Bright, Young People: Today’s students, Tomorrow’s CEOs

Student noun: A lazy, slovenly person who is aged between 18 and 25 and is often unemployed. The sloth-like, bed-ridden student spends more time in his/her underwear than in his/her lectures.

You will undoubtedly have heard students being described like this before. So, at Impact, we decided to challenge this perception by introducing you to some of the most successful, up-and-coming businesses that have been started by former students at this university. Now, more than ever, in a time when 1 in 5 recent graduates are unemployed, it is important to look to such pioneers for advice and reassurance. Fortunately, we live right next to some of the UK’s finest young entrepreneurs. In 2008, the University of Nottingham became the ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ and according to the National Council for Graduate Entrepreneurship, the body that awarded the title, our institution offers “one of the largest and most highly developed entrepreneurs programmes in Europe.” Furthermore, in the last ten years, Nottingham has come first in four of the Students in Free Enterprise national awards, making it one of the most globally successful SIFE teams to date. Finally, Nottingham Entrepreneurs, a university society for student entrepreneurs, was this year a finalist in the competition to win the National Entrepreneurs Educators Award. Unsurprisingly then, our investigation has unearthed many striking success stories.

Our first stop was the Nottingham EnterpriseLab. The organisation is based in Jubilee Campus’ most appropriately futuristic abode, the Sir Colin Campbell building. There, staff attempt to seek out and help undergraduates and graduates who intend to set up their own businesses during or after their time at university. The organisation offers advice and premises for those of us who dare to ask.

The location is perhaps one of its best assets according to Flairmonkey’s co-founder, Chris Davies: “It’s brilliant because you get some sort of address…Sir Collin Campbell, Nottingham Innovation Park, is much better than 113 Lenton Boulevard.” In 2009, Chris set up Flairmonkey Sportswear with fellow sportsman, Brad Legrand. They ventured into the industry with one simple goal: make better university sportswear that is “always outrageous” and “never outdone”. “Our first reaction on receiving our rubbish university sportswear…was not a good one. Since then we have vowed to change the face of university sportswear for the better!” Flairmonkey now provides kit to over 150 different sports teams around the country.

Asked whether his degree helped him, he hints that the EnterpriseLab was more influential: “I did a management course, so I suppose it’s kind of related, but I would suggest… it doesn’t really matter what degree you do. You can get involved here with anything and these guys will help you as much as they can.”

He has enormous energy but can’t imagine working with the same business in ten years time. “I think we’ll be on a very different project, put it that way.” Not content with staying with a company simply because it has been successful, he says: “This one’s been brilliant!” But he sees himself “doing a lot of various businesses”. It is clear from his answers that we are in the presence of a dynamic, risk-taking individual, willing to move onwards and upwards whenever the opportunities present themselves. He is happy to advise others on their prospective ideas too. “The best thing about being here is that there are lots of other people who do try things and I spend half my time talking to them about various ideas that they’re doing, we’re doing, and it’s just a good collaborative environment.” Just as he is happy to advise others, he is also looking to employ students from this university. “I asked those guys [at Unitemps] and they sorted me out a couple of interviews. People came down and we…chose Katie. She’s been great actually. Really, really helpful.”

Flairmonkey isn’t the only company that is willing to employ students from Nottingham. Adam Bird, another Nottingham graduate, established Esendex in 2002. The company facilitates the sending of vast numbers of business SMSs. Last year, they turned over £7 million. He firmly believes in the potential of Nottingham as a hotbed for new businesses, especially for those involved in the technology industry. “I believe Nottingham has all the ingredients to become a creative and tech power house.” He talks passionately about what he terms “retention” — this is the capacity Nottingham has to retain graduates from this university. At the moment, he is concerned that too many bright and creative former students are leaving Nottingham to move south or to a larger city, simply because they do not feel that there are any opportunities here. However, he very much is convinced that there are. In fact, he is so sure of this that he has established a company that finds a number of students from this university for local employers. “The creative tech scenes, the events we are running, the jobs available make people think I can have a life here, I can affect change on the world from this environment.” That there are so many local business people enthusiastic to employ recent graduates is a breath of fresh air in a media storm that seems poised to convince even the most impressive students that they are doomed to failure, unemployment and being unfulfilled.

Another graduate who has recently embraced Nottingham’s tech scene is James Bryant. He is the co-founder of Skeleton Productions, a promotional film production company. He started the business because “more and more kinds of brands were using video content.” “With broadband speeds increasing, and all the kind of web platforms developing” he believes that this will become the case “more and more” as time moves on.

The business’ first three customers were the University of Nottingham, Sport England and Cambridge University. “Those three kinds of brands…they’re pretty big”, James notes.

James became involved with the EnterpriseLab while in his third year at Nottingham. “I started going to some of their events and learnt that starting a business was actually an option.” His company is now positioned in the Sir Colin Campbell Building along with Flairmonkey. He claims that this put them in an excellent position to employ students from Nottingham and Trent. “We are very lucky to have two amazing universities on our doorstep. We’d be silly not to employ people from the university. They’re clearly very intelligent people. They are great to work with, so that’s what we do.” Unlike Chris Davies from Flairmonkey, James Bryant intends to keep pushing Skeleton Productions over the next ten years. “We’re doing bigger and bigger projects these days whether that be…viral videos or I suspect we’ll make it into TV ads at some point. For us, it’s all about growing the company as much as we can.” James is clearly excited about the future, but also realistic about the demands he will incur. “It’s a challenge to grow a company but it gets a lot of fun and I think that’s one of our most important values.” The company is a testimony to how university can bring together different people with compatible strengths, allowing them to set up a business that is not only profitable but that is also really enjoyable. “[Jonathon English (co-founder)] studied at the Business School. We met in our final year at uni and got talking at a networking event and decided to work together.”

During your time here at Nottingham, you most likely will or might have already become acquainted with eatstudent.co.uk, but what you might not have known is that it was started up by students. It was established by two first years at our university over “a cold breakfast pizza” in 2006. For those of you who haven’t used it, the site acts as an online medium for a number of local fast food companies. You log on, chose your food and ask for it to be delivered to you. It works because it is easy to use. It does away with the Bible of menus that will have been, or will be, shoved under your door in year one. According to Josh Magidson, who co-founded the service: “Our idea was to have an easily accessible archive of menus from the best local takeaways, specifically for fellow students.” Today, it operates in Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, and Warwick. The website sums up exactly what good products are capable of: the best ones provide a free service, make life a little easier, while bringing in enough money to grow fast. Although, they are now based in Hertfordshire, their success was initiated in Nottingham itself, just like every other business cited here.

Million Dollar Homepage is perhaps one of the best examples not just nationally, but globally, of a single person with a brilliant idea making an outstanding sum of money very quickly. The website was set up in 2005 by Alex Tew, a first year Business Management student at our university. The logic behind it was supremely simple: sell a million pixels of advertising space for a dollar each. Alex wanted to raise enough money to support his time at university, whilst admitting in 2006 on his blog: “I thought, if I aim high (eg. one million dollars) and only get a small percentage (eg. 1 or 2%) of that figure, that would still help me out a great deal.” He was right to aim high. The site became instantly popular with large and small businesses alike; The Times and Yahoo! both invested. After months of work, the project was nearly brought down by hackers who deactivated the website, demanding US$50,000. The FBI intervened and the site went back online. Alex responded: “Crime does not pay. Creativity does.” A week before this, the last 1000 pixels had been sold on eBay to a weight loss website for US$38,100. In less than a year, Alex Tew made a gross profit of $1,038,100.

The young entrepreneur has given many tips to others looking to forge a similar career path. His encouragement sits strangely in cyberspace. His words reflect a lifetime of work and experience, which is striking, considering that they were written by a 21 year old. On 22nd February 2006, he gave a talk to prospective young entrepreneurs on the Financial Times’ website. As a sort of personal philosophy, Alex commented: “Young people can be successful — it just requires a mixture of hard work, creativity, and possibly above all, persistence.” Ironically, Alex did not return to Nottingham as a student. He now works in San Francisco as a product manager for Monkey Inferno Inc., an incubator for growing web businesses.

According to Dan Edge, the co-ordinator at the EnterpriseLab, Alex was so successful because he could envisage his path to completion. “He did consider how on earth he was going to promote this. He got excellent PR, as you know, because he was on BBC, he was on ABC in the states; he was all over the place.”

There is a consistent message that shouts out to me as I consider the answers given by those identified in this article and that is this: there has never been a better time to start a business than right now, while we are still students. We are not held down by mortgages, families and dependents. We are all propped up by the government, housed, educated and given the opportunity to meet friends and potential co-workers who we can start up businesses with. Everyone we spoke to asserts the importance of the present; just how valuable being young, independent and free to fail or succeed is. Chris Davies from Flairmonkey pertinently argued: “Look, what can you do? What do you think you want to do here? Because it’s just the safest environment. You have something else going on. You’re not risking your house. You’re not risking anything. You’ve got no one to worry about. Say, it fails. What have you learned? A lot. If it does fail, it doesn’t matter.”

This investigation has unearthed the wealth of business opportunities that are available to people of our age. Now, the only question left to ask is this: who’s next?

Oscar Williams 

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