Celebrating the people behind British small businesses

Tips for starting a business while at university

By Owen O’Neill, 25, Founder, University Compare

Starting a business at university is one of the hardest things to do, but it’s also the best time for young people to set up a business. At university, you have the gift of time, and research facilities on your side. A Santander report in December 2014 revealed that in fact 24% 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 and 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 that years from now it won’t be something you regret.

First things first, If you’re thinking of starting a business, then it means that 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 that it’s not a future billion dollar company. Most successful companies generally enter the market second and learn from their competitors’ mistakes – 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 to assess each area of the market. You’ll soon realise that there are a number of problems that 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, you’ll be able to cater for your weaknesses and have a much stronger company start.

Once you have a basic business plan in place and have determined who your customers, competitors and clients are, you’ll most likely notice that 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 that 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’re now a more independent adult (I’d like to think) than you were the previous year. The 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 student £1.50 vodka-double Wednesdays.

A few questions that 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 asked around entrepreneurs and they always get the same answers.

Capital investors very rarely (almost never) invest in ideas; funding goes to entrepreneurs that are trying to create a business, which means that 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 that 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, Lynda.com (a website dedicated to educate users in digital and social marketing, business management, etc.) 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 it was one step ahead of the competition. 18 months later, I met my very first angel investor through a co-worker and received a £20,000 investment at a £100,000 valuation, and 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 4 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 university at the end of your first 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. It never did Mark Zuckerberg any harm.