Given the huge number of businesses started whilst the founders are at university, what is it that makes it such a fertile ground for startups?
Stories of businesses emerging from academic environments abound. Long before The Social Network elevated college startups to Hollywood cliche, universities were renowned for churning out world-famous startups. Beyond the Facebooks, Googles and WordPresses of recent times, plenty of long established corporations like Dell, Microsoft and FedEx started on campus. But what makes universities so effective at nurturing entrepreneurial talent?
In part, the accessibility of information means new ideas occur much more readily. “As the students are gaining the theoretical and conceptual knowledge, they’re starting to attach the knowledge to their own ideas,” explains John Howell, associate dean at Kaplan Holborn College, a college dedicated to business, accountancy, finance, economics and law. As students encounter new knowledge, they will often locate potential applications for it and find ways that it can be put to use. “They thrive on that opportunity to take an idea and say ‘what can I do with it?’” Howell adds. “‘How am I going to then be able to make something of that when I start to set things up myself?’”
Additionally, few ideas on a campus are created in isolation. Whilst getting feedback on your hot new business concept can be tricky when you’re working in your garage, academic life comes packaged with significant levels of peer feedback. “That is very conducive to a creative atmosphere for the students, where they start to bounce ideas off each other,” Howell says. “And that can then help you to understand more about the possibilities and the opportunities that you might want to explore.”
There are certainly ways universities can support and facilitate these exchanges. An example is a programme run at Kaplan Holborn called the Investment Club which supports budding entrepreneurs in approaching business ideas critically. “They pitch ideas, they talk about where they would invest money based on their ideas of what’s going to sell and what the big up-and-coming trends are,” Howell explains.
It is true that there are considerable concerns about whether education is providing enough in the way of entrepreneurial skills, with some advising that the best way to learn about business is to enter the world of work. But it is true that this might not encourage the critical thinking required to build a truly disruptive start-up. “It’s actually nice for students to criticise and really evaluate the potential of ideas,” says Howell. “You wouldn’t get that working in a business where you don’t like to criticise the way things are run.”
And rather than encouraging them to follow a model set up by their predecessor, this allows students to learn some of the mindset required to build a new generation of business. “In terms of how they might see a business surviving, thriving or actually leading, with those three elements in mind, they are actually quite critical,” says Howell.
As you can see, the academic environment can definitely contribute to building a thriving start-up. But why take our word for it? We spoke to three university startups about how forming a business on campus helped them.
Mansoor Hamayun, Imperial College
The initial spark behind BBOXX, the company bringing solar power to the developing world, came from an offhand comment CEO and co-founder Mansoor Hamayun made one evening over dinner, when he remarked that half the world didn’t have access to electricity. This encouraged Hamayun, along with his co-founders and fellow electronic and electrical engineering students, Christopher Baker-Brian and Laurent Van Houcke, to look into if they could crack the problem.
Whilst the concept didn’t come directly from their course itself, their studies definitely influenced its subsequent success. “The things we learnt at university meant that we already had the capabilities to design and build our own products,” Hamayun explains. The team began working on projects in Rwanda: by the time they had graduated, the students had brought power to 600 homes and raised $300,000. “By the end of it we were being approached by so many people across the world asking ‘can you do this for us?’”
Hamayun believes that in part what makes university such a fertile ground for startups is a blend of the resources at your disposal and the ability to experiment and try new things. “We were surrounded by like-minded people who understood our vision and wanted to help; even our lecturers were supportive in what we were doing,” he says. “The environment of university provides the chance to learn and also the freedom to be different and start something new.”
There’s no doubt that BBOXX wouldn’t have been the same success had it not been for its fledgling years at Imperial College. “Starting our business at university opened up many opportunities for funding and marketing that would not have been likely to come our way if we hadn’t,” Hamayun says. “If I had to start BBOXX all over again then I would still begin it at university.”
Roy Kimani, University for the Creative Arts
In its first incarnation, nideo, the professional video platform, was very much the product of the university environment. “Our first project [was] a video production company that we developed using the free resources available at university,” says Roy Kimani, co-founder and CEO. “Often, the companies we worked for used YouTube by default but were frustrated with some of its more unprofessional aspects.” This helped Kimani and his co-founder James Hakesly see the need for a more professional platform, leading them to found nideo.
Having attended an arts-focused institution, there wasn’t a great deal of commercial training involved in either of the founders’ degrees. “When it came to business or anything entrepreneurial, there was very little, if any, support,” Kimani explains. However, he believes this can actually be instrumental in encouraging potential entrepreneurs to look to forge their own path. “It is out of this frustration and the need to be resourceful in order to attain a level of independence that drives most university students to start their own enterprise.”
But the fact that one has spare time and few commitments means that taking a gamble on a start-up can place less pressure on founders still looking to find their feet. “It is the perfect time to learn from your mistakes without any significant consequences,” Kimani comments. And this freedom can have a strong, knock-on effect on an enterprise’s eventual success. “The university environment gives you the opportunity to experiment, which is key to developing a strong foundation for any idea.”
Certainly forming during university has had a pronounced effect on the DNA of nideo. “We still maintain the agile approach to working we had whilst at university,” says Kimani. “Our willingness to innovate and determination to succeed both come from our beginnings as a university start-up.”
Graham Cooper, Glyndwr University
Graham Cooper and his Minimal Media co-founders Alan Whitfield and Hollie Harmsworth first came together to work on their final project: making a short film. The concept for their production company Minimal Media emerged very naturally from this relationship. “The idea for our business was a natural step from the course we were on,” Cooper explains. “We wanted to provide high quality films to everyone and try to steer away from the usual corporate look that most film companies offer.”
Being steeped in such a rich creative environment meant that bringing together a talented team was far easier than it would have been if Minimal Media had started up in a more commercial environment. “You can tell who the hard workers are, who has an actual passion for that industry and the drive to really do well in their career,” says Cooper. “Our different skills and knowledge fitted perfectly together, meaning that as a team we could produce fantastic products.”
Transitioning from university to running one’s own enterprise might seem like a pretty severe gear change. “We began setting up as we were coming to the end of the degree so we pretty much went from students to business partners straight away,” says Cooper. In some ways, however, this benefitted the start-up as they were able to keep the momentum they’d built up whilst working together. “Having a long break will make it much harder to get the motivation to set up,” Cooper adds.
However, the fact that they’d had such a strong support network meant making the change comparatively easy. “We had great support from the [Careers Centre] and Go Wales teams at Glyndwr who helped us get some of our earliest jobs as a company,” Cooper explains. “It was also helpful that we had recently worked on a project together, so we had grown to understand how each other works and that really helped the transition.”