worth the effort!
- Societies/Club Fair – This is the annual event where clubs push for sign-ups. It’s a fantastic opportunity to engage with the committee members in each group.
- Union Support – If your business is directly linked to adding value for these groups, then ask your student union to reach out to all society presidents on your behalf. It can be an efficient and speedy way of engaging with influential people.
- Events – Everybody runs events for their society/club. The society itself may be entirely based around weekly events. You could, of course, turn up and instantly speak to the president! It doesn’t scale that well as it’s one at a time, but depending on your business, the personal touch may be an advantage.
Once you’ve worked out the best way to contact committee members, you need to work out what you’re going to say and how you’re going to offer value. These people won’t just blast out an email to their members without it adding value, and you may only get one shot, so make sure it’s compelling. Here are some ideas:
- Free Stuff – Students still run Societies/committees, and students love getting things for free. This doesn’t have to be expensive. It can also help your brand, such as branded t-shirts, pens, notepads etc.
- Discounts / Promotions – If your business is transactional, you can offer a promotional code exclusive to university societies or a flat rate discount. That way, members get added value.
- Brand Ambassadors – A lot of large brands actively recruit brand ambassadors to help market them around the university. This is typically commission-based just like nightlife promotions. You can say you’re hiring one brand ambassador from each of the top 10 societies and sports clubs.
- Joint Promotion – If you’re already on a committee, you can offer a promotional email about their society in return for a plug for your business. Be very, very, very, very careful here and make sure you’re not abusing your position.
- A night out – Offer to run a night out for their society (or free entry if it’s your event). Put some money behind the bar (pick your bar based on cost). Students love to party after all!
- Competition – This was the route I took. Get something quirky from a site like Firebox and raffle it off to each society (use email addresses as tickets). Buy multiple prizes to increase everybody’s chance of winning. Make sure you share the results and a picture of the lucky winners on your social media.
As long as you’re creating a scenario where everybody gets something in return for helping, this can be a massive channel for your new business. Finally, here are four societies everybody should try to engage with for obvious reasons, this includes the enterprise society, TV society, radio society and newspaper society
Working with local businesses to build exposure
This section is short and sweet. You would think that this would be a lot more complex than engaging with your university, but it’s not. Most businesses in the area thrive on the student population and are more than happy to help, within reason. Here are some suggestions:
Simplest by a mile although potentially ineffective. If you’re running a flyering campaign elsewhere (see Marketing: University) and have leftover leaflets, take them to your local shops and ask to put 1 in the window and a stack on the counter. This typically costs money, but say you’re a student and it would help you launch a new business, and you should be okay.
When approaching more corporate businesses, there may be an angle to get an email sent out to their employees. I once had a large consultancy firm email a survey related to my company to their entire office in Birmingham. You have to be careful here. Only use this if it’s relevant to your business and if it’s a soft approach (like a survey). The other incentives (such as the prev. section) won’t work with corporate businesses.
Even if you’re not running a discount or promo business, having a discount to a student orientated local business can help you get exposure to societies and students in general. Rather than marketing to the local business, you’re trying to get the local business to help you sell to the student population. I advise take-out places.
Just like the above point, this can be a powerful way for a business to get their brand to students without having to go through the conventional channels and pay a significant sum to exhibit directly. My discount company worked with Krispy Kreme and Pizza Hut to give free doughnuts and pizza to students at one of our events. Fantastic branding for them and us.
This is mainly the incentive for the business to give a discount or freebies. They get exposure to their target market in return for merchandise – not a financial commitment. If your company has nothing to do with promotions, the incentive can be co-branding, like putting their logo in your email footer and collateral.
Have any other suggestions on how to engage with local businesses? I’d like to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.
Life as a student entrepreneur
As a student entrepreneur, you are in an incredibly unique position where you can quickly reach everything you would ever need to execute a successful business.
That said, starting a business at University is not for the faint of heart, to be successful even at university is going to require much hard work, learning and a certain degree of luck. Beyond that if you’re looking to build something that either has a broader appeal beyond students or merely looking to future-proof your business, there is a lot more you will need to do. Good luck and be prepared to work hard!