Grow your own business

Being your own boss is a viable career option, says Finbarr Bermingham

For many, the term "entrepreneur" conjures up images of madcap inventions and billionaires in black turtlenecks. In reality, it's nothing so exclusive. Starting a business is a very real career option for the right kind of person: students and graduates included. And it doesn't always require groundbreaking innovation. More often than not, it's about solving a problem, plugging a gap, or doing something better than anybody else.

A quick glance at the Sunday Times Virgin Fast Track 100 league table hammers the point home. The five fastest growing companies in the UK are a pharmaceutical services provider, a bulk mail services provider, a diet meal retailer, a mobile phone provider and a cashback website operator. On the face of it, hardly the most dazzling of sectors, but they're clearly some of those with the biggest growth potential. Your business idea, then, doesn't necessarily have to be the most original: it just has to be an improvement on what's already out there in terms of quality, value or both.

Planting the seeds

Oliver Morgan, 20, owns one of the UK's largest oil and gas distributing companies, Universal Fuels. He recalls the inception of an earlier business venture. "I was eating a melon," he explains, "and had melon seeds in my mouth. I wondered if they'd grow, and they did. I found that nobody else in the UK was growing melons and that growing them here would allow me to undercut the competition because of the distribution savings." Oliver ended up selling melons to a range of restaurants in London. He saw a gap in the market and exploited it. He was able to earn enough to invest in his next business, selling solar panels, which eventually provided him with the funds to start Universal Fuels.

For Lucy Jackson, the founder and director of the marketing agency Lucid, coming up with a business idea requires this kind of pragmatic approach. "Often people want to come up with cool inventions and you think: 'hold on, you're not an engineer, or inventor - you don't have those skills.' You need to do something that's realistic and within your skill set. Often, that won't be glamorous: some of the richest people in Britain come from the most boring industries like steel and manufacturing." The key, then, is to find something for which there is demand and which you will be able to deliver on capably. As Thomas Edison once said: "I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent."

Luke Lang is the founder of CrowdCube, a platform that allows businesspeople to raise capital in exchange for a share in their business. He has noticed that the businesses that have been most successful in securing investment are those with an easy to understand concept. "Do something people can follow," he advises. If something's too complicated or requires too much thought, it risks alienating customers and investors alike.

Cooking up a storm

In order to make sure your business idea has legs, you must decide who your target customer will be and find out exactly what they want. Sam Stern is a student, chef and author. He had his first business meeting at 14 and his cookbooks have now been translated into 12 languages. "I wanted to teach my mates to cook because they were living on pizza," he says of his initial ambition. "The fact that nobody else was doing it was important," he says, and the appeal of his unusual student-to-student approach has enabled him to sell hundreds of thousands of cookbooks to date.

Sam has also tapped into the concerns caused by the obesity epidemic among young people and found that being socially aware is a great way to find a niche in the market. He's followed the lead of more established chefs like Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, who've displayed sound business acumen by appealing to the ethical and health concerns of consumers in general.

When he leaves university, Sam will focus on his business full time and he's already starting to put the wheels in motion. "I'm having meetings with individuals that can help me develop my website," he says. "We're talking about creating TV, digital, web and phone content. I'm looking for a web designer at the moment."

Sam has been well-advised: involving knowledgable people is an important step for young businesspeople. Constructing business plans, marketing strategies and suchlike can be daunting and arduous tasks. If you're primarily a creative rather than analytical thinker, why not get somebody from a financial or management background to help put the correct structures in place? Luke Lang of CrowdCube says it's a vital step. "Surround yourself with a good management or non-executive director team," he says. "Your perceived weakness might be your youth. Experienced people can help you back up your idea with a good business plan and execution strategy."

The hard work doesn't finish once you're up and running. Many like the idea of owning their own business without realising the effort that goes into it. As serial entrepreneur Oliver Morgan says: "Make sure it's what you want to do," - because it will be hard work. Before starting out, make sure you're aware of the challenges that lie ahead and factor them into your business plans. If you get it right, though, there's no doubt it can be one of the most rewarding ways to earn a living. Following the advice above won't guarantee you success, but it will at least help you to move in the right direction.