An undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg, played here by Jesse Eisenberg in ‘The Social Network’, founded Facebook in his Harvard dorm room. It has become the start-up cliché, but there are thousands of successful entrepreneurs who turned their dreams into reality thanks to abundant (and free of charge!) support that universities provide.
Entrepreneurs have acquired rock-star status in recent years, not least among undergraduates vying to become the next Mark Zuckerberg. But despite all the hype around starting your own business, one fact remains: most new start-ups fail.
So armed only with a student loan which may barely cover registering a web domain once essentials like rent are met, is it really responsible for students to start up their own business? Shouldn’t they be concentrating on getting a good degree?
No. For anyone with a flicker of ambition to start a business at some point in their life, university is the perfect place to try your hand. Here’s why…
Fail early, fail fast
Failure in the UK is too often seen as a liability, as if it were somehow proof of your inability to run a successful business in the future. But failure, in fact, should be considered as valuable experience.
No one particularly likes to fail but it happens. Fail early and fail fast at university and you’ll have that safety cushion. The likelihood is that you won’t have children or a mortgage, and you can just get on with your degree or even your next start-up.
As Samuel Beckett famously said, “Try again, fail again, fail better.”
Support for young student entrepreneurs is abundant. If you’re currently at university, you’ll have a range of organisations to go to for help.
It’s likely your university will have its own enterprise society, as ours (The University of Aberdeen) has its Enterprise and Business Society. They host a range of events, talks and workshops throughout the year and joining a society is a perfect way of meeting like-minded people.
SIE (Scottish Institute for Enterprise), Enterprise Campus and Elevator run numerous events to help give young student entrepreneurs invaluable skills and networking opportunities. Contact them and you’ll be able to meet with enterprise advisors, who can assess your business idea and guide you through the process. It’s so, so important to reach out for help rather than struggle on your own.
Even if you think that you have it all figured out, things will come up that you never considered and without the right support, they may throw you off track. And how can you say no if all this support is offered free of charge for budding student entrepreneurs like you?
Once you have crystallised your idea and want to start working on making it happen, join a start-up incubator like ours. Nearly every city in the UK has an incubator, many of which are specialised in specific fields. Incubators often boast plenty of high-tech equipment, powerful working stations, in-house advisors, space to work collaboratively and, usually, fancy coffee machines.
If you want to find out more about joining ABVenture Zone, visit our website and get in touch!
Gap in the market
With an abundance of potential customers living right next door and friends with spare time to help, university offers the perfect environment for starting out in business.
And you can be up and trading in no time. As a student at your university, you’re best placed to understand your potential customers; you’ll know what is already good and what is lacking. Try to pick up signals from your friends when they talk about what they’d love to have at the university. Our occupants, Margaret and Rob, identified a lack of accessible information on events at the university, and will soon be launching UniTrix – an ‘all-in-one’ student app which addresses that gap in the market. Read more about their story here.
Try before you apply
Most graduates will automatically look for employment with a company immediately after graduation. This is entirely understandable, but a large proportion will dislike their jobs and begin to dream about starting their own business.
How can you know whether you’d prefer the trials and tribulations of a start-up if you’ve never tried?
It’s well-known that an undergraduate Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook in his Harvard dorm room. So who knows – just because the odds are stacked against you doesn’t mean you won’t create the next big thing.
You might remember Margaret Brinkley from a ‘What’s Your ABVenture?’ podcast we did with her a few months ago.
Back then, she was the co-founder of a company called Around Town, which was an app focusing on bringing events and deals to local students. Soon after that, her and Rob Kelly (another one of our brilliant ABVenture Zone occupants!), the co-founder of SEATS (a smart seating system app), merged together to start an exciting new venture – UniTrix.
We caught up with them for a chat in the Sherlock Room, overlooking the beautiful Aberdeen coast from the 8th floor of Macrobert. They tell us all about their entrepreneurial beginnings, working together, the launch of UniTrix and… Disney characters. Sit back, grab a coffee and read on to find out what they have in store!
Olaf Stando, ABVZ:So, tell us a bit about your business and how you started…
Margaret: Through a series of different events and circumstances, both of our former partners had to leave our original businesses, and we were both having a bit of a struggle going at it ourselves. So, we started chatting a few weeks ago and realised that there’s potential. We decided to combine forces. Rob had already changed the name from SEATS to UniTrix and we just thought, “we’ll still go with the flagship feature of events and deals, and then instead of trying to launch all the features at once, let’s launch them in phases”.
Right now, it’ll be events and deals but soon after, we’re hoping to launch a “student market” section, to buy and sell books, bikes and whatever students want to get rid of.
Did you both come from a similar background? Did you do similar courses at uni? Rob: Oh no, absolutely not! I have a biomedical science background and then went to do a research post at the Rowett Institute, all about nutrition and health. I then did a Masters in business with the idea of getting into the commercial side of pharmaceuticals, and during that, I co-founded SEATS. So no, I don’t have a business background.
Margaret: I always knew that I wanted to eventually be my own boss. I didn’t think it would be through entrepreneurship, I rather imagined that it’d be through the “traditional” career ladder approach.
What’s the best thing about being your own boss?
Margaret: I don’t like being told what to do! *laughs* No, it’s really more to do with the creative aspect and knowing that you work for something that you genuinely believe in. For me, that creative drive has always been important. My background is the complete opposite of Rob’s – I’ve been involved in theatre and the arts, and I came here to learn more about the business approach. It turned out really well and I just fell into entrepreneurship…
How did you develop your initial ideas – SEATS and Around Town? Was there any particular trigger which made you come up with them?
Rob: I was doing it as part of a university project, where we were asked to come up with an idea that used a mobile application. So we just came up with an idea of an app that would, using geolocation services, show you where the free space on campus is, which we thought could be quite handy. From there, we realised that there’s traction here and scope for a business. After two years, we got to the stage where we pitched the idea to the university but unfortunately things didn’t work out quite the way we planned. That being said, I still believe the idea is good so hopefully it’s something we’ll consider again – in conjunction with UniTrix.
Margaret: Around Town, in its original form, was actually also from a university course! It was just about coming up a new product or service targeted towards students. Four international students collaborated on it with the vision of being able to find places around the city in this easy, seamless manner. We wanted to promote local stuff and give users the “feel of Aberdeen”. Then, afterI finished my dissertation, I worked with Fiona McIntyre (the founder of Greyhope Bay and another ABVZ occupant) – seeing how she pushed through all these challenge and really seeing her vision come to life – really inspired me to get going and to aim for something big.
Is it important to be surrounded by people with like minds, and people that can inspire on a daily basis? One of the main functions of enterprise incubators is connecting fellow entrepreneurs. Or is it enough to go it alone, browse websites and read success stories?
Rob: Having that face-to-face interaction is definitely useful. I’ve learned a huge amount from just speaking to people, getting advice and contacts, and I think that networking is imperative – so yeah, it’s been good for me!
Margaret: It is nice to read case studies and see success stories, but it’s just a whole new world to come into a place full of entrepreneurs. Whether it’s just one or two others at a time, or whether the place is buzzing with 15 or more entrepreneurs, really gives you a lot of support which you miss if you were to just scroll through a computer screen.
So what do you think are the biggest barriers to entry into the world of entrepreneurship? So many people do courses in enterprise and management but only a minority start their own businesses…
Rob: I think it’s often the lack of awareness of what resources are out there. In the UK, we’re blessed with the amount of resources that exist, such as the space in which we’re sitting just now. But also, historically, we were always told to “go and get that job” and to focus on security, whereas entrepreneurship is always connected to risk. I’ve committed my last two years to this venture and not made a penny so far. That’s definitely a barrier and you need loads of patience to carry on.
But you also need an idea in the first place. It’s not a case of just sitting in your bedroom and fabricating an idea – they have to have traction and a vision to go forward.
Do you reckon that stumbles, like you had with SEATS, business partners leaving… do they make you stronger? Do they enable you to learn more?
Margaret: Oh absolutely, without a doubt! Stumbles and challenges are something that you’re going to face, whether you’re starting your own business or working for an established company. There’ll always be some roadblocks and what matters is how you handle them, pick yourself up, dust yourself off and get going.
Perseverance is so, so important. Is there anything particular that keeps you going? Maybe mindfulness, meditation, anything that helps with patience?
Rob: Certainly not yoga or anything like that! *laughs* I think you just have to keep in mind that failure is a very possible eventuality, so you always have to be very “real”. You always have to keep a fresh eye on your idea and consider whether there is traction and whether there is a future. Look, there may not be – and the earlier you recognise that, the better.
That being said, if you have a bit of negativity, you shouldn’t just assume that your business has no future – so it’s all about striking the right balance and staying realistic.
Positivity is so important though. You should surround yourself with people that provide a bit of that daily inspiration. If you isolate yourself, you might be in trouble. Speaking to people about your doubts and challenges really helps – I can’t stress that enough!
What’s been the biggest challenge so far and what have you learned from it?
Margaret: The biggest challenge is probably the development of the app itself. Basically, creating the whole thing that our business is going to rest on. We both have varied backgrounds but neither one of us has those technical skills. Again, I think it’s where the perseverance comes into play – we try to find the answers ourselves and explore our options.
Rob: Without having the technical background, we are basically just facilitators. We need to get all the right people, at the right places, at the right time. Very successful apps usually had co-founders with serious technical abilities, and they have been able to develop the apps without having to rely on someone else. App development is obviously a costly thing, so that’s another challenge.
Let’s now turn to talking about you as entrepreneurs. Ultimately, business is all about people and it’s always great to find out more about personalities and your stories. Entrepreneurship is people-powered so let’s find out about you as people. So, if you were to describe yourself in one adjective – what would it be?
Rob: Perfect. *bursts into laughter*
(I wish you could see Rob’s smug smile at that moment.)
Margaret: I like the idea of describing myself with a colour rather an adjective. Rob, how about you give me a colour and I’ll give you one?
Rob: Margaret would be green. It’s calm, peaceful…
Rob: I can guarantee you, I’m going to get red!
Margaret: Actually, I’d give you orange. It’s basically a variation of red, very strong but also like a constant – almost like a sunrise every day, always going to persevere and making sure that you have a sense of routine.
And if you were a Disney character for a day, who would you be?
Rob: Oh wow, my goodness…
Margaret: I’m trying to imagine Rob as a Disney character.
That’s an interesting pick. Simba seems to be full of courage and curiosity.
Rob: He’s in touch with his emotions too, which is pretty important.
Margaret: I’d like to think that I’d be Jiminy Cricket, from Pinocchio. I’m a little wise but small next to you – and he’s a total nerd. But more realistically, I’d probably be more like Olaf from Frozen. I just like to have fun and I think I’m a very happy person most of the time.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years’ time – both you and your business?
Margaret: Well, firstly I’d like to pay my bills without a problem. *laughs*
Rob: Realistically, in five years, I’d like to see this nationwide. This app would have lots of extra features at that point, obviously we’re launching this September but we hope to keep adding a whole range of features. Maybe we’ll operate in other countries in five years’ time – I hope the app really spreads like a wildfire.
Margaret: In two years’ time, we’ll have all the features developed and we want to be spread all across Scotland.
Inspiring, right? You may be reading this and wanting to start their own business. You may have these burning ideas in your head, or a couple of rough thoughts that you’d like to polish, but you’re just not sure where to start. Where should you go? Margaret and Rob share a few tips with you.
Margaret: Write it all down if you haven’t already, and really figure out what it is you want to do, how you want to do it and how you’d make money from it.
And if you’re a student – look at entrepreneur support organisations on campus. I can guarantee, you’ll almost always find some support and people waiting to help you. Chat to people and see their take on your idea. Tell them to be honest with you and to provide you genuine feedback, so you can use it to tweak a few bits and move forward.
Rob: Certainly in the UK there’s loads of support out there – that’s the comforting thing to know. But it’s so important to prepare for every advice session or meeting you may have, and be ready to answer challenging questions.
Make that first meeting worthwhile, so they can guide you in the right direction.
Margaret: People at incubators and accelerator programmes really want to see entrepreneurs succeed. So, any advice and criticism that they’re giving you, is coming from experienced sources – they see hundreds and hundreds of businesses a year, they see their ups and downs.
Last year, we launched Lightbulb – an initiative which is all about innovation and the process of developing an idea, rather than creating a mature business plan. It’s about taking the first steps towards entrepreneurship and getting into the entrepreneur’s frame of mind. It’s about identifying challenges or opportunities and searching for solutions. Next year, we’re making it bigger and better – hoping for bigger attendance and a more prominent venue on campus. Margaret, you were part of the pilot Lightbulb team this March – what did you think about it?
Margaret: I thought it was great! There were definitely a few ideas that I bought into more than others, but everybody who took part genuinely believed in their idea and often these ideas were generated on that very day. People were very happy to get advice and act on it. Myself and Chris Burnett, another part of the Lightbulb team, went around the room full of participants and talked to them about our business experience.
Would you say that it’s important to take out the barriers to entry into pitching competitions, and genuinely open up entrepreneurship to everyone?
Margaret: Absolutely! You are going to have that red tape in many instances, such as Enterprise Fellowships or Converge Challenge. It’s important to practice asking the right questions, asking for advice, and to not be afraid to take your ideas forward. After you’ve gained experience, these applications will basically write themselves.
Margaret and Rob, founders of UniTrix, are full of enthusiasm and passion for their business. Whilst unforeseen circumstances made them go into business together, they have a long-term vision and know what they want to achieve. UniTrix will be launching this September, just in time for Freshers’ Week, and the launch certainly isn’t something that you should miss.
It takes place on 4th-6th September 2017 on the King’s Pavillion playing fields, on King’s College campus of the University of Aberdeen.
You can expect a whole range of activities at the launch – there will be live music, a DJ set provided by Aberdeen Student Radio selectors (tbc!), as well as some games and activities to bring the student community together. There’ll hopefully be free haircuts as well!
Local businesses will be involved, the launch will be a fantastic opportunity to see what Aberdeen is made of, and most importantly, to find out more about UniTrix’s bright future!
Come to the launch and while we can’t promise an abundance of sunshine, fun times are guaranteed. Rob, Margaret and the ABVenture Zone team hope to see you there in September 🙂
Last week we took part in a very productive round-table discussion with Opportunity North East, the new economic development agency identifying market challenges, opportunities and driving growth in our region.
The North East economy undoubtedly faced many challenges in the past few years, particularly since the sharp decline in oil prices which lead to redundancies and diminished prospects for the industry. The price will continue to fluctuate, but is projected to fall even further in the decades to come.
However, there are also numerous opportunities arising from that. How do we get into the “renaissance mindset”? How to make the most out of the economy’s potential and diversify it for a sustainable future? We have an incredible amount of talent at the University of Aberdeen, but how do we make the most out of that talent and how do we encourage the top minds to stay in the region? We believe that many answers lie in promoting entrepreneurship and excelling in innovation.
Let’s look into the four “key” sectors of our region’s economy:
Oil and Gas Oil and gas are finite resources, but there is still a significant scope for exploration and innovation in the industry. The Oil and Gas Technology Centre opened in February this year and is “something that the industry has never seen before”. It’s high-tech focus enables Aberdeen-based companies to develop a technological edge over the competition, which will help sustain the industry for years to come.
There are also huge opportunities in diversification into renewables, as well as decommissioning. Aberdeen is trying to position itself at the forefront of that.
Food, drink and agriculture We have a really strong food & drink industry in the North East – in fact, our region accounts for 40% of Scotland’s agricultural output and nearly 60% of the fish output. Brewdog is just one example of an outstanding high-growth start-up in this sector.
Some of the main aims are to develop the market further and to internationalise it, in order to export the fine North-East produce onto the shelves across Britain and the continent. To do that, there has to be a stronger, more co-ordinated marketing strategy and more focus on products with ‘added value’ – artisan, premium products which place quality at their heart. The University’s Rowett Institute leads the way in nutritional research and is a renowned institution in the UK (they just opened their new building, too!).
At this point, there are only around thirty companies in the region which operate within the life sciences sector. However, they are all high-value companies with huge prospect for growth and high-skilled jobs.
The recent trend has been moving from the chemical era of treatment towards the biological. One of the pioneers in that regard is an ABVenture Zone occupant, James McIlroy. His start-up, EnteroBiotix, is an award-winning, patient-centred biotechnology company focused on using the body’s own microorganisms to prevent and treat debilitating infections and diseases.
While it takes years for companies like these to start generating profit, they are a very exciting feature of Aberdeen’s “new economy” and the aim is to attract more spin-outs and start-ups from University’s pool of talent.
It is also crucial to drive innovation and commercialisation opportunities within the universities, and our incubator certainly has a role to play in that. In fact, we’re excited to reveal that a new accelerator programme has been launched in order to stimulate students & researchers to work together and develop commercial products. Find out more about the ‘Pathfinder’ accelerator programme HERE. Another life sciences accelerator programme is OneStart – a fantastic opportunity to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and win funding as well as lab space.
Visit Aberdeenshire are the region’s main tourism board and agency and they have recently re-branded in order to increase the North East’s appeal. They say our region is “beyond words, but not beyond reach” and focus on the natural landscapes of our coastline, the Cairngorms and the Deeside castles. A new, more robust brand identity will hopefully evolve the North East as a tourist destination. There is also extra emphasis on the transport links: Aberdeen Airport is undergoing an expansion, with new airlines and routes launching later this year. There is still a lot of room for improvement in terms of land transport, and one suggestion was to introduce an integrated transport card, bringing together rail and bus travel in a fixed-price “day ticket” package.
We also talked about emphasising Aberdeen’s growing festival programme: events such as Spectra, LookAgain and Nuart have been extremely successful in the past few years and helped to boost the city’s art scene which has always been seen as neglected. The University’s May Fest is happening later this month and is hoping to attract record numbers. Find out more here.
Where does the future of Aberdeenshire tourism lie? The region should embrace the trend of “digital nomads”, tourism combined with work, and thus we need to expand high-speed digital infrastructure particularly in the most remote areas. Many people’s travel choices are influenced by social media, so we should build up a grassroots network of “Aberdeenshire ambassadors”, spreading the beauty of our region to the internet and to get people talking about tourism.
The North-East is already on the right track. Aberdeen has been named “the most entrepreneurial city in Scotland“, and we are thrilled that we can play our part in this by supporting start-ups and spin-outs.
This corner of Scotland has always been known as a very enterprising region, but can we be even more entrepreneurial? The answer is yes, absolutely, and it lies in reaching out to more people and emphasising the benefits of entrepreneurship. We can do even more to promote the “innovation mindset” within universities, and one example of that is our recent Lightbulb challenge.
We need to continue the conversation about entrepreneurship, and get beyond the “start-up bubble” by reaching out to high school students, undergraduates and people who may have never considered business before. The opportunities are exciting and it’s about channelling that excitement onto the wider population.
We will soon set up a cross-city group to consider city-wide entrepreneurship initiatives, more opportunities for commercialisation within universities and areas where we can work with the industry, so… watch this space!
Meanwhile, if you are a student, researcher or a recent University of Aberdeen graduate, why don’t you pop into our cutting-edge incubator space to have a look and meet some of our entrepreneurs? Have you thought about starting a business but not sure how to go about it? Does free office space and membership of a start-up community sound good to you? Get in touch to find out more:
‘What’s Your ABVenture?’ is our new series of podcasts in which we interview some of the most exciting start-ups in Aberdeen and discuss all things enterprise.
The fourth episode features Margaret Brinkley, the co-founder of Around Town (formerly known as MyTime) – a mobile app that synchronises, in a single space, students’ academic and social calendars. It will show a calendar of events tailored to each user’s interests, and the app will partner with universities as well as local businesses to create a truly comprehensive, but accessible and user-friendly time management system.
Keep up with Around Town on Twitter, they have some exciting developments in store.
They recently got through to the AccelerateHER competition semi-final, along with Greyhope Bay and RelocateGuru. That’s three ABVenture Zone occupants taking the AccelerateHER competition by storm – we wish them the best of luck!
Margaret talks about the beginnings of her business, finding her ‘scene’ and favourite spots in Aberdeen, entering competitions, and how her upbringing in rural Maryland shaped her entrepreneurial story.
“Enterprise is definitely a full-time job and not something that you can do half-heartedly, but if you believe that strongly in something, it doesn’t matter how hard it is. You do what you have to do in order to get where you want to be.
Figure out what your market is and why your product is unique – what makes it better than others. Find the resources around you, look up incubator spaces, look up competitions. Take advantage of the resources at your disposal; there’s a lot more out there than you may think.”
Get to know Margaret and Around Town by listening to this week’s podcast:
‘What’s Your ABVenture?’ is our new series of podcasts in which we interview some of the most exciting start-ups in Aberdeen and discuss all things enterprise.
The third episode features Dr Alabi Rotimi, who recently got a PhD in Geology at the University of Aberdeen, where he explored the innovation potential of microfluidics in the oil & gas industry. His innovative enterprise “permits the point of need measurement” by creating micro-scale mobile labs for chemical analysis. Alibi is literally developing an entire lab on a tiny glass chip.
Alabi talks about the beginnings of his business, the importance of surrounding yourself with the right network, seeking advice from the multitude of organisations such as ABVenture Zone or Elevator, and his success in the Scottish EDGE competition.
He even plays us his favourite track (it’s a song by Eminem) and talks about his usual after-work activities.
“It is crucial for a start-up with no funds to apply for some of these competitions; it’s a great way for making inroads. Some of these competitions come with the added package of business support, so you have access to brilliant minds in the industry.”
Get to know Alabi and RAB Microfluidics by listening to this week’s podcast:
The business model canvas — as opposed to the traditional, intricate business plan — helps budding businesses and established organisations alike. It allows you to conduct structured, tangible, and strategic conversations around new businesses or existing ones. Leading global companies like GE, Nestlé or Lego use the canvas to manage strategy or create new growth engines, while start-ups use it in their search for the right business model.
In fact, some insiders point out to the canvas as the key to Lego’s great turnaround story. Facing bankruptcy a few years ago, the company had to reinvent themselves and re-position their brand. The canvas allowed them to smartly map out the key challenges and helped come up with direct solutions, such as streamlining the manufacturing process and adapting the kits to the modern times.
The canvas’s main objective is to help companies move beyond product-centric thinking and towards business model thinking.
It is also increasingly popular in competitions, such as the upcoming 2017 Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards. (Keep an eye out on this blog to find out more soon!)
In summary, the canvas is incredibly useful because it lets you look at all nine building blocks of your business on one page. Here’s a sleek little video explaining it in more detail:
Our friends over at Elevator have just launched the applications for this year’s Elevator Challenge, which will take place between the 16th and the 18th of June. This weekend residential will test your team building and leadership skills and developed through participation in physical and mental activities. You’ll be tasked with problem-solving and idea development – using your communication skills and initiative to motivate yourself and team members through demanding and unfamiliar situations.
The aim is to get out of your comfort zone – as you often will be in business.
Setting up and developing a start-up often involves hurdles which you’ve never jumped before. It is, in a way, a leap into the unknown and comfort-zone-stretching can certainly help you build confidence and resilience.
What’s more, this residential is completely FREE to participate in. It is funded entirely by Elevator, including transport from Aberdeen to the outdoor centre in Aberfoyle, Trossachs.
Are you ready for a weekend of raft-building, abseiling, orienteering and pushing your boundaries in a friendly, supportive environment of like-minded individuals? Are you looking forward to the extensive programme of pitching workshops and mentoring sessions to develop your business skills and ideas?
If so, don’t delay and give the Elevator Challenge a go. Apply HERE now.