James co-founded studentbeans.com in June 2005, with the vision of the website becoming as much of a staple to university life as baked beans. Today, with over 100,000 new students registering for the site each year, that vision is becoming a reality.
Have you always known you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Some people are born to be athletes and some people are just born to be in business and I am one of those. At the age of 14 I took, developed and sold black and white photos of dogs to their owners. At 17 I did young enterprise and developed a local directory service online for shops and services in North West London. During my gap year I did an internship in San Francisco, a ski season in France and travelled the globe. In between that all I honed my sales skills doing telesales for a bingo company. Combine these experiences with a business degree from The University of Birmingham, running events and gaining sponsorship from over 30 companies whilst studying and being involved with AIESEC - the largest student run organisation in the world, where I went on placements to The Philippines & Colombia, by the time it came to graduation I knew I didn't want to be cocooned by the normalities of daily life in the corporate world. There was only one option and that was to be an entrepreneur.
Why did you start Studentbeans.com?
Today studentbeans.com is the UK's leading student offers website. Having grown up in the age of the Internet, we knew that when students arrived in a new city, they would turn to the web for help. Being in an unfamiliar city and living on a limited budget is tough. But we knew that the Internet and a little entrepreneurialism on our part could solve these problems.
I wanted to create something for real value that people wanted to use. We've created the ultimate win-win environment where companies get increased awareness and students save money!
How many people now work for you? What challenges have you faced while managing them?
We've currently got a team of six of us based in London although we're currently expanding and always looking for top talent to join the team. The challenges we face aren't to do with management as we believe it is all about getting the right people in the first place - with the right people on board they manage themselves. What is important is keeping focused and driven at the task at hand it is all too easy to get distracted.
What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started Studentbeans.com?
There is a lot of emphasis on making the right decisions as oppose to making a decision. It is better to make a decision so you are moving forward and work through it as opposed to procrastinate. Not making a decision is often more dangerous.
You are developing a reputation for being a bit of a student marketing guru. What advice would you give to students who are planning to market their business ideas to other students?
It is important to do you market research and find out what people really want. If you do that, your product or service will then sell itself. Really get under the skin of whoever is going to buy what you are selling it is also important to understand the benefits of your product or service to your target market. Sometimes what you think is a benefit is lost on the user / buyer.
Was choosing to work full-time on Studentbeans.com a difficult decision when you graduated? Why did you choose this over the safer option of a graduate job?
It is interesting you use the words 'safer option of a graduate job' - with what appears to be the world falling apart at the seams it is ever more apparent that the real risk is going to work for someone else. Where else can you turn up to work and be told you are no longer needed? Being an entrepreneur isn't for the fainthearted. After three years of running studentbeans.com it doesn't get easier - it never stops there is always something to do and I am never satisfied. Just one more email or one more deal.
When I graduated a lot of people said to me to go and get a job and some experience. Setting up in the student market however I thought what more experience do I need, where could I learn more about what I needed to do than actually just getting on and doing it?
So either I could have gone to work for someone for a few years get comfortable in a good salary job, get a mortgage, get married having kids and then with all the risk and financial insecurity decide I wanted to start a business? Or I could start the day I graduate with nothing to lose.
With the economic climate the way it is, three years on as some of my closest friends are made redundant I know I made the right decision and if it ever ends I know it was my choice and that I am not a number in a human resources system that had to be removed.
What motivates you?
I am motivated when I have the ability to make things happen when I have an idea. To see a result of all the hard work that goes into running studentbeans.com. When we hear feedback and students views of the site when three years ago studentbeans.com was just an idea and today we are rapidly approaching over 200,000 members. To see and hear other people succeed when they put their mind to it is also really inspiring.
Finally, a question I'm going to ask every entrepreneur in this interview series. If you could give one fortune cookie to every budding student entrepreneur in the country, what would it say?
If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
Next week David meets Kieran O'Neill, who sold his first business for over a million dollars aged 19.