THE BLOG
02/05/2014 07:36 BST | Updated 01/07/2014 06:59 BST

Digital Enterprise: New Rules Apply for Entrepreneurs of the Future

The UK is on the brink of a sea change. When it comes to starting a business, technology has levelled the playing field, opening up new opportunities for young people to drive change. More than half of those in the UK aged 18-25 want to set up their own business and almost one in six are now in the process of doing so, compared with less than one in ten only a year ago.

The UK is on the brink of a sea change. When it comes to starting a business, technology has levelled the playing field, opening up new opportunities for young people to drive change. More than half of those in the UK aged 18-25 want to set up their own business and almost one in six are now in the process of doing so, compared with less than one in ten only a year ago.

Thanks to technology, career progression is no longer linear. It's not necessary for every young person to go from school to college and then into a job. Technology has helped to tear up that particular rule book, as evidenced by Ryan Orbach, a 16-year-old who created Finish, which held the number one spot in the productivity category in the Apple store for months. And Louis Becker, who got his first job at 12 designing the interface of a puzzle app. And Nick D'Aloisio who sold Summly for millions when he was only 16.

However, these young app designers made headlines precisely because they are still in a minority. A YouGov poll commissioned by Nominet Trust, Mozilla and Nesta suggested that 75% of UK children under-16 are interested in making their own projects online and 67% would like to learn how to programme or write code, but only 3% actually know how. Organisations such as Code Club, Young Rewired State and Coderdojo are all to be applauded for supporting young people to develop their digital skills. But much more needs to be done to equip young people to create - rather than purely consume - digital content and tools.

It is vital that we give young people the skills and confidence to move from casual digital use to deeper engagement. Whether they want to create websites, apps, hardware, games or new digital innovations, we need to support young people to develop their digital ideas. But a second step is needed here, too. If we are to foster a new generation of digital entrepreneurs, we also need to equip young people with the skills and confidence to turn their ideas into successful tech enterprises. Recent RSA research highlighted that the UK lags behind other countries in terms of start-up rates among young people. In the US, more than twice as many young people engage in early stage entrepreneurial activity.

Part of the solution is to raise awareness of existing programmes that can help. Higher education organisations such as NACUE provide an important exchange hub of knowledge and contacts so students can build their ideas and confidence. The Princes Trust also remains an excellent provider of support to young entrepreneurs from less privileged backgrounds. It helped nearly 15,000 young people last year alone through its enterprise programme.

There are also some good examples of enterprise schemes emerging in the tech space. For example, Entrepreneur First supports technical graduates who have a business idea, helping them get to investment-readiness, underpinned by incubation and mentorship. Their latest cohort of 11 start-ups is worth more than $50m after just 12 months, showing clearly what can be achieved when young people are given these opportunities.

While there are many important initiatives designed to boost young enterprise, the way that young people now start and run businesses is changing and less conventional routes to building a start-up are emerging, enabled by technology. Technology enterprises often require far lower capital costs than traditional businesses, so young people are increasingly able, and willing, to bootstrap their way through the early stages of their business. They can now rely on their own skills to build a minimum viable product that will attract funding - be it an app, website or online platform. The fact that many young people actually prefer this approach is often overlooked in debates around the availability of finance. Similarly, the effort spent in establishing formal mentorship schemes belie the preference that many young people have for more informal support from personal contacts.

To this end, Nominet Trust recently launched a new 'Inspiring Digital Enterprise Award' (iDEA), in partnership with HRH The Duke of York. Responding to young people's preference for the lean, boot-strapping approach to entrepreneurship, iDEA supports budding entrepreneurs to build and test digital prototypes before moving into development.

Co-designed with young people, iDEA has been shaped and supported by Will.i.am, Michael Acton Smith, Lily Cole and Nick D'Aloisio, all of whom are hugely successful digital creators in their own right. The programme is delivered by partners, such as Young Rewired State, who provide the much-needed link between digital skills training and entrepreneurship.

This year, we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web. I'd say we are roughly at the equivalent of the silent era in the movies when it comes to what the web makes possible. We're already seeing how quickly the internet is evolving, from mobile to wearable technology to the so called 'internet of things'. We are at the beginning of a remarkable time when a huge number of new products and services will be developed. With access to the right tools and support, young people will spearhead these developments and play a vital role in shaping our digital future.

However, if we are to help the next generation of digital entrepreneurs, we too must have the confidence to tear up the rulebooks. We need to focus our efforts on new skills, new financing models and new tech. And we have the opportunity to provide a new style of support that brings all of these things together. What an exciting place to be.

Annika Small

Nominet Trust