'I spotted a gap in advertising': How one student hatched a quirky internet venture to pay his fees

A student living on £100 a month in London has found an ingenious way to fund himself through an MBA course. Whereas most people work for a few years to gain experience and save money before embarking on the prestigious Masters degree, Spyros Pyrgiotis, 24, is in a hurry to gain the qualification he hopes will give him the skills to found a business. He plans to be the youngest to enrol on the MBA course at Kingston University's business school and is in a race against time because he needs to find the £17,000 fees by September.

With jobs scarce in the recession and banks unwilling to lend, he decided to start an internet venture on his laptop. From a gloomy room in a dilapidated, shared house in north London, he set up an advertising business which has already raised £3,500 in two months.

Pyrgiotis, from the Greek island of Samos, admits his idea is unsophisticated, but says it "does the trick". He has devised what he claims is the only page on the internet made up solely of text characters which when bought by advertisers change colour and turn into links to their sites.

He charges $2 – or around £1.25 – for each letter which makes up the name of the company or its slogan, a one-off charge which will secure the slot for three years. He quotes prices in dollars because he runs two pages, one for the UK and Europe and the other for the US and the rest of the world.

So far, so good. But with no other attractions offered, who would be likely to find www.thetextpage.com? Luckily for the student, his enterprising girlfriend, Liana Stewart, turned to Facebook and generated a following of 1,200 friends. She has also drummed up interest through mentions on obscure internet pages.

"Spyros told me he had found a way to raise £17,000 in time for September and I didn't believe him," says Liana.

"He wouldn't tell me what it was saying. I would have to guess. I asked friends on Facebook, the social networking site, for some ideas and they came up with all kinds of things, such as selling a kidney, buying lottery tickets or asking people to donate £1 to a fund," she said.

"When he told me, I was a bit disappointed, to be honest, because I didn't understand it, but the idea has really taken off."

Pyrgiotis's first degree is in the recording arts, and he believes he needs an established business qualification to help him to start up a music production business.

"I came up with the idea after I found no help from banks or student finance organisations," he said. "I've spotted a gap in online advertising in which people pay per character they occupy rather than by click or impression. The internet is dominated by links rather than display advertising, but a link is not always an advertisement because it can also be information.

"Advertisers like it because it is unique and quirky so it grabs attention, but also because it is very, very cheap for a long period of time," he says. "Instead of paying for each click online, advertisers pay per character."

Niche companies, student organisations and start-ups trying out different logos have so far got involved in the page.

Pyrgiotis's undergraduate degree was with the School of Audio Engineering (SAE), delivered through universities in Athens and London. He came to England for the third year which the SAE runs in collaboration with Middlesex University. His retired parents who live off the land in Samos, the Dodecanese island where Pythagoras was born, sent him money for rent.

"It was very hard at first, because I didn't get support from the SAE or Middlesex and I couldn't open a bank account because my landlord wouldn't give me any proof of residence," said Pyrgiotis, who has since moved to west London.

"I've been doing some freelance work as a sound engineer, but if I want to realise my dream of founding a company then I will need to have the business training, which is why I am determined to raise the money for an MBA," he said. "I thought I would come up with a new business idea – after all, I've signed up to a business course."

Other - more conventional - ways to bankroll your course

On average, MBAs cost around £50,000 once course fees and living costs have been taken into account – this can be a lot more at the top business schools – and if you opt for a full-time degree you'll also lose your income.

Company sponsorship

According to Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs (AMBA), around 50 to 60 per cent of MBA students fund their course by persuading their employers to cover the fees. This is especially popular in part-time courses where students can continue to work as they learn, but it's also possible to enrol on a full-time MBA and still receive funding.

In this case, you'll probably be asked to fulfil some conditions set by your employer. These range from a commitment to do your dissertation in an area they are interested in to pledging to work for them for a certain number of years after graduating. All you need to do is persuade them you are worth the investment.

Purcell says: "For most employers, what you need to do is to present some kind of business plan to gain their support, detailing what they're going to get back and what you can commit to as a result of getting your MBA."

The only problem with this approach is that some employers might be reluctant to shell out money in the current economic climate. In that case, a loan could be worth considering.

Loans

AMBA has its own preferential loan scheme with a low rate of interest open to any UK-based student accepted on one of its accredited MBAs. The scheme, operated in association with NatWest, will usually cover the course fee and living expenses, but has to be paid back within three years of graduation. Before the credit crunch, banks were willing to lend money fairly readily, viewing their loans as a solid investment that would propel students towards high earnings. It is harder now, but still worth a try. Some business schools also operate lending schemes with preferential rates for students.

The part-time option

The MBA was traditionally a full-time degree, but increasingly it has become available in different modes, offering students greater flexibility. A full-time MBA is still the most expensive way to do it, as you're giving up your salary and paying the hefty fees over a relatively short period of time.

"Distance learning, part-time and modular programmes offer students a chance to phase the cost over a longer period and also continue working while they study," says Purcell. "So if cost is a real issue, they should definitely consider different modes of study."

Scholarships and grants

Most business schools have some sort of bursary scheme. These are worth applying for. Some offer scholarships aimed at women or other groups under-represented on MBAs, but others can be gained through old-fashioned academic excellence. In general, if you can prove you're likely to excel on the course you stand a good chance of receiving some sort of funding.

Manchester Metropolitan University Business School offers scholarships to self-funded students on its full-time and part-time courses. The university also provides support by setting up payment plans in agreement with the students, to help spread the financial burden.

Newcastle Business School offers a number of £1,000 bursaries, awarded during the application process, and based on an individual's academic achievement and work experience.

Chris Green

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