How students and young entrepreneurs can start their own business while at university

'Most successful companies generally enter the market second and learn from their competitors’ mistakes,' says the young founder of University Compare

Owen O'Neill
Friday 27 November 2015 19:01 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Starting a business at university is one of the hardest things you’ll do, but it’s also the best time in history for young people to set up a business. At university, you also have the gift of time, and research facilities on your side. A recent Santander Universities UK report revealed how 24 per cent of current university students are running a business venture of some sort.

If you’re reading this then you may be looking at taking the plunge into running with an idea that you’ve been dwelling on for months. It can be daunting at first, especially when it comes to parting with cash. But, I can assure you, years from now, it’ll be something you won’t regret.

First things first, If you’re thinking of starting a business, it means you have an idea and, more likely than not, this product or service is already out there and is already trading. But, this doesn't mean it’s not a future billion-dollar company. Most successful companies generally enter the market second and learn from their competitors’ mistakes, and market validation is a great way for you to save your two most valuable resources: time and money.

If you’ve assessed your competitors and feel like you still have a significantly different and better product or service, then it’s about time you map out the business in a viable way where it’s easy to assess each area of the market. You’ll soon realise there are a number of problems you are going to face in the early stages of your set up. Whether it be lack of capital, knowledge, or support - if you are able - quickly prioritise what’s required. That way, you’ll be able to cater for your weaknesses and have a much stronger company start.

Once you have a very basic business plan in place - and have calculated your customers, competitors, and clients - you’ll most likely notice it requires a substantial amount of time to make this idea a reality and, more importantly, a viable and profitable business.

Being a previous dorm-room company starter myself, I realised the best time to embark on your venture while at university is in the midst of your second year. Not only do you have less term-time scheduled lectures, but you should also be a more independent adult than you were the previous year. This combination of being more responsible with extra time will allow you to look at the bigger picture and begin your journey without the distraction of £1.50 vodka-double student Wednesdays.

A few questions I get asked on a regular basis are: ‘How did you get funding for your idea?’ and ‘I have a great idea, how can I get that too?’ These questions are commonly aimed at entrepreneurs and they always get the same answers.

Capital investment very rarely (almost never) invests in ideas. Funding goes to entrepreneurs that are trying to create a business which means they have already spent their own money trying to make their idea a reality. It also boils down to the same question: if your idea is so good, then why are you not pursuing it yourself to maximise your own return?

If you are serious about your venture, assess your market, create a small business plan, and then source extra capital (whether it be through friends or family, crowdfunding, or a bank loan) to make your idea a reality. There are actually university entrepreneurial loans you can access too. Unfortunately, you or your idea will never be taken seriously unless you’ve at least attempted to make it work with what you’ve got. The real challenge is this: you’ll have to do this on minimal income while at university, bringing the true entrepreneurial spirit out to play.

Back in late 2010 when my website - higher education comparison site University Compare - was a mere beta version, I spent my entire first term second year loan on a few web developers (something I would NOT recommend), developing my first concept of the site. Once the site was live, I began looking into analytics, understanding my user, and joined the online education website,, a website dedicated to educating users in digital, social marketing, and business management. From there onwards, every problem I faced, I went to Lynda to learn about the problem so I could fix it myself.

I worked extremely hard over the next two years, with many late nights drinking Red Bull and weekends staying in developing University Compare so that it was one step ahead of the competition. Eighteen months later, I met my very first angel investor through a co-worker and received a £20,000 investment at a £100,000 valuation. The rest, as they say, was history.

What people don’t see is that it took risk, hard graft, and vision to achieve my first milestone. From spending my term loan - when it should have been used for rent - missing my first four months of student socials, and then continuing to work on a product when many people were telling me it was a “waste of time.”

Starting a business at university isn’t easy but it provides the best building blocks for any future entrepreneur. Early on, you’ll learn the art of mastering time-keeping - and you’ll never have a time in your life where you have minimal responsibility, independence, and some of the best facilities on your doorstep.

At the end of the your first university year, the institute will prepare you to begin thinking about your future career so never forget that entrepreneurship, as a career, is always a serious option. After all, it never did Mark Zuckerberg any harm, did it?

Twitter: @OwenONeill_HE

Owen O’Neill is 25-years-old and is the founder of the higher education comparison site University Compare. He has just completed a successful crowdfunding round and received another £175,000 from a major investor

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