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How to start a business at university (from someone who did it themselves)

A number of the world’s largest companies were founded by ambitious and determined university students who weren’t afraid to dream.

Most people know that Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook in his Harvard dorm room, but were you aware that FedEx, the global courier service, was first imagined by Frederick W. Smith in an undergraduate paper while he was studying at Yale?

In fact, lots of companies that we encounter on a daily basis, like Google and Microsoft, were set up by university students who decided to run with their business ideas.

So if you’re a student at university and feeling entrepreneurial, here are 10 practical tips to help you launch a successful business while you study;

1. Take advantage of your spare time

While you’re at university, you have more free time than you’ll have until you reach retirement. Yet, if you’re anything like I was at university, you’ll struggle to channel the spare time you have between work and lectures into anything productive.

Resisting the urge to go to the pub or play Call of Duty, however, will definitely pay off in the long run. After all, if it was easy, everyone would do it!

So, put your spare time to good use and set yourself apart from the majority of your fellow students. It’s a small price to pay when you get to run your own business.

2. Pay attention to those around you

Take an interest in the things the people around you are doing and buying. What do students need or want? If you can set up a business that appeals to them while you’re at university, you’ll be on to a winner by the time you leave.

When starting out, we sold as much as we could to our friends at university. This gave us a customer base that we wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. More and more people started to hear about what we were doing and, as a result, we began receiving requests for the likes of printed T-shirts and caps.

We weren’t always sure how to make it happen — we’d only started out selling badges. However, we never said no and always found a way to deliver.

This kind of informal market research really helped to steer the business, as we learned how to supply what was in demand. At university, you’re around a huge number of people every day and they can teach you a lot.

Talk to people about the products or services you offer and they could take an interest. Or, if people don’t seem excited about your ideas, this could be a sign that you need to rethink your plan. It’s all part of the learning process.

3. Work with other ambitious students

Most people go to university for one main reason: to get ahead. Therefore, you’re likely to be surrounded by similarly intelligent and ambitious people who are also looking for opportunities to use and develop their skills. Plus, as universities tend to offer lots of different courses, you’ll encounter people with a huge range of abilities.

There will be business students, people studying marketing and others who spend all day in an art lab. The list is endless so, if your business plan requires some skills or knowledge that you don’t possess yourself, use it as an opportunity to build connections and work with others. You might just bag yourself the ideal business partner.

4. Spread the word far and wide

University is a place where young people from different cities, countries and even continents come together to learn, but most people return home once summer rolls around.

If you connect with these people – tell them about your products or services and show them why your business deserves attention – they might go home and tell their family or friends about it.

This might seem like an old-fashioned way to do things and, of course, you’ll still want to market yourself using more modern methods like social media too. But word of mouth is still a great way for positive news about your business to travel, and we all know students love a good gossip.

5. Use your university as a resource

If you need anything – information, equipment or guidance – ask your university for help. They’re likely to do as much as they can for you, as they want their students to look as employable as possible after graduation.

So, if you’re starting a project that will run alongside your studies, let them know. They should be able to give you a hand, and if not, they might be able to point you in the direction of someone who can.

6. Provide something for your university

Can you provide the University with a product or service? Universities are constantly looking for ways to promote themselves and it is a great news story if they can say “our former student now provides us with this”. Therefore, they’re more likely to support you than those from outside the university and might even promote your work, too.

7. Don’t be afraid to fail

If you’re at university, you’re unlikely to ever have fewer responsibilities than you do right now. Starting your own business can mean making sacrifices and taking a lot of risks so, since you’re unlikely to have kids, a permanent job, or a mortgage to pay, use the freedom you currently have to experiment.

If it doesn’t work out, you’ve still got your whole life and career ahead of you. But, if it does, it could turn out to be the best thing you ever do.

8. Don’t forget why you’re at university

As I’ve previously mentioned, starting your own business while at university is all about using your spare time wisely. You still need to focus on your studies and deadlines – that’s why you’re there, after all – to ensure you receive the marks you deserve when you graduate.

Unless, of course, you know for a fact you’ve created the next big social media platform. Then you can do whatever you like.

9. Get a website

Your business will definitely struggle to survive without a website – how will people outside of your social circle hear about it otherwise?

Find someone at your university who can build websites and ask if they’d like to develop their portfolio by creating something for you. This way, you’ll both be getting something positive out of it and you’ll hopefully end up with a fantastic new website. Trust me, you really will need one.

10. Enjoy yourself

Don’t let running a business alongside your studies become a chore, as it should serve as an escape from your weekly lectures and assignments. Just focus on getting the most out of it as possible. Plus, if you enjoy doing something, you’re far more likely to succeed at it.

Setting up a business at university is no easy task but, for those with the right attributes, it can definitely pay off in the long run. Could you be the next Bill Gates, Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg? There’s only one way to find out.

This article was written by John Armstrong who owns Custom Planet, a company that produces customised clothing and promotional products for businesses and individuals. He co-founded Custom Planet whilst at university and it is now one of the UK’s leading custom clothing providers.

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