21st Jul 2014
The recession and an unreliable job market have fuelled a generation of young entrepreneurs and it’s a trend that is continuing to grow. I was one of those among the ranks of university students to set up a startup.
So, what leads a fourth-year university student to start up a small business? My mum likes to think that it was the freezing temperatures of an unheated Scottish townhouse that provoked a little get-up-and-go. But it was, in fact, a classic ‘face the future’ moment. I was set to graduate in 2010 – the recession was in full swing and it was an unnerving time to be coming to the end of a four-year English degree with little idea of a career. My own business, I thought, would give me something extra from my university experience – something beyond the books.
The business itself was set up and run by myself and my housemate. We decided we had something to give our fellow university students – namely Fairtrade t-shirts, illustrated with designs inspired by the rich history and various traditions held by the University of St Andrews.
In between the first lectures and papers of our final year, we sketched endlessly, researched our audience and producers, and planned our ideas and finances in an ad-hoc fashion – before finally taking the plunge.
I still remember vividly, sitting in the car in silence. We were minutes away from handing over all of our savings and a sizeable chunk of our student loan to Burt – a one-man screen printing band in a small printing studio just outside Dundee – and we were petrified. Yet I also remember the elated giddiness when the boxes arrived: hundreds of soft, colourful t-shirts, with our designs perfectly printed and the all the promise of our future business ahead of us.
University is perhaps one of the best places to start up a small business for so many reasons. For one, it’s a fairly safe environment: there’s no mortgage to pay, there’s lots of support and more often than not you’ll find a ready market in your peers. That’s not to mention the willing community of budding helpers, covering a vast range of skills. Helpers were easy enough to find and always enthusiastic to contribute and add to their own CV. We discovered web developers and Photoshop designers, writers for the student newspaper who would cover our story and local businesses who were only too happy to support enthusiastic students branching out a little.
Most importantly, university provided us with a place in which we could experiment with a business idea. We were never expecting to make a fortune; we saw it as an extension of our academic era. We hoped to learn from our personal experience and gain skills that would make us attractive potential employees in a competitive job market.
During the course of the year, my housemate and I met other student entrepreneurs and discussed collaborations; we ran, attended and even designed more T-shirts for numerous events across the academic calendar; and learned to live together, work together and support each other.
We broke even at the end of term, graduated and then handed the venture onto a charity. The business itself continues as an entrepreneur programme for students at St Andrews University.
It was hard work, but it was the best of times, and has certainly had an impact on my career. I’m excited to be writing this as the new deputy editor for BusinessZone, and looking forward to getting stuck in again to the world of entrepreneurship.