Entrepreneurship: So, you want to be your own boss?

It doesn't matter how young you are if you have a good enough idea for a business, says Alex McRae
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The Independent Online

Some people say the best ideas come to them in the bath. But the entrepreneur Vincent McKevitt, 26, says the concept for the salad bar business he set up after university took shape while he was browsing the deli counter at his local supermarket.

"I used to buy my lunch there when I was at university, and I thought it'd be cool to do a healthy eating version for office workers and City executives, where they could choose their own salad ingredients and have it tossed to order," he says.

After graduating with a first in business administration from the University of the West of England in 2003, McKevitt spent months honing his business plan, jetting off to New York to scour the city's trendy salad bars for ideas. He eventually opened his own shop, Tossed ( www.tossed uk.com), last spring.

Starting your own business straight out of university is no picnic. "It's a lot of hard work, and very physically draining," warns McKevitt. "It can be really stressful. You need the support of your friends and family. For the first six months, I was managing the store myself, getting up at 5am and leaving at 9pm. Then I'd get home and have to deal with paperwork and balance the books. Eventually, I learned to delegate."

He says that the learning curve was very steep at first. "In the end, I needed four times as much money as I'd planned for in my business plan. I had to juggle everything around and max out lots of credit cards. There was lots of practical stuff that I hadn't considered - dealing with building regulations affecting the shop, for example."

Still, for many graduates, the freedom of being an entrepreneur represents an alluring option. "I didn't want to work for someone else," says Adam Stebbings, 25, whose business, The Vintage Golf Company, runs golf and wine-tasting tours in the south west of France ( www.thevintagegolfcompany.co.uk). "I don't like sitting in an office. I like the challenge of getting new clients and thinking of crazy new ideas," he says.

Stebbings originally put together the business plan for his company as part of his degree in international hospitality management at Bournemouth University. He says that doing a degree gave him the confidence to follow his instincts. "If I hadn't been to university, I might not have had the guts to start a business at 21. I got advice from the top guys who run courses in marketing and business development - and they thought my idea could work."

Holding your nerve is vital, advises Robin Shepherd, a senior lecturer in business analysis who taught Stebbings at Bournemouth. "The first year or two can be very difficult. The temptation is to lose confidence in your idea too early. You've got to have the courage to stick with it - the trick is not to compromise your standards or dilute your product," he says. Shepherd, who has an entrepreneurial background and started his own business at 23, says that students can learn how to mould a great idea into a commercial venture, but they also need to be flexible, creative thinkers. "To a degree, you've either got it or you haven't," he warns.

In fact, universities are increasingly running academic programmes in entrepreneurship. At the University of Portsmouth, even students who aren't studying for business degrees can take part in a "business venturing" course, taught by entrepreneurship expert Laura Wilson. She says that the skills students learn on entrepreneurship courses are useful, even if they don't have a burning desire to set up their own company immediately. "The most important thing to realise is that you don't have to have an idea already to do a course in entrepreneurship," she says. "A lot of students would like to have their own businesses in later life. Often, you're more likely to make a lot of money by spending some time in industry first, getting steeped in experience and building up your contacts and knowledge of the market."

Of course, there will always be students eager to start their own companies as soon as possible. James Wood, 19, has just finished his second year of an enterprise in e-business degree at Portsmouth. His software design company, LinQ, ( www.linqglobal.com), has already attracted keen interest from the technology giant Fujitsu, and won a prize in the university's Enterprise Challenge awards. Although he started designing computer software as a hobby, Wood says that it has become a means of fulfilling his career dreams on his own terms. "It's the idea of independence, of being your own boss. If you have an idea, you can just do it. That's freedom."