Navigating the Jungle | Commercial awareness on The Gateway

Navigating the Jungle

David Langer with some pearls of wisdom for the next generation of self-starters

So you've got a business idea, you want to get your first company off the ground and you need to balance this with getting the degree you want. It's a tough position to be in - particularly if you don't have much business experience. The good news is that there is a wealth of easily accessible people, resources and organisations which can help you out!

I was in exactly this position a few years ago. I had a business idea during my second year at university and started with the student society for entrepreneurship (Oxford Entrepreneurs). I also found great value in the resources below and these helped me develop my company GroupSpaces to where it is today - five happy full-time employees, angel funding, over 1,000 active clubs and societies, and a vision for becoming the global leader in our market - tools for managing groups online.

Entrepreneurship Societies

I strongly advocate these - the entrepreneurship society at your university is a fantastic resource. The speaker events it holds can inspire you, the other members of the society can be your co-founders and the more experienced entrepreneurs in the society can offer you guidance and direction. If you're not already a member, you can find out how to join the entrepreneurship society at your university at www.groupspaces.com.

Online Resources and Books

There are a plethora of online resources that will help you with 'starting a business' ranging from the embarrassing to the enlightening. Here are my top three that will provide you with genuine value:

1. Paul Graham's essays at www.paulgraham.com - over 100 thought-provoking essays with a focus on entrepreneurship and technology by one of the global thought leaders on entrepreneurship. If you haven't come across these before I'd recommend starting with "A Student's Guide to Startups" and "Why to Not Not Start a Startup". Paul sold his own startup Viaweb to Yahoo! in 1999 for $49.6M.

2. Stanford University's Entrepreneurship Corner at ecorner.stanford.edu - over 1,200 educational speaker videos about all aspects of entrepreneurship, featuring the world's top venture capitalists and the entrepreneurs behind Facebook, Google and dozens of other extremely successful companies.

3. Business Link at www.businesslink.gov.uk - guides to the majority of paperwork-related issues you will face starting a business, ranging from incorporating your company to payroll, taxation and selling your business (hopefully you'll get that far!).

There are also a huge number of books about starting a business. Here are my top three:

1. Founders at Work by Jessica Livingston - a collection of short, candid interviews with founders of over 30 of the most successful technology companies from the last few decades such as Apple, PayPal and Dell. This brings the notion of starting a great company down to earth - you'll be surprised by how clueless some of these entrepreneurs were at the beginning!

  1. The Art of the Start by Guy Kawasaki - a how-to guide to making ideas happen by the venture capitalist and former Chief Evangelist at Apple.

  2. The Four Steps to the Epiphany by Steve Blank - a guide to launching a company using the "Customer Development" methodology, something which I believe will become the de facto approach to starting a business in years to come. Steve founded or worked in 8 startup companies in California's Silicon Valley.

Support Organisations and Schemes

There are several national and international supporting services, campaigns and initiatives which offer mentoring, advice, guidance and funding to students wishing to start companies. Here are five which you might find useful:

NCGE (National Council of Graduate Entrepreneurship) works to reshape and improve the environment for enterprise and entrepreneurship in higher education. It also works directly with students and recent graduates to support those who want to start a business through its FlyingStart initiative which provides training, mentoring and expert advice. You can build an online support team, find out about FlyingStart events and read success stories of entrepreneurs who have benefited from working with NCGE at www.flyingstartonline.com.

Shell LiveWIRE combines an online support service and awards programme for young entrepreneurs in the UK. It is one of the longest running youth enterprise schemes in the UK, promoting enterprise as a real career option since 1982. You can ask questions and receive expert video answers, discuss business issues with other young entrepreneurs and access an online business library at www.shell-livewire.org.

NACUE (National Advisory Consortium of University Entrepreneurs) is new to the scene. It is a national organisation that supports and represents university enterprise societies across the UK. NACUE provides budding entrepreneurs with a national, diverse and dynamic network to support them in their start up process. From providing students with the latest news on training, business support services, enterprise conferences, competitions and funding and incubation opportunities to enabling them to connect locally, regionally and nationally with likeminded young entrepreneurs across the country, over the next few months NACUE will become a central reference point for student entrepreneurs across the UK. For more information on NACUE and to sign up for its weekly e-newsletter, visit www.nacue.org.

Seedcamp is Europe's leading micro-seed fund and each year it provides 20 select, very early-stage software companies with a week of workshops and networking in London with Europe's top investors, product experts and marketing gurus. At the end of this week, all 20 teams will have developed a network that would otherwise have taken years to build and between five and seven teams receive a small investment of up to €50k. Recent student success stories include Kyko and Zoombu, both of whom received Seedcamp investment in September 2008 and were founded by Oxford University students. To find out more and apply for Seedcamp Week 2009, visit www.seedcamp.com.

Y Combinator is a Silicon Valley-based micro-seed fund (founded in part by Paul Graham and Jessica Livingston - both mentioned above) which runs a bi-annual three-month scheme for 10-20 teams at a time and offers investments of $5,000 + $5,000 per founder. The 3three-month period runs from January to March and July to September each year and leads up to an "Investor Day" where each team gets to pitch their idea to a room full of Silicon Valley's top angel investors and venture capitalists. Y Combinator has made in excess of 100 investments to date, 10 of which have been in British teams. The most notable being Songkick which was founded by Cambridge graduates and has raised in excess of $5 million venture capital investment to date; and Auctomatic which was founded by Oxford graduates and sold to publicly-traded Canadian company Live Current for $5 million in March last year. To find out more and apply for the next batch, visit www.ycombinator.com.

The last resource I'll leave you with is myself - you can read my blog about entrepreneurship at www.davidlanger.co.uk and if you have any questions, feel free to email me on david@davidlanger.co.uk or get in touch via Twitter at twitter.com/langer

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