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Can You Start a Business at University?

01/04/2014 11:36 BST | Updated 23/05/2014 10:59 BST

A few months ago, I spent an extremely enjoyable afternoon at my old school giving a Careers talk about start-ups. Interestingly, the most pressing question that emerged from these sixth-formers was whether they were about to waste £27,000 and three years of their life on a University degree if what they were really passionate about was starting their own business.

To the great relief of the suddenly nervous teacher at the back of the room who looked ready to manhandle me off the stage had I even begun to hint at University not being the right immediate path for these students, I reassured them that - in my opinion - University is in fact one of the best environments in which to whet an appetite for entrepreneurial life.

"So you're saying I should do Business Studies, or Economics, or something like that?" piped up someone in the front row. The answer was, of course, absolutely not. Naturally there's value to be gained from the academic study of business and entrepreneurship, but I'm a great believer in the power of "learning by doing", a belief neatly summed up by Seth Godin:

"Studying entrepreneurship without doing it is like studying the appreciation of music without listening to it".

So, why did I recommend University as a good starting point for these teenage budding entrepreneurs?

Finding an Idea

The first step in any start-up is, of course, your idea, your Eureka moment, and University offers a great platform for this. Anyone who has been themselves knows what an eye-opening experience University can be, a chance to really broaden your horizons and experiences, a chance to spot those entrepreneurial opportunities you never knew existed.

Building a Team

Once you've spotted an opportunity, what do you do? Build a team.

At University, the pool of potential co-founders is remarkable. It's likely you'll never again encounter and regularly cross paths with a range of people with such diverse backgrounds, skills and interests - all you can ask for in the hunt for a co-founder with complementary skills to your own. I was fortunate enough to experience this for myself, if you'll indulge a quick personal story:

When I had the idea for my first business, an online ticketing venture, I was pretty sure it had legs but I didn't know the first thing about coding or how I might get this off the ground. The friend I was sitting with suggested someone, and kindly introduced us. I talked to him about my idea - he liked it, we spent 30 excited minutes jotting down our potential next steps and, to cut a long story short, I had found my technical co-founder; three years later we've founded two businesses together with a combined user base of over 20,000, all thanks to a chance University encounter.

Having spent the last two years in London, that's an opportunity I and many others know only too well is like gold dust in the start-up world, but which University can throw up every week. Not that I'd ever admit it to him, but that chance encounter, and the opportunity it gave me to really turn an idea into a genuine reality was arguably the most important day of my career to date.

Getting Started

So, being at University has helped you find an idea and build a team, now what? You're busy studying, you've got no money, nobody takes students seriously and you're going to have to wait until you graduate to do anything with it anyway, right?

"I'm busy studying"

Sure you are... Perhaps an extreme example but in my final semester of University I had two hours of contact time a week. A week! A lot of working people will spend that merely commuting every single day. In my experience to date, even for people with more strenuous degree timetables than mine, you'll never get that same flexibility to work on your idea ever again.

"You've got no money"

The beauty of start-ups these days is that you really don't need much cash to get going. This naturally depends on what your idea is, but for online businesses you really can bootstrap your way forward. Both my Uni businesses were online, and we started them with a mere £800 each; in hindsight, it could actually have been much, much less.

Naturally, some money is almost always required but -the deplorable £9k tuition fees that I was fortunate to escape notwithstanding - the student loan with its future repayment terms, as well as careful use of an overdraft, gives you a chance to forget in part about financial pressures in a way you can only dream of once in the world of full time employment.

"People don't take student entrepreneurs seriously"

I'll freely admit that this is the one which troubled me the most, but thankfully there are various organisations which are specifically designed to mitigate this. Many Universities have their own fantastic schemes, but to name a few beyond this; there's NACUE (National Association of College and University Entrepreneurs), the government's Start-Up Loan scheme, and great organisations like Student Upstarts which invests up to £15k in companies run by a full time student. Any of these are ready to offer the cash, mentorship and support necessary for student entrepreneurs to really succeed.

"Chance to Fail"

Last but very much not least, University offers a chance to fail in a supportive environment. I don't think the two start-ups I launched at Uni are going to be huge successful companies, but does that mean they're a failure? Absolutely not - I've learned more from launching and running them than I could ever have hoped for.

Perhaps most importantly, hand in hand with this chance to fail comes the opportunity to enjoy yourself, to fling a few ideas at the wall and see what sticks. After all, as they say, if there's ever a time for experimentation...