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How to run a business at university

29th May 2019

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We spoke to designer Jenny Evans (pictured above) and Starling business customers Peter Donoghue and Jack Allan about their advice for running a business at university.


“University is the perfect time to start a business,” says Jack Allan, founder of 95 Social. “You have a lot more time than people think and I was motivated to make it a success so that I could turn it into my grad job.”

95 Social is a social media and marketing agency run by students. “I wanted to create something where students could work within a company and do something meaningful for clients.”

Jack smiles outside in a grey hoodie.
Jack Allan, founder of 95 Social.

Jack, 23, set up his business in his fourth year at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. “I’d always been fairly hesitant about going to university. If there had been a better route such as an apprenticeship, I would have taken it but couldn’t find anything so in the end I studied International Business Management.”

Don’t wait for permission

“The first thing I did was tell everyone I knew that I was starting a business. This is especially important if it’s a service business and you don’t have a product to sell. You need to find clients and pockets of contacts.” Jack’s first client was a local sports shop - he walked in, asked to speak to the manager about their social media and landed himself the job.

An image showing a street corner in Edinburgh.
95 Social is based in Edinburgh and works with students across Scotland.

Telling people your intention to start a business can also generate more commitment to see it through. “I also told everyone when I planned to start hiring people. I knew it would make me do it, otherwise I’d be failing myself.”

Jack now has 14 freelance students creating video content for clients and over the past 12 months, he’s helped more than 20 small businesses with their marketing and advertising output. In July, he’ll be hiring students to train as part-time account managers.

Use your network to your advantage

“Ask your friends to do you a favour and share your posts on Facebook and Twitter when you launch to get the word out,” says Peter Donoghue, 23. “But remember that social media will take a lot of time. You can’t just follow people, like some things and expect your account to grow organically, you’ve got to put the work in.”

Like Jack, Peter always wanted to be an entrepreneur. But he didn’t want to study business at university. “I did business studies at school and I was bored to tears,” he says. Instead he applied to do Computer Science at Strathclyde University and built a blog so that he’d have a project to put on his CV. His blog, The Retro, which covered his interest in music, developed into an e-commerce site selling turntables and vinyls and more recently a subscription service.

A collection of vinyl records.

Hundreds of people have signed up. Subscribers can choose whether they receive vinyl records, cassettes, comics or video games in their monthly subscription box.

Break up your day

Not only did Peter and Jack study while building a business, they had part-time jobs so that they could support themselves financially. Peter worked for O2 selling phone contracts throughout university and worked full-time on the business when he graduated. “My calendar was crazy, I’d break up any free time into half hour segments and then prioritise everything,” he says.

At university, Peter used the ’pomodoro technique’ for time management. It is named after the pomodoro tomato kitchen timer which Francesco Cirillo used to measure his time. You work for 25 minutes then take a 5 minute break. “I was balancing classes, work and tasks for the business so I would look at everything and see how many half hour segments I’d need to complete something.”

A tomato timer, showcasing the pomodoro technique.
The pomodoro technique involves working for 25 minutes followed by a 5 minute break.

Jack worked for an AirBnB management company until March 2018 when he was making enough money to support himself and invest in the business each month.

Gain financial confidence

Peter’s background in Computer Science is what led him to Starling, the first UK bank to launch mobile current accounts. “Starling has been a life changer in terms of having the confidence to manage money on a daily basis,” he says.

Three iPhone screens showing the business account, with a navy Starling for Business card in front of it.

Take time to experiment

Jenny Evans started her business by accident. Four years ago, she created her first textiles design and her mum asked for it to be her birthday present. Together, they went to get it framed. The shop owner asked Jenny to create more pieces, kickstarting her business before she even started her textiles course at Cardiff Met University.

“Running the business while at university was really difficult. It’s never easy when you’re juggling two really big commitments. But I wouldn’t change it for the world,” she says. Through her business, Jenny Kate, she designs, creates and sells fabric and homeware.

Jenny sits working on a patterned armchair.
Jenny Evans, founder and CEO of Jenny Kate

“Over those three years, I was able to experiment, find who my customer is and invest everything back into the business rather than paying myself a salary. There’s no other time in life that you can do that unless you’ve got a partner who can work full-time while you earn nothing.” Jenny used her student loan for living expenses and her mother, a retired headmistress, helped where she could. Her father, who worked in the NHS, died when she was 16.

Keep going

As a young female founder of a creative business, Jenny has often found that people haven’t taken her business seriously. But she hasn’t let it shake her. “I got the feeling that some people at university thought that the business was just a distraction,” says Jenny, 24.

“But for every person like that, there were ten that were all really supportive. My university had a built-in network and I was able to tap into some of those contacts. I was introduced to my first investor at a networking event.” She has recently closed an investment round of £350,000 and employs 10 people across two offices - one in Cardiff and one in Plymouth. Her first pop-up store opened in Holborn on 24th May 2019. “I’m a massive advocate of setting up a business while at university.”

To find out more about the businesses featured, see 95 Social, The Retro and Jenny Kate.

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