Interested in starting a business? The best place to begin is your own university – it may provide input and facilities for free that you’d have had to pay for elsewhere, even if you’ve already graduated. However, there are also plenty of non-university-based options you could look at if you live too far from your old university or you come across something that’s a great fit with your aspirations.
If you’re just starting to explore entrepreneurship...
Curious about entrepreneurship but don’t yet have a business you’re actively trying to build? There are plenty of ways you can dip a toe in the water rather than having to plunge in at the deep end.
Your university is likely to have an enterprise hub that runs extracurricular activities for students and graduates interested in entrepreneurship and signposts them towards further sources of support and knowledge. For example, at the University of Oxford, the Oxford Foundry is open to all Oxford students and offers workshops, talks and events to develop their skills in areas such as problem solving and teamwork, get them thinking about key developments affecting the business world such as AI and blockchain, provide inspiration from successful entrepreneurs and give the chance to meet likeminded students. These are offered alongside facilities for students who are starting to get more serious about entrepreneurship, such as shared working spaces and an accelerator programme (see below) that students can apply to join. University enterprise hubs come under different names and in some cases are part of the careers service.
It’s very likely that your university will also have an entrepreneurship society run by students and offering a similar programme of talks, competitions, workshops and other activities. For example, UCL Entrepreneurs has organised talks by speakers from the likes of mobile bank Monzo and AI company DeepMind and a two-day business game challenge, as well as providing support for students who’re further along the path of launching their own business.
Your university may offer an entrepreneurship module that you can take as part of your degree. Details vary – some are more theoretical; others focus on developing your own business idea. Some entrepreneurship modules are open to students on any degree course; in other cases you need to be studying a relevant subject such as business or management.
If you’ve got a business idea you’re considering taking forward
Have an idea you’re tempted to turn into a business? There’s support to help you assess whether your idea is a good one to take forward and, if so, plan you first steps.
Investigate whether your university has an incubator unit or pre-accelerator, which may exist as a separate entity, form part of an enterprise hub or be combined with an accelerator unit (see below). These help students and graduates to assess how viable their idea is as a business and put together a business plan, potentially via a formal programme over a fixed time period. For example, various UK universities, including Strathclyde and Warwick, work in partnership with the Royal Bank of Scotland /NatWest to provide a pre-accelerator programme that helps students to test the viability of their business ideas – it’s delivered largely online but with a couple of face-to-face events too.
At the University of Oxford, the Startup Incubator provides a programme of advice and mentoring to help students and graduates test their ideas. Cath Spence, incubator lead at Oxford University Innovation, explains: ‘People come to us with an early stage idea; we offer a load of really specific training around how to validate that idea. We give them a three-month timeframe to work through their ideas – we get them to talk to potential customers and we make them connections so they can assess whether or not their idea has merit.’ You need to apply for a place, but you don’t have to have done lots of work on your business before you do so. Cath continues: ‘We will take people at what I describe as the “back of a dirty envelope stage”. If they can describe what it is they think they’re going to do in a relatively succinct way, that’s enough. It doesn’t have to be fully formed – in fact, I’d rather it wasn’t fully formed because then I can help them work through the validation before they waste too much time.’
Meanwhile support at the SETSquared Partnership incubators at the universities of Bath, Bristol, Exeter, Southampton and Surrey (which focus on tech-based businesses) includes a two-day Digital Entrepreneurs Programme that includes identifying a market opportunity and developing a pitch deck and business plan.
If you’ve got a fully formed plan and are now looking for funding…
You don’t have to look for external funding for your business, but there is help available if you choose to do so.
Accelerator units are designed to help start-up businesses to grow. Some are run by universities or public sector organisations, others by investors on the lookout for promising new businesses to invest in. Accelerator units help start-ups get their hands on money to fund the initial stages of business development, sometimes in the form of grants but most often in the form of seed funding – depending on who runs the accelerator unit, this could be directly from the investors in charge or by helping put entrepreneurs in touch with investors.
Accelerator units also often offer a number of the same forms of support as incubator units, such as training and mentoring. The lines between the two can be quite blurry and in some cases one unit will have both incubator and accelerator functions. For example, the University of Oxford Startup Incubator allows successful students and graduates to progress on to an accelerator phase (although entry is competitive), while the SETSquared Partnership incubators provide accelerator programme as well as the earlier-stage support outlined above.
Also look out for competitions and awards for entrepreneurs – there are a number that offer cash prizes that you put towards your business, plus advice and support. Some run at a national level – for example the Shell liveWIRE Smarter Future Award is held monthly and gives £5,000 in funding to 16–30 year old entrepreneurs starting businesses that offer solutions to the challenges of a growing global population. Meanwhile the Santander Universities Entrepreneurship Awards are run in collaboration with partner universities and offer funding via an annual round of awards – in 2019 there’s £90,000 of prize money to be split between multiple start-ups. Your university may also have some modest funding of its own to offer – for example, the University of Oxford Try It awards offer prizes of up to £500 for social enterprise projects.
If you need affordable office space and shared facilities as your business gets going
As your business gets going, you may find that it’s useful to have office space that isn’t just your bedroom, or access to meeting spaces that are more private or reliable than trying to bag a decent table at your local coffee shop. Depending on the nature of your business, it might even help to be able to share facilities like a laboratory or a 3D printer.
A number of organisations allow you to share facilities and office space. If you’re still at university (or live near your old one), the university enterprise hub, incubator unit or accelerator unit may offer working space and at least basic facilities such as printers. Some science or tech-focused units will also have more specialist offerings. There are also a number of similar organisations outside of universities that do likewise (for example, supported by the local authority or run privately). You may be able to access shared working space for free, but in many cases you will need to pay.