Being your own boss before you graduate

Rachel Ringstead and Becky Mitchell talk to York’s student entrepreneurs who share their tricks of the trade and reveal how to go it alone in the cut-throat world of business.

The idea of being a student can often conjure up the image of three years spent boozing, cramming for exams and spiralling into enough debt to rival a small African country. For most people at university the biggest challenge in life is simply to get a 2:1.

The closest many of us get to entering the world of work before we graduate is a nightshift at JJ’s, or for those really ambitious young hopefuls, an internship at some swanky bank in London. And why not? University is often heralded as the one time in life when you are protected from the pressures of the real world and ‘real work’. To simply have the motivation and organisation to juggle a part-time job while at university, however soul-crushing and menial it might seem, is not only impressive but really quite admirable.

Yet, a surprising number of students across the country are going one step further. Not content to be someone else’s minion, many students are creating their own businesses and becoming their own boss before they even finish their degrees.

A recent study published by the London School of Economics illustrates this trend. The numbers of young people starting their own businesses while at university has risen from 0.9 per cent in 2003 to 2.3 per cent in 2004. Whilst initially this may not seem the most overpowering of statistics (if statistics ever are), it does show a sustained increase in entrepreneurial activity among students. Such figures support further evidence to show that the UK’s entrepreneurial culture is developing most among young people. But how representative is this of York?

Being one of the smaller universities, it would be easy to assume that all these budding Richard Branson’s would flock to business schools. Yet on closer inspection the University of York does have a surprising array of student business talent.

We interviewed a cross-section of students juggling their degrees alongside running a business venture. The most noticeable feature of York’s entrepreneurial activity was simply its sheer diversity. There was Johnny Fianu, a second year Economics student, who is steadily taking over the world from his Hull Road residence by running three web companies. In stark contrast Becks Lyle, a second year History of Art student who set up her own fashion label ‘Beguile’ and has since lived in a world strewn with buttons, sequins and ribbon. We also met a first-year partnership, James Carter and Rory Shank, who formed Grinning Records, a record company that helps to develop school bands across the country. Finally one of the most intriguing cases was Nick Grayson and his team at the University’s Computer Recycling Project, who gallantly provide the community with free computers that they reassemble from scrap.

Nowadays, many of the barriers which had previously prevented students from starting their own businesses are gradually being broken down

One of the most striking things about this collection of people was their surprisingly different attitudes towards money and motivation. Whilst business minded Johnny seemed particularly financially driven, Becks was happy to be paid in wine. Furthermore, although the Computer Recycling Project turns over three to four thousand pounds per annum, this is all donated to York RAG. James and Rory on the other ed to York RAG. James and Rory on the other hand are excited at the prospect of finally making a profit this summer, although they do admit they are not in it for the money, describing their venture more as a “hobby”.

So what makes all of these people tick? Why would any student give themselves any more work than was really necessary? For Becks it is easy, she wouldn’t have it any other way. As she wryly confesses, “I will often emerge from my room after passing a day spent with my sewing machine, with thread in my hair and paint all over my face. But I don’t care, I love it.” In Johnny’s case he is passionate about business and it seems to be the thrill of the chase that drives him most. His business minded brain was first displayed as a child when he started selling drinks on a stall in Zimbabwe. Since then he has created and dissolved several companies and is currently operating three simultaneously. But this doesn’t phase him; “Many of my Internet companies fail, but the more companies that I start, the higher the probability that one of them will succeed.”

In James and Rory’s case their business was inspired by a niche that they identified in the market. Frustrated at the lack of opportunity for youth music they established Grinning Records while they were at school together in Lincolnshire. Together they created the only record company in the country, which caters specifically for school bands, assisting this previously neglected and unsupported area of young talent. “These people have bags of enthusiasm but no real business acumen about how to develop image and get themselves out there. We’re not out to turn people into superstars but what we can offer is crucial help in developing young bands.” Their idea has certainly been a hit and they are currently marketing bands from over 250 schools across the country.

A gap in the market was also identified seven years ago by York University students, who recognised the potential value in seemingly useless, broken or outdated campus computers, which were merely being thrown out and replaced by newer models. To them this seemed like such a waste. There were so many people in the community who could not afford new computers, yet there were perfectly serviceable computers on campus that were quite literally being dumped. With the help of the SU a team of dedicated volunteers with the skills to repair and update these dilapidated resources was enlisted to restore the computers that the University was simply discarding. Seven years on the Computer Recycling Project has really taken off. Last term alone they raised £1,000 for charity and donated 38 computers to RAG. Alongside this, the project also loans and sells recycled computers to students at a low cost.

However despite such examples of students who have taken the plunge and started a business, there remains a large body of young people who are discouraged from taking their entrepreneurial ideas further. One of the main deterrents is the fear that their youth will go against them. Indeed as Johnny says, “I see my age as my only real hindrance”.

However, nowadays many of the barriers which previously prevented students from starting their own businesses are gradually being broken down. The internet has been instrumental to this process. Johnny, James and Rory all agree that running their business through websites has greatly increased their chances of success. As Johnny has found, “If my clients were to find out that I was a student they might lose confidence in me. The internet means that I don’t have this disadvantage, it provides a layer of anonymity.”

To James and Rory the internet is crucial to the way that they operate their business. They admit that, “there is no real need for us to meet the bands, we do most of our work via email. Furthermore it is easy to create an image over the internet, as our business is essentially a virtual business.” The internet also saves greatly on time and can reduce overheads, two of the main reasons why businesses often fail.

However if like Becks students decide not to run their business over the Internet, being young doesn’t have to be a drawback. Through targeting a younger market audience, students can actually use their youth to their advantage. For example the vivacity of Becks’s fresh, kitsch style, generated partly by her age, really appeals to people at a similar stage in life. This is also the case for James and Rory, who believe that their clients respond well to their youth. “Our age allows our clients to trust us, they see as being on their side and the tone of our advertising reflects this,” Grinning Record’s mission statement is “We take school bands and make em’ cool.” Such a slogan clearly wouldn’t appeal to bands that have been on the music scene for a while.

it’s nice to be able to put that I’ve launched my own independent fashion label on my CV
~Becks Lyle

However, one of the main factors which turns students off from starting their own companies, aside from their youth and inexperience, is money. Indeed in many cases funding can be one of the main obstacles deterring students from realising their entrepreneurial dreams. Yet Johnny waves this aside as a myth; “Most people see money as the big issue – but it is much less of a problem than people think”.

Yet clearly the nature of your idea will dictate the funding required. If your business plan involves rescuing MG Rover or producing a better version of Concorde, then obviously a bit more financial aid will be required (preferably from a benefactor like Bill Gates). However if you start small and operate via the web business start up costs are much lower.

Although James and Rory admit that they can’t work at a loss, they did not really dwell on money when they spoke to us. Initial investment was provided from personal funds and support from family and friends, which they hope to recoup in the summer.

So if funding and age aren’t a problem, what are the key ingredients for running a successful student enterprise? Above all having a good idea is paramount. Yet the next stages of developing this idea into something concrete and successful will undoubtedly determine whether or not the business has a real future.

Johnny cannot stress the importance of networking enough (in fact we suspect in the interview that he might actually be trying to network with us). Over the years Johnny has developed global links, establishing a supplier base in Asia, particularly in Singapore’s lectronics industry. It doesn’t have to be this scary though. Global contacts are not the be all and end all and sometimes the most helpful people can be those close to home. Indeed James, Rory and Becks rely more on networks of friends, family and word of mouth.

Furthermore since the Computer Recycling Project has been in operation it has gradually expanded from its campus base and developed links within the community, especially with local businesses and charities. This network is also crucial to forging a good reputation – a very important thing, for as Bill Gates once said “reputation is crucial to dictating a companies success”. James and Rory are keen to stress that they are not just a two-man band. They recognise the areas where their skills are lacking and bring expert help in to tackle those problem areas. As they have found it is important not to neglect nitty-gritty essential skills which can make or break your business. If you don’t know how to balance your books – learn. If you can’t design your own website recruit someone to help you (preferably for free). It’s about ticking all of the boxes, because if you are going to be successful you have to pay attention to detail, while keeping the bigger picture in sight.

As every successful entrepreneur will tell you, starting your own business can be very problematic but also extremely rewarding. At the end of the day it is down to your perseverance, sheer drive and overriding faith in yourself and your idea that will prevent you from giving up and calling it a day. It would have been easy for Johnny to lose faith the first time one of his companies failed, but instead he views failure objectively, seeing it merely as an occupational hazard of business. As Johnny says, “a successful company requires a lot of time and drive and failing is an opportunity to learn”.

Furthermore there may be occasions where you will have to adapt your idea, however painful it might feel. Inevitably there will also be times when it will seem like your venture is taking over your life. Becks could probably relate to this when she spent seemingly endless hours customising over a hundred T-Shirts for the Fusion fashion show last March, which lead to her room beginning to resemble a small sweat shop.

As she states, her business can sometimes be “Everything that I do other than my degree”. Yet it is her passion and creative flair that keeps her going when others might have stopped trying. For many people the prospect of starting their own business and shouldering the risks and sacrifices that this involves is simply not worth it, being tantamount to a living realisation of their worse nightmare. In reality, entrepreneurs are an extremely rare breed and it is true to say that to become one you have to have something of an X-Factor spirit that cannot be bottled – it has to come naturally.

Behind this determination will be different sources of motivation, whether that be the pure thrill of taking business risks, as in Johnny’s case, or for Becks, the essential love of what she does, or even for James and Rory and the volunteers of the Computer Recylcing Project, who are spurred on by their social ideals. However what these different people do have in common is the inability to fit into a specified box.

But remember, for every maverick whose worst nightmare is to be merely a cog in the KPMG or PWC or PG machine, starting your own business, however risky and time consuming, can be the most satisfying, fulfilling and ultimately exhilarating adventure of your life.

Setting up on the net

On first impressions, Johnny seems like your average twenty something, but when the conversation turns to business his whole tone and persona transforms. We are impressed by his professionalism and sheer business acumen.

When we first meet him, he is sporting his latest gadget, the smallest MP3 player in the world that has been specially customised to his personal specification by his “agent supply contacts” in Singapore. “I hope that this can compete with the IPOD shuffle, we should be able to sell it at a much lower cost”. Johnny isn’t all talk. He shows us the prototype, which true to his word really is tiny. But even though the product looks perfect to us, this isn’t good enough for Johnny. “I’m about to get back to them to instruct the features that I want changing.”

Never one to do things by halves Johnny now has three companies on the go, which sell products and services over the Internet for a global audience. His main venture at the moment is Celus, which is run through his parent company Mengduo.

Johnny flippantly tells us that one day the thought came to him ‘that it was a shame that you couldn’t buy ready made businesses over the Internet.’ Instead of waving this thought aside Johnny has made this a reality through his business Celus.

Johnny hopes to continue with his companies after university and after having lunch with him we can’t help but think that that we might be hearing of him in the future.

To find out more visit

Computer recycling

One of the first things that you are struck by when you enter the Computer Recycling Project’s office in Grimston House is the utter shortage of space. One cannot help but wonder how a student business that specialises in the restoration of old computers, with a growing team of dedicated volunteers, can function so successfully in an area the size of a broom cupboard. But they do it and they do it very well. On average the company makes £100 a week, which is really quite impressive considering they are only open on Wednesday afternoons. Last term was particularly successful and they raised £1,000 for RAG.

OK, so we don’t make any profits, but at least the business is sound
~Nick Grayson

In fact the business is expanding all the time, but being a charity this is problematic. “We would like to expand into York but even in conjunction with other community groups the cost of renting warehouses etc. is very expensive and in previous discussions with possible partners it generally comes down to the lack of space or money or both.”

With regards to money it is a purely voluntary organisation. As Nick says, “OK so we don’t make any profits, we are far too nice, but the business is sound. We can charge for picking up computers from businesses, of which there seems to be an endless supply, and then sell the items that we pick up, again of which again there is plenty of demand for.”

The volunteers are not afraid to get their hands dirty, they will take anything and everything that they can and gut it. Just from our experience this seems to be a very dusty job.

However someone has to do just and for the volunteers the technical and business skills that they are using and developing will be invaluable in later life.

The Computer Recycling Project is open from 2-6pm on Wednesday afternoons in Grimstone House.

Visit its website at

Grinning Records

James and Rory have always had a passion for music, indeed Rory has played in bands before. They met at school and shared a concern for the lack of support for school bands, so they established “Grinning Records as a company aiming to promote youth music and guide young bands in the right direction so that their efforts are not wasted”.

They explain, “These people have so much enthusiasm and it can be wasted so often. There is a lot of negativity associated with young people who are interested in music, but the question to ask is what else would they be doing, if they weren’t doing this? We want to channel their energy effectively”.

The service that Grinning Records offers is two fold: first it creates a website for the band and a CD and sometimes even merchandise. The company then takes a cut of the merchandise and CD sales, which is about 40-50 per cent. They sometimes go one step further through running events, where they aim to get ‘good music to local towns and cities across the United Kingdom. We help young bands all over the country gig in front of a reasonable audience, whilst also providing the youth of that town with a decent event’.

In many ways Grinning Records acts as a feeder record company which James and Rory admit. “Ninety per cent of the bands cannot make it commercially because the genre that they are operating in just isn’t tailored for that market. However not many of these bands really want to make it commercial anyway. They just want to get gigs, at least at this stage.”

As a partnership they provide an interesting insight into a joint entrepreneurial venture. Their advice is simple, “you have to work with people that you trust, who have useful and different skills from you”. Rory admits that although he is the music mistro behind the business and could possibly run it as a sole trader he needs James’ calming pragmatism to curb his wild enthusiasm to take on too much.

Asked about plans for the future both can see the scope to expand the business, but recognise the obstacles involved. “We don’t have the resources and as we are all in full time education, neither us nor our clients really have the time to be able to be able to do that.” However Grinning Records hopes to run some new events this summer.

For more information visit the website

Creating fashion

When you first meet Becks, you can tell that she is into fashion. She started making bags around the age of 16, which she gave to family and friends. Since then she has expanded into all things creative. Making clothes, jewellery and hand crafted cards “basically lots of things for friends birthdays”.

She describes her original style as “very girly, glitterly, sparkly and even a bit OTT”. You can’t help thinking that Becks could be talking about herself. Her vibrant and bubbly personality is reflected in the pieces that she creates.

Indeed her passion sometimes overtakes her and she freely admits that she doesn’t always run her business in the most economical way. “Sometimes I will go to Duttons and just get really carried away buying ribbon and sequins. But at the end of the day I know that I will always use the things that I buy”.

Yet even if she was offered money, knowing Becks she wouldn’t feel happy taking it. “We are all students and I don’t feel comfortable accepting money from people for doing something that I enjoy anyway. The compromise is being paid in alcohol. If someone gives me a bottle of wine in exchange for one of my bags etc. I see it as covering my costs. It saves on awkwardness, as well as the money I would otherwise inevitably spend on drink.’

Beck’s biggest statement at York so far has been at Fusion where she customised over a hundred T-Shirts for the models and committee at Fusion. On top of this she has recently showcased fashions at the three-day “Guilty Pleasures”, a student fashion show which was held in Leeds. Although Becks is unsure whether or not she will carry on with her enterprise in the future as she has no hard qualifications, you can’t help thinking that she won’t let her creative flair die. And anyway as she explains, “it’s nice to be able to put ‘launched my own fashion label’, on my CV.”

For more information on Beck’s products email her at [email protected]

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