Entrepreneurs profit from winning ideas

A host of awards provide start-ups with support, advice and inspiration, says Jessica Moore

Entrepreneurs are important. They drive new ideas, utilise new technologies, introduce new concepts. In fact, according to the European Commission, more than 99 per cent of European businesses are small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), providing two-thirds of private sector jobs. In terms of our ability to compete globally, they have a crucial role to play. But setting up in business is never easy. Where can business-minded high-fliers turn for support?

Help is out there, not least from Santander Universities (santander.co.uk/universities). Set up in 1997 as a corporate social responsibility initiative targeting higher education, it now has agreements with 1,054 universities across the globe, including 66 in the UK. For the annual Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards, undergraduates and postgraduates from these UK institutions are invited to pitch business ideas for prizes of up to £20,000. Those shortlisted also gain advice, and the experience is great for building a network of contacts.

Meanwhile, the US-based Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (Gsea, gsea.org) support students who already own and run their own company. Selected applicants face a panel of judges, engaging with world-class entrepreneurs. Alongside a cash prize, winners earn a share in over $150,000-worth of donated business services. "All 30 global finalists get huge exposure," explains Adam Robinson, sub-committee chair for the Gsea. "They link to a network of people who just want to be helpful, and it has a huge impact on their career trajectories."

Interestingly, Gsea isn't looking for an exceptional business idea. "It's about the entrepreneur, not the business," Robinson explains. "These are remarkable individuals. They're taking on a full-time undergraduate workload and operating a revenue-generating business at the same time. We're looking at the way they think, how they're moving forward and what mentors they've identified. We want students who can admit what they don't know and ask for help."

Chris Arnold's latest idea harnesses social media. "I thought back to when I started my first business," he says. "How could I have been supported?" The answer? Global contacts.

"But I didn't know anyone in any different countries, which makes it difficult to think big and trade internationally. Frankly, I didn't even know anyone with a different outlook or experience set to mine," he remembers. The aim of World Merit (worldmerit.org) is therefore to create an online community, linking 18- to 30-year-old entrepreneurs all over the world.

Following a soft launch in April, the initiative drew over 60,000 members before officially launching on 26 June. Members sign up and use the service for free, earning credits by taking actions within their community or by completing tasks. With these credits, they can "buy" benefits – such as the opportunity to develop their ideas in a World Merit business incubator, the first of which opens in Liverpool this summer. Additionally, Arnold says "everyone will be eligible for mentoring and have access to online leadership tools and online education".

These kinds of resources are vital. And when it comes to competitions? "Just the experience of applying makes you reflect on your aims differently," says Kris McDonald, who runs photography and video company Keyhole Productions (keyhole productions.co.uk). He was named Best Young Entrepreneur 2010 by the Morgan Foundation Entrepreneurship Awards, which ran from 2007-12. McDonald won £10,000 and benefited from invaluable advice from Barclays. Since then, his business has doubled.

Other success stories include Santander Award-winners Radfan and Uni Car Ads – both set up by Newcastle University students. Radfan (radfan.com) won the postgrad category with an energy-saving device that redirects the flow of air from a radiator. A business placing advertisements on students' cars, Uni Car Ads (unicarads.co.uk), came second in the undergraduate section. Both received support from Newcastle University's careers service, which helps around 30 student start-ups to get off the ground each year. As well as participating in the Santander Awards, Newcastle receives a philanthropic fund from Santander Universities. This has enabled them to give business-minded students £15,000 in grants since 2011.

Meanwhile, the university runs various initiatives, including the Rise Up Entrepreneurship Programme, that gives students and graduates the basics of how to write a business plan and how to do cashflow forecasts. "It also introduces them to professional partners, such as solicitors," says Claire Adamson, entrepreneurial development officer at the university. "There's a growing appetite for these kind of opportunities."

Perhaps because of this, an increasing number of universities are working hard to help students set up in businesses. "There's an awful lot of effort made to support young entrepreneurs now," notes Simon Bray, deputy director of Santander Universities, "but a lot of it is at the bottom end. To encourage businesses to grow, the most important thing they need is a strong network of contacts and mentoring support."

"Young entrepreneurs need support from people who've been there, done that, and solved the problems 10 times over," echoes Robinson. It's not simply about giving advice, it's about sharing experience – and that's priceless to a young entrepreneur."

According to neuropsychologist Dr Anne Moir, women and men would do well at work to recognise and accept what she calls "the chemistry of difference" between one another. If women understand how their brain makes them react, think and communicate differently, this might go some way to addressing the enduring lack of women reaching the top in business. "Biology isn't destiny – understand it and you have a powerful tool for positive change," says Moir.

Case study: 'Through the exposure we got from the awards, a major chain took a significant minority stake in us'

Nick Troen and Frank Yeung launched the Poncho 8 Mexican food restaurant in 2009, while Troen was studying for his Masters at London School of Economics (LSE).

"Setting up a burrito restaurant was Frank's idea. We'd both spent time in America, where we'd seen the popularity of fast, good-quality Mexican food. We thought it could work here, so we went to banks, institutional investors, venture capital funds – but nobody wanted to give money to two 22-year-olds with no experience in the middle of a recession. Friends and family stepped in, and our first shop opened in 2009.

We weren't lambs to the workplace slaughter. Frank's parents own a restaurant, and I'd worked in marketing for Innocent. That had a really strong influence on us. We wanted to produce good, healthy food and have a quirky voice. We backed those ideas and experiences up with a lot of research. I did my Masters dissertation on new food brands, and we sought advice wherever we could. We made strategic decisions and planned carefully.

Coming second in the postgraduate category of the Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards helped us a lot. A PR release about the awards was seen by a major national UK food chain, they took a significant minority stake to help roll us out from the five stores we have currently to 20 stores by the end of 2014. That exposure is life-changing".

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