Starting a business on your year abroad
The year abroad is such a great time for students to think about starting a business, though unfortunately far too few are aware of entrepreneurship as a career option before they find their graduate job and can’t turn back.
I started this company on my year abroad, and it turns out to have been the best decision I’ve made. Although running your own business is a daunting prospect, especially as a humanist with no business experience, there are extensive resources out there to support young people with startup companies, especially your own university’s entrepreneurial society, and if you do it thriftily (in terms of time and money) you have nothing to lose. The experience and transferable skills you will learn will help you endlessly in your future career, whether you are self-employed, in a job interview trying to ‘describe a situation in which you lead a team’, or being creative within a large organisation.
I’m helping out with the Higher Education Academy’s project “Embedding enterprise education into the Languages curriculum” at Manchester University later this month, and at NUS Scotland's Global Graduates: Global Business conference in Edinburgh, so I thought it was a good opportunity to write down some observations and advice based on my experiences.
10 reasons why your year abroad is a particularly good time to think about starting a business
1. You are abroad for up to 15 months and will encounter a huge variety of problems, some of which you might be in the perfect position to solve yourself.
2. As a 19-24 year old student who is well-travelled, speaks a foreign language, has had 2 or 3 years of Higher Education, has worked in an international team and has developed independence, self-confidence, determination, enthusiasm and resilience through living abroad, you are already showing key entrepreneurial characteristics.
3. You are immersed in a foreign culture, surrounded by new products and services which you can’t get back home (think about importing to the UK).
4. You wish you had the products and services that you CAN get back home (think about exporting from the UK or starting a business abroad).
5. You have maintenance and tuition fee loans, an Erasmus grant and/or salary, and no dependents – this is a time in your life during which you can take big calculated risks.
6. You understand the internet, you appreciate the value of businesses having an online presence, and you are familiar with social media marketing – these things are a serious advantage!
7. You are abroad for long enough that you understand the language and culture – this gives you a significant advantage over potential – or existing - competitors.
8. You have free time during evenings and weekends (and maybe even weekdays!) to do market research, use online resources, make notes, scribble ideas on napkins, take a business class, buy domain names, make prototypes, take photographs, conduct online surveys, find out about funding, enter competitions and read inspiring books.
9. You can get the support of friends and family for your fledgling startup – they will help you, spread the word about what you’re doing, and might even come on board (if you bring a business partner onto the team, make sure they have all the skills you are lacking. If you’re a bold, outspoken, creative ideas person, you need someone thoughtful who pays close attention to detail and gets things done). You might even be able to get some investment from ‘friends, family and fools’!
10. It’s really, really, really fun! If you do it sooner rather than later it will affect more of your life!
5 Top Tips
1. Work out your business model
If you want to be taken seriously then you need a better answer to “yes, but how do you make money?” than “advertising”. Find out about taking online payments, think about membership benefits, sponsorship, affiliate marketing and events, and when selling products remember that it’s your customer who defines the price point – if your someone who wants your product won’t pay that much, then it won’t sell.
2. Define your customer
Literally down to their name, age, marital status, where they live, shop, eat out and go on holiday. It’s that important.
3. Learn new skills
Many UK universities offer ‘lifelong learning’ classes, including IT, economics, statistics and bookkeeping. If you come up with business ideas on your year abroad but realise you are missing key skills, then either wait til you’re back at your home university to start these extracurricular classes, or enroll on local courses while you're away (or online ones!) to help you feel more confident.
4. Take advantage of what your university offers
Don’t forget your university’s entrepreneurial department/society. They may have free office space with a phone line, free advice and support, information about student business competitions and Dragon’s Dens, meetups for all the university’s entrepreneurs and events where celebrity guest entrepreneurs are invited to speak. They will also match up the skills of entrepreneurial students to spark creativity – maybe teaming a Web Design and Internet Technology student who has to create a website as part of their coursework with a final year student just back from a year abroad who has a brilliant idea but no technical skills? I met the most inspiring people from university at these events.
5. Do your research
Make sure you have analysed what your competitors offer, and truly understand your unique selling point (USP) – why would customers pick you over them? Read up on how to start a student business and check out some businesses started by and for students and graduates for inspiration: our friends at The Eleven, for starters.
- Inspiring books will help - check out Business Model Generation and Lean Startup by Eric Reis.
- Check the availability of brand names and secure yours across the web and social networks on knowem.com.
- 8 successful student businesses started at university.
- Five steps: Finding help with import and export.
- How to research international markets.
- Top tips on International trade and doing business abroad.
- Find out more about VAT on imports.