Studies and sales conferences: The double life of a student CEO

Top tips on juggling starting a company with your degree

When I was studying at The University of Durham, there wasn’t a huge amount to do and so you had to look elsewhere for entertainment. If you cast your mind back to 2000, when the whole school disco craze was starting to take off, I saw a niche to organise parties and club nights.

After my first event, the owner of a nightclub said he’d never seen the place so packed, and would I like to continue? And that’s how it started! It was never really my intention to set up a business - I’d just wanted to do something fun and discovered I had an entrepreneurial streak. But before I knew it, I was hiring my friends to help me: we put on school discos and beach parties, hired in DJs, students to flyer and the rest is, as they say, history.

My events company ran throughout the three years of my geography course. It allowed me to pay my way through university without having to half-heartedly take a job in the local supermarket, and also meant I could afford to travel after I graduated. On top of it all, it gave me a lot more confidence in the working world and set me in good stead for future success with my new social enterprise, Student@Home. The company already employs 60 students from universities across London, tackling head-on the 14 per cent unemployment rate among computer science graduates.

Following on from my early years of being an entrepreneur, through to my experiences learned in my current position, here are my top five tips on living the double like of a student CEO...

The double life

Henry Ford said, “I do not believe a man can ever leave his business. He ought to think of it by day and dream of it by night”. He has a point - especially if it’s something you’re passionate about. However, if you’ve spent time, brain cells and money to be at university, you should complete your studies and complete them well. Competition among graduates is more extreme than ever, and getting good grades is still important. Try to build a business that’ll be flexible enough to fit around your coursework, as well as being your reason to haul out of bed before midday.

You can make money doing something you love

Many graduates still feel pressured to move into that “real” job - the big corporate that promises three Aston Martins, leatherbound offices and an expense account the size of Ireland. Most people who shelve their real passion inevitably come back round to it in the end. So why not save yourself some time? Find what you’re passionate about then ask yourself: is there an opportunity here for a great new product or service? And can I use what I’m learning to help me?

Use it, use it, use it

There’s a lot more around nowadays to help student entrepreneurs - networking events, social forums, websites - which you should lap up while you have the chance. And if the word ‘networking’ makes your skin crawl, call it something else: Contact-wrangling, or speed dating for business cards. The range of events planned across the country as part of Global Entrepreneurship Week is a great place to start and will give you a flavour for the practical support that is on offer. The opportunity to be around so many people from different backgrounds - all with different skills and interests - is invaluable to anyone interested in business and marketing. Talk to them and listen carefully; they might be your future customers.

Mistakes do not a bad CEO make

Running your own business when you’re young will mean it’s much easier the second time around. As long as you’re not putting yourself at risk financially (or hijacking the chemistry lab to test your new brand of nuclear energy), don’t let fear of failure stop you trying. Mistakes are vital to learning because progress cannot be made without them. And persistence really does pay off.

Start building the future you

When I hire for my company, I feel safer employing someone who’s already learned the basic skills. Graduates who have run their own businesses - and have social confidence - set themselves apart from the crowd. Being an entrepreneur teaches you a lot: responsibility, life experience, how to open doors. I’m still using skills I honed in my Durham days, just with a little less disco.

Kelly Klein is the founder of Student@Home, a social enterprise that connects computer users in need of support with IT students in need of income and experience. Kelly is supporting Global Entrepreneurship Week which runs from 18-24 November.