You, too, could be a Bill Gates

The UK lags behind the USA in entrepreneurial activity. But a new organisation to help graduates set up in business aims to change that
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The Independent Online

Too many students are rejecting the idea of self-employment as a viable career option, preferring instead the perceived security of a nine-to-five job. That, at least, is the thinking of Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is keen to see British graduates emulate their entrepreneurial North American counterparts. About 30 per cent of the growth in the US economy is down to businesses started by graduates within five years of leaving university - although this number is admittedly skewed by the likes of Bill Gates' Microsoft empire - but in the UK that number is only 8 per cent.

Too many students are rejecting the idea of self-employment as a viable career option, preferring instead the perceived security of a nine-to-five job. That, at least, is the thinking of Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is keen to see British graduates emulate their entrepreneurial North American counterparts. About 30 per cent of the growth in the US economy is down to businesses started by graduates within five years of leaving university - although this number is admittedly skewed by the likes of Bill Gates' Microsoft empire - but in the UK that number is only 8 per cent.

"There would need to be another 30,000 graduate start-ups if we had the same proportion as the US," says Tim Evans, a director of the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship (NCGE), which began in September 2004 backed by £700,000 of funding from the Department for Education and Skills and the Small Business Service.

It does seem as if more and more of us want to be our own boss. Areport from Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (Gem) in January stated that the UK has a higher level of entrepreneurial activity than Germany, Japan, Italy and France, although it still lags behind the US and Canada. The proportion of the population expecting to start their own business in the next three years rose from 7.8 per cent in 2002 to 9.5 per cent last year. Students are also showing a greater appetite for the risks and rewards of entrepreneurship: the level of entrepreneurial activity among students has increased from 0.9 per cent in 2003 to 2.3 per cent last year, says Gem.

The NCGE hopes its Flying Start initiative will add to that tally. Eleven one-day events are planned across the UK to help undergraduates and recent graduates to set up their own businesses. The Flying Start events include talks from successful graduate entrepreneurs, workshops on fundraising, product development and branding, plus advice from professionals on issues such as intellectual property, VAT and PAYE. Attendees are also expected to commit to take their idea to the next stage. "We want people to make a pledge so they can keep the momentum going," says Evans. "There are lots of good ideas out there gathering dust. We want people to take the next step, and we'll then back them with online support and information."

It's not for everybody, of course. Setting up your business requires hard work, determination, entrepreneurial flair and a refusal to take no for an answer. And with the advent of top-up fees, life could become a lot harder for young entrepreneurs. The NCGE plans to commission research on whether debt will deter people from pursuing their own business and its impact on their ability to raise money. "We don't yet know if this is a real issue or not," says Evans. "A lot of graduates see this as a good time to set up in business, as they have nothing to lose."

That's the attitude of Daniel Ziglam and Elliot Brook, the founders of boutique furniture and interiors company Deadgood. "We are quite ambitious people and we always had the idea to set up our own business," says Ziglam. "It seemed the right time to do it while we are young and had nothing to lose." Brook backs this. "I've got quite a lot of debt, but it's not on my mind, otherwise I would have gone out and got a proper job to sort myself out financially. I don't want to look back and feel I didn't give it a go."

Both credit their 3D furniture design course at Northumbria University for providing them with the skills and encouragement to set up their own business. "It was a very good course because, rather than just being creative, it covered the commercial aspect of promoting yourself and your ideas," says Brook. Getting started has been hard work, with a lot of knocking on doors to find funding, holding down second jobs and convincing would-be investors and buyers that 23-year-olds can start, run and grow a successful business. Both highlight the huge amount of support out there for new start-ups, from Business Link to regional development agencies to the Arts Council, but stress the importance of being proactive to source the information and funding you need. "There's been a lot of shovel work to get things started, but now things are fitting into place," says Ziglam. The pair will hold an event in Newcastle upon Tyne this summer, in partnership with the NCGE, to launch their first collection and showcase the products of creative start-ups in the North-east. It seems the entrepreneurial spirit of new graduates is alive and kicking after all.

www.ncge.org.uk

www.deadgoodltd.co.uk

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