Graduate entrepreneurs: You can go your own way

For entrepreneurial students with a great idea and a burning desire to be their own boss, support is at hand, says Kate Hilpern

It was in the last year of his degree that Simon Phelps, 22, decided the only way to be completely in control of his own career would be to set up his own business. "I'd been working on a new design, as part of my degree, for a modular barrier to prevent premises from flood damage," he says.

Phelps realised that there wasn't anything else on the market that was as easy to move and lightweight as his design. So he decided to try and market it. Phelps has been impressed at the level of financial and practical support on offer to entrepreneurial graduates. "It was a lot easier than I thought. My university even put me on a weekly programme to teach me the basics of setting up. People from business came in to give advice, and mentors helped me move things forward."

In addition, Phelps is one of 17 people who have been offered a place on an entrepreneurial fellowship scheme by the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship (NCGE) and the Kauffman Foundation, which has him spending six months in the US learning from successful entrepreneurs.

"Something like 30 per cent of the American economy is driven by businesses set up by graduates, so there's a lot to learn over there," says Ian Robertson, chief executive of NCGE. The equivalent figure in the UK is a paltry 8 per cent, he says, which helps explain why the NCGE was set up last year.

Gordon Brown decided to set up the organisation to encourage more graduates to follow their entrepreneurial dreams, expressing concern about the lack of enterprise coming out of our universities. It has three main programmes - one involves researching potential obstacles to enterprising graduates; another involves professionally developing those involved in teaching enterprise; and the final and most relevant one to students is the Flying Start initiative.

Flying Start helps students in a number of ways, the first of which is via an online portal, where people can get expert help and resources. Then there is a series of one-day rallies, which are run across the regions. Having been on one of them, students can apply for the three-day residential programme, which involves mentoring and follow-up for the next 12 months. You could, like Phelps, also apply to the entrepreneurial fellowship scheme and go to the US - although competition is tough.

The signs that NCGE is starting to fulfil its objective are promising. Recent research reveals a three-fold rise in graduate entrepreneurship in the last three years. "What's more, the graduate businesses are often more ambitious than those set up in previous generations," says Robertson. "When I first used to help set up businesses, you'd set them up locally, then expand regionally and eventually nationally and perhaps even internationally. But now, the internet means you can be international from day one."

Nevertheless, the kind of support offered by NCGE is vital, says Robertson, because many graduates are more than capable of setting up their own businesses, but they don't know where to begin.

Even those who have got a head start need all the help they can get, insists Phelps. "I'm still relatively green simply because of my age and the fact that I've only just finished university," he says. "I know I have a lot to learn."

Among the wealth of other organisations on hand to help graduates is Business Link. Stewart Masterton, one of its business advisers, says success doesn't come from having all the right answers, but from being able to ask the right questions. "Some people estimate that 50 per cent of businesses fail in the first two years. I wouldn't put the figure quite as high as that, but I'd say those that do make it are those that do their homework to ensure that their idea will generate a viable and profitable business," he says.

While Business Link offers face-to-face support, other organisations such as Shell LiveWIRE - which is aimed specifically at the 16-30 age group - provide online help. Executive director Duncan Robbie says, "Increasingly, young people are coming up with their business idea while they are still at university, so online support is particularly accessible to them."

Shell LiveWIRE boasts an online business library, as well as a free business tool kit - an interactive CD-Rom which enables people to build a product line from their idea.

Both of these companies - alongside many others - can also help financially, pointing you in the direction of grants, funds, loans and competitions.

Among the awarding bodies for grants is Finance South-east. "We are particularly interested in helping young graduates and we run a number of funding schemes that can help them," says chief executive Sally Goodsell. "One young guy we recently awarded £30,000 to did his dissertation on a small unmanned aircraft that could be launched from the shoulder. He soon recognised its potential in the hobby market, or for crowd safety. He has since set up his business and has just launched his first flight."

Even if you don't secure such a substantial amount of money, Satish Shewhorak, 25, who runs moShine Animation Studio, says all is not lost. "Many business ideas don't need a huge amount of money behind them," he says. "We didn't have too many overheads, so money wasn't really an issue for us."

Dr Elizabeth Read, business development manager for enterprise and entrepreneurship at the University of Coventry, says that universities are taking a growing interest in arming graduates with skills in entrepreneurship. "We have a new system in place from this October, whereby all our first-year students - regardless of what degree they are doing - will have an opportunity to study a module in enterprise," she says.

You could even opt for one of the fast-growing number of postgraduate courses in enterprise, although NCGE points out that they can be expensive. Be sure to check the course will provide you with skills you can't gain elsewhere, and check how many previous students are successfully running their own businesses, if you go down this route.

You may be pleasantly surprised at how much help high street banks can offer in the way of practical and financial advice. Many provide business support software and some, such as NatWest, provide one-to-one advice via a business manager. Banks are likely to be less helpful when it comes to handing over hard cash, however, because young people don't tend to have a track record or collateral behind them.

Mike Hill, chief executive of Graduate Prospects, welcomes the increase in enterprising graduates. "One huge advantage of going for it at this point in your life is that you have little to lose. Above all, you'll need to be willing to ask for a lot of help, advice and guidance."

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'So many people love surfing - there had to be a business plan in it'

Linley Lewis, 23, started a company called Ticket to Ride: Gap Year Surfing Adventures, which provides gap years in South Africa, where you're taught how to surf and become a qualified instructor alongside doing voluntary work. Lewis, whose degree was in economics, runs the business with Will Hayler, 23, whose degree was in politics.

Will and I were really good friends at school and we went on our gap year round the world together. Will could already surf and I learned in the countries we visited - South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

When I got back and went to university, I got heavily involved in surfing and used to go away in large groups. So many people seemed to love surfing, even if they weren't that good, and everyone seemed to be so impressed with my gap year that I began to realise there had to be a business idea in it.

I did a business module as part of my degree and that's when I wrote the business plan, which later got modified. The next step was for Will and I to get qualified as surf instructors and life savers and then we spent three months in South Africa, establishing contacts and putting the trip together. We got back in January this year.

While we had energy and passion, we didn't have experience or finance. We managed to get dispassionate investors on board and we got practical support from places ranging from the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship to my university.If you have a good idea, and you have reason to believe it will work, go for it. But get as much help as you can.

'My advice is to be flexible and not too precious about your ideas'

Recent languages graduate, Anna McHugh, 23, opened a clothes shop, Anna Dina, earlier this year, where she sells her own range of customised clothing alongside a few niche brands. She also offers a customising service, where you can take an old or favourite piece of clothing and have it spruced up with beads or embroidery.

I've always fancied running my own business, but it was only towards the end of my final year at university that I realised it was possible.

I'd gone to see a careers adviser and aired some concerns about working for a corporate monster. The careers adviser informed me that this was another option and that far from needing financial security behind me, it may be more difficult to start up later on when I had more financial commitments.

I got most of my advice from the NCGE Flying Start programme. Through that, I heard about other entrepreneur's successes and failures and it made me even more sure I should go for it.

I got the finance I needed to get started from my own savings, my mother and from an interest-free overdraft.

I've found the whole process of setting up very demanding and challenging. But that's exactly what I wanted. I thrive off that sort of thing. Now that I'm actually up and running, I love the fact that my responsibilities are so multi-faceted. One minute, I'm a company director thinking about tax implications; another, I'm doing PR or recruiting.

My advice to other graduates is to be flexible and not too precious about your ideas, because you'll find yourself having to adapt your business plan very quickly. Also, be prepared that nothing happens overnight. It took me six months before my feasibility study happened and another three to set up a limited company. Finally, be prepared for 24-hour working days at the start

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