What is an entrepreneur? a) “someone who hasn’t got a job”; b) an Anglo-French word whose Germanic equivalent translates as ‘undertaker’; or c) a student?
Maybe none of these definitions seem appropriate, but they are just a few of the ideas offered up by a rummage through the realm of all knowledge, Google. Ted Turner, founder of CNN and known in America as the ‘Mouth of the South’ due to his outspoken nature, takes the surprisingly cynical view of a). The German equivalent of b) may sound as if it refers to someone dressed in black with a solemn expression and a penchant for pine boxes, but in this case refers to ‘one who undertakes an enterprise’. Recently I’ve noticed a slightly different breed emerging on campus, forcing us to take a somewhat revised view of the common stereotype – introducing c), the student entrepreneur.
The prototype example of an entrepreneur might be Richard Branson, who came from nothing and launched himself into the business world with maverick concepts that ultimately established a multi-million pound empire; but rarely do we consider the genesis of such ventures. At Nottingham, named Entrepreneurial University of the Year in 2008, there are a substantial number of students starting up and running business initiatives alongside their studies. Not content with internships or work experience to further their future careers, these students are chasing opportunities in the immediate term and becoming their own bosses rather than waiting to be led onto the bottom rungs of the corporate ladder.
Two particular businesses started up by Nottingham students tap right into the heart of our extracurricular interests: going out & drinking, and staying in & eating. The former is catered for by Afterdark Ltd, an events that is the brainchild of Oli Rifkind, its Managing Director. This enterprising second year runs a number of nights catering to the more discerning student – one used to the concept of having a table in a club, and ‘all you can drink’ meaning something a little more appealing than unlimited bins of Karni cocktail. Afterdark’s main event, High Spirits, used to be run by 3 friends who have since left the University. In its infancy it was an occasional event of about 35 to 50 people in the basement of Coco Lounge, the guest list mainly consisting of the promoter’s own social circle. Oli, with two colleagues, bought the concept in March 2008 and has since built on the brand tremendously. Now a registered company, Afterdark’s High Spirits is run every fortnight or so at Escucha, with up to 400 students attending. Planning to go into property post-university, whilst keeping a small stake in Afterdark so he can, “do an Alan Sugar,” and see where future students take it, Oli had previous experience of working and promoting on the club scene in London. Having run nights att such establishments as Mamilangi and Movida, Afterdark is now also involved with Mahiki.
Speaking of the inception of High Spirits, Oli says: “I saw a gap in the market that wasn’t really being catered for: a niche of students who don’t want to be at a ‘student’ club but enjoy a different sort of atmosphere.” Oli’s identification of this niche has proved more than successful. If the lure of unlimited alcohol and tobacco is not enough, the ‘smart casual’ dress code provides an incentive to slip into something a little more alluring than the usual uniform of flip flops with everything… a shirt, maybe even a tie, boys? Consequently, guest lists reach capacity almost every time. Recently Afterdark has started up One.50 at Bluu; and, in the summer, will be introducing Aloha at Escucha, a Hawaiian-themed night with drinks in pineapples, coconuts and treasure chests. They’ve certainly got the timing down – post-exams, what could be more enticing?
That other student pastime, staying in and eating, is where SushiMe comes in. The concept was conjured up by housemates Doron Salomon, David Dinkin and Jamie Irving when they realised that their penchant for visiting Yo!Sushi upwards of four times a week just wasn’t sustainable. Doron says, “our sushi habit started to get pretty expensive, so we started making it for ourselves, learning techniques and then adapting our own recipes. We made it for our families, for dinner parties with friends, and got incredibly good feedback, so we started to think maybe we could take it further.” And that they did. After getting a food license from the council, these atypical sushi chefs are now offering a unique service in the Nottingham locale: unlike any local competitors, they deliver, and all of their ingredients are completely organic, with no added salt. On their way to becoming a registered company and trademarking their logo, SushiMe is currently still a small, personal venture where attention to detail and a passion for food are paramount. Currently Facebook is their primary marketing tool, and a great one too; Afterdark has found it so good that flyering for High Spirits is now obsolete. Obstacles such as limited ordering and delivery times and the tendency to run out when demand is high will be tackled by the expansion that the boys are planning to undertake over the summer.
SushiMe and Afterdark are both brilliant business ventures which market to the tastes of particular student groups, and are essentially outlets for their inventors’ own partialities and preoccupations – as Jamie of SushiMe simply put it, “we just love sushi.”
Similarly, for Oli it means initiating and organizing social events that he himself wishes to attend. Other businesses like Stashmonkey are hoping to corner the market on student ‘stash’ (clothing for societies and sports teams); this year Stashmonkey’s directors Chris Davies and Brad Legrand have kitted out Summer Party reps, the Kilimanjaro expedition, and several University sports teams. The brand is cheaper and offers a more comprehensive service than current providers, and their understanding of the market is gained from participation in University Hockey and other sports. Stashmonkey is opening its services to a nationwide market from September 2009.
But what about on a more global scale? Can a student entrepreneur really take things to the next level whilst still studying? I wouldn’t have believed it but Adam Fine, a Cavendish first year and Managing Director of AstroSoccer, is already in the process of hiring his second CEO at just 18 years old. Without even the advantage of a gap year to get things up and running, Adam initiated the set up of his company in South Africa whilst studying for his A-Levels. The concept is similar to that of Powerleague in the UK – 5-aside football on Astroturf pitches – but is totally new to South Africa. Adam’s rationale for setting up a business overseas is the atmosphere of possibility – he says that, “whereas here it is incredibly difficult to contact big investors and important names, particularly as a young and unproven entrepreneur, in South Africa the lines of communication are a little more open – meeting one well placed person leads swiftly to being introduced to many more.” Unsurprisingly there are considerable obstacles to overcome setting up a company in such uncharted territory, from the hurdle that his youth can be in the eyes of more jaded businessmen, to the challenge of conducting business from overseas and predicting the behaviour of markets in a country severely divided along deeply ingrained lines of class and race. In addition, the recession is affecting the pace of the project: “Had I started up a year earlier it would have been a lot easier to get investment and make progress. Now, there just isn’t the same amount of money on the table… nonetheless we plan to get at least one site up and running in Cape Town before the World Cup in 2010.” Hoping to ally with the charity Ambassadors in Sport, AstroSoccer looks set to make a big impact in South Africa both commercially and in terms of social regeneration. Adam is keen to point out the importance of providing for both the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. “Our idea is to get corporations having company matches once a week, and the rest of the time kids from local townships are sponsored to play by the same companies. The 16–24 age group is the hardest to test for AIDS, and we can use football tournaments as an incentive for testing.”
All these entrepreneurs have two things in common – a real desire to succeed, and a love for what they do. For this reason, they make these ambitious ventures work alongside other commitments such as university. David Dinkin believes that, “as students, we have a lot of flexibility in a personal venture, and lots of demand to tap into. Because it’s self-run we find the work/university balance fine.” In fact this is probably one of the least commitment-laden periods of our lives, and thus the best time to take a risk on a good idea. Each business has faced problems. SushiMe had a disastrous Valentine’s night earlier this year, unable to source any sushi-grade fish because of the unprecedented demand (who knew raw fish was such an aphrodisiac?). Adam has had to partner up with his uncle because attending Nottingham means he can’t run the business entirely independently, whilst Oli has learnt this mantra as a result of his experiences: “never upset anyone; it will hurt you somewhere down the line, maybe a few years later, whether it be at a dinner party or in business negotiations.”
What marks these students out from the rest of us? Not much, it seems, other than the courage to put a good idea into practice. Oli’s self-proclaimed ‘cheesy advice’ is simply “Carpe Diem”. And is it something about Nottingham that fosters this aspirational spirit? Not necessarily: although the University has a considerable network of support for student businesses, none of the companies here has sought affiliation, preferring to maintain their independence. Other than a unique product or service, Adam believes that integrity and determination rather than the pursuit of a quick buck are the qualities most likely to contribute to long-term accomplishment: “Often business is not seen as a passion, like art or music, but instead has negative connotations. However the most successful are often the least showy, there for the sake of success and building up something to be proud of, not just for money… at the moment age is the biggest barrier, but once you overcome it, it becomes the greatest advantage.”
To find out more about these companies:
SushiMe: e-mail [email protected] or order on 07719777624
AstroSoccer: www.astrosoccer.co.za (under construction) or call 07952034430
Stashmonkey: visit www.stashmonkey.co.uk or call Chris 07824358827 or Brad 07980662505