Student start-ups: The secret to making money your own way


If you find yourself poring over prospectuses for obscure MAs or still can’t decide whether your position as vice-president of the knitting society is a legitimate CV point, it may be that you’re in need of further options. Grad schemes are eluding you and the third year fear has finally set in. But have you considered creating your own graduate job? If the idea of being your own boss sounds appealing, here’s what you need to know.

Make sure there’s a gap in the market

A cliché yes, but crucial to the success of your start-up. It helps to think of your business idea as the solution to a problem. Anna Gray wrote her business plan for student modelling agency, Model Students, in her final year studying Business Management at the University of Nottingham. She says: "I modelled myself whilst I was at uni and my agency wasn't always that flexible or understanding about my university commitments so I came up with the idea of setting up an agency specifically for students."

Make the most of your spare time

Although it may not feel like it when you’re in the library at four am with Pro Plus-induced shakes, university offers the most free time you’ll have pre-retirement. With real life and true financial responsibility only faintly visible in the distant future, now is the perfect time to explore your passions.

Brothers Rob and Mart Drake-Knight set up their eco-fashion brand Rapanui with £200 each when Mart was still a student. Six years later, they employ 15 young people at their own factory on the Isle of Wight, where they grew up. Mart says: "I had a lot of spare time in my first year and I was learning a lot about climate change. The pattern was that it’s not that people don’t care about it, they just don’t know. We could have launched a charity or pressure group but, for me, it’s clear that the big changes in the world come from business."

Take advantage of the support on offer at uni

Many universities have schemes in place to support aspiring entrepreneurs. The University of Nottingham offers all students the chance to apply for grants of between one and two thousand pounds to develop a business idea.

The enterprise and employability development officer at the University of East Anglia, Finbarr Carter, advises: "Find out what support is available from your university as most offer a range of support including workshops, mentoring and grants."

There’s no need to be put off by your paltry student loan either. Finbarr adds: "There are a huge range of competitions run annually to get involved in that target university level students."

Be prepared for a slog

Even if you have a unique idea and manage to secure funding, there are still no guarantees. If you’re hoping to get rich overnight, you may be better off investing in a lottery ticket. Anna Gray says: "I had to work alongside running the company initially to have an income until the company was making enough to pay me. I would always be very envious of my friends who had graduate jobs as they had much bigger incomes than me."

But Anna maintains that persevering is worth it: "It is so important to stick with it though because after four years of hard work I am finally starting to see the rewards of having my own company and doing what I love."

Mart Drake-Knight found balancing business with books challenging. He says: "Sometimes it feels like I will never recover fully from starting the business alongside my degree! But I found that you overestimate what you can achieve in a year but underestimate where you’ll be in five – stick at it."

Use the uni environment to your advantage

Trying to make money living in a bubble with thousands of other debt-ridden young people may not seem ideal, but there are advantages to growing a business in the student environment. Finbarr suggests: "If you are looking for specific skills and experiences to tap, you are situated in a hotbed of talent to tap into both amongst staff and students; if you want to test your product or service you have a huge audience to pilot and gauge demand."

Student media can also provide easy opportunities to bring your business to a wider audience. Creating a network of contacts in a close student community can be much simpler than starting from scratch.

It may not be all expensive suits and swivel chairs but running your own business can be incredibly rewarding. And you may never have to write another toe-curlingly arrogant cover letter ever again.

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