Other options: You're not obliged to rush into employment

Don’t want to work for someone else? Start up a business or take a gap year, says Russ Thorne

For some graduates, traditional routes to employment or higher education simply have no appeal once university ends.

However, there are two very different adventures they could pursue, both requiring an independent spirit, careful planning and, occasionally, nerves of steel. They could choose to create their own business, whatever it might be; or take a gap year, with all the options that offers.

Those tempted to be their own boss might have an idea they’re burning to pursue or simply be attracted to the idea of working for themselves. But whatever their motivation, starting a business can be an exciting, if daunting, prospect.

One former graduate entrepreneur who knows all about the highs and lows of setting up a business is Nick Holzherr. A finalist in the 2012 series of The Apprentice, he set up his first company while still at university and now runs Whisk, an online recipe and shopping service.

He believes graduation is the ideal time to strike out on your own. “There’s very little you have to give up,” he explains. “You don’t have a family or mortgage, or any of the things that can make it quite difficult sometimes to set up a business.”

If you’ve got an idea for a business or product, getting advice and information is a logical first step.

“There’s a lot of support available from universities,” says Holzherr. “Many have programmes to help graduates start up.” An institution may have its own business initiatives and there are national organisations such as the National Consortium of University Entrepreneurs (nacue.com) offering support, education programmes and investment.

Casting the net wider, it can also be invaluable to seek advice from those in the industry you’re looking to enter. “Find a mentor,” says Matthew Stibbe, CEO of turbinehq.com, who started his first technology company while at university. “Find someone who’s done it before and make sure you get good advice. Also, read avidly. Learn from other people’s mistakes. It’s much cheaper than making your own!”

There are also independent organisations offering advice to potential start-ups, including startups.co.uk, the StartUp Britain campaign (startupbritain.co), Entrepreneur First (entrepreneurfirst.org.uk) and Sage’s website (sage.co.uk/business-potential), which offers practical advice to those taking their first steps into business.

Sage business expert Caroline Baxter says the best advice she ever received was always to ask questions. “Asking for other people’s opinions can not only save you time and money, but can also save you pain and heartache in the long run,” she says.

“I constantly ask questions and find sharing and learning is the best way to earning.”

Apply what you learn

But it’s not enough just to seek out that advice.

“Advice is very easy to get. What’s harder is actually listening to it,” says Holzherr. “For me, it took years of receiving feedback and not listening to it, and then looking back in hindsight and thinking, ‘Actually, if I’d listened to that, things would have made a lot more sense!’”

While intellectual input is particularly important for a fledgling business, financial input can be just as vital. George Whitehead, a member of the ventures team at Octopus Investments, says the UK has numerous incubators and business accelerators – including Springboard, Seedcamp and Wayra – which “welcome bright graduates with open arms”. He adds that graduates should be aware of angel investors, who often invest in start-ups in return for a share of the business, and initiatives such as the Angel CoFund. “It’s a government- supported fund that does everything it can to encourage angels to not just provide money, but strategic advice and time,” he says.

Current students can prepare themselves for striking out alone by getting work experience, joining entrepreneurial clubs and societies or taking advantage of enterprise initiatives; and, of course, getting a degree can be helpful. But however diligently they study and no matter what path graduates take, bumps in the road are inevitable.

Ky Wright co-founded Lick Yogurts while still a student, and says that problems are just part of the process. “There have been many challenges along the way,” he says. “But there always seems to be a solution and over time you learn to take these challenges less seriously and begin to enjoy them.”

Of course, not everyone has the passion, selfconfidence and resilience required to run their own start-up. However, for the 500,000 people each year who do start a new business, it can be highly satisfying, says Lee Perkins, managing director of Sage’s small business division. “Starting a business is exciting and enjoyable, and coming up with an idea and developing it into a successful business is hugely rewarding. You might even uncover skills you didn’t know you had.”

It’s certainly had its perks for Holzherr. “Running a business has a lot of emotional ups and downs, but when you make it work, you feel fantastic,”

he says. “I feel 100 per cent happy doing what I do every day. Most people spend the majority of their waking life working, so choosing something you actually enjoy and get a reward from is very important.”

Gap years

The other adventurous option – a gap year – isn’t the exclusive preserve of the pre-uni crowd.

Taking some time out after your studies can be a great opportunity to have fun, build skills, reflect on your university career and prepare yourself for the future. It was good enough for the grand tourists of the 17th century and remains so to this day.

In fact, according to Marcus Sherifi of gapyear.com, those taking a gap year after university can gain more from it than those who take it after leaving school. “They seem to be a lot more prepared and a lot more focused on what they want from their travels,” he explains.

“They’re the ones looking to volunteer or work abroad, often with the thought of boosting their CV in the back of their mind, and they’re the ones who seem to have richer, more cultural experiences.”

He also points out that a little time off before embarking on further studies or a career is no bad thing at all. “A gap year gives people the opportunity to step back, relax, and reassess what’s important in life,” he says. “Invariably they come back with a desire to step up to the plate and succeed in life, whatever they’re going to do next.”

The name itself is something of a misnomer. A “gap year” doesn’t have to occupy a year and needn’t include foreign travel – and there’s no obligation to go near a hostel or a pair of sandals.

For example, for some graduates a gap year might stand in for a placement year; or it may be a chance to get some professional knowhow. “Gap years can be an invaluable period for graduates to spend time gaining experience within their chosen career,” says Lucy Cheatham, marketing director for graduate recruiters Grad Central, adding that skills gained on a gap year will help graduates stand out from their peers in the job market.

New horizons

Similarly, a gap year might be the time to head overseas with a view to learning another language. Immersion in a culture will give you a rich travel experience, and language skills are increasingly important to employers, says Sylke Riester, managing director of Europe at the language learning provider Rosetta Stone.

“Businesses need employees who are able to compete in a global marketplace,” she explains. “Understanding and speaking foreign languages and having intercultural skills are crucial for working with people from different backgrounds and different countries.”

Another way to develop people and teamworking skills is to volunteer. UK volunteering projects offer the chance to help others without the expense of overseas travel: Volunteering England (volunteering.org.uk) and Community Service Volunteers (csv.org.uk) are good places to start looking for volunteer work opportunities in different countries.

Although potentially more expensive, volunteering abroad has much to recommend it. Overseas projects – such as those offered by Raleigh International – can offer access to communities and experiences that would simply not be available any other way, and the right organisations will give you a life-changing experience and the chance to really make a difference. “Taking a gap year doing conservation was amazing,” says Sarah Jinks, who spent time in Costa Rica with i-to-i and is now working as a teacher. “I finished my gap year with memories to keep me warm in the deep of winter and returned focused and ready to be an adult.”

You’ll also find plenty of avenues for paid work overseas, whether teaching English as a foreign language, working as an au pair, acting as a counsellor on a US summer camp or even picking seasonal fruit in Australia. These experiences will help to develop skills that employers will value, such as budget-management and working in a team, explains Rob Fryer of graduate employer Deloitte. “In addition, graduates will have some experience of a working environment, which will benefit them when they start their career.”

Finally, of course, there’s the lure of the open road, which has helped travellers broaden their minds for centuries. “It was a good point to take some time out and I got more out of it than I would have done before uni,” says Ruth Richards, whose travels took in Africa, Australia and New Zealand before she returned to work in the charity sector. “I was a bit more mature. I got the bug out of my system and came back and worked hard to build my career.”

Independent travel might involve criss-crossing Europe by train (interrail.eu), travelling around New Zealand with friends in a campervan (kiwicampers.co.nz), or hitting the backpacker trail with a well-thumbed copy of your guidebook of choice and no plan at all. “There’s a world of opportunity out there,” says Sherifi. “You just have to dive in at the deep end.”

To properly plan out your gap year, make sure you give yourself time for some serious research.

Online, gapyear.com is a tried-and-tested starting point, and in print, The Gap-Year Guidebook (available from gap-year.com) is an invaluable companion for those wanting to work, volunteer or study. If you know travelling is for you, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet offer a range of helpful travel guides and advice.

But first, Sherifi recommends sitting down and creating a wish list. “Decide what you want from your gap year, then select an area of the world you’d like to see above all else. Next, book it. You’ll find the rest falls into place very easily!”

Top things to get from your gap year

  • Self-confidence and independence.
  • Improved communication and language skills.
  • A business idea.
  • Time to reflect and recharge.
  • New friends or colleagues from all over the world.
  • An open mind, informed by knowledge of other cultures.
  • Memorable experiences.
  • A range of professional skills.
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