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From studying to sales: 5 challenges student entrepreneurs need to overcome

Inspiring Imagery co-founder Liam Neal explains how to deal with potential start-up obstacles

Most students would not think of university as a place to set up a business, believing that your university years should be about studying as opposed to sales targets.

However, with figures showing that graduates face an increasingly tough employment market, now is a great time for students to act on any entrepreneurial aspirations.

Inspiring Imagery was set up after my business partner, best friend and fellow student at Keele University, Graham Fisher’s photography hobby led us to discover a niche in the market for affordable, high quality printing solutions.

Now in our third year at university, we’re a fully-fledged business based at Keele University Science and Business Park where we try to balance student life and the business world. It’s not always easy, and there are several challenges you need to overcome to succeed as a student entrepreneur, but in our opinion it’s well worth perseverance…

1. You can’t do business, studies and have a social life

We are now in our final year, but since the start of 2012 we have been juggling studying for our degrees alongside growing the business, which specialises in personalised canvas printing, business cards, promotional material, exhibition displays and much more.

We have had to work incredibly hard, forfeiting your typical student lifestyle and nights out.  For the past nine months our time has been spent attending lectures during the day, working part-time in the evenings and focusing on Inspiring Imagery in any spare moment we had. 

As Graham and I are on different courses, we often have different work deadlines. When I have a deadline looming, Graham will manage the office for a couple of days and then I will hold the fort when Graham is on deadline. We’ve worked into the early hours of the morning many times when we have been particularly busy but it’s all part of our commitment to the business and its success. 

2. Our bedrooms were not conducive to running a business

We set up Inspiring Imagery in my spare room, using money saved from our part-time jobs. There were a number of limitations to this, not least the lack of space for our design and printing equipment! Perception is also an issue when you are working out of a spare room, as customers can think of you as a less credible business. We’ve now moved to professional premises at Keele University Science and Business Park’s (KUSBP) Nova Centre where we get fantastic support which is setting us up for the future.

The Nova Centre is home to seven fledgling businesses on a dedicated two-year enterprise programme. To help us achieve sustainable growth, the programme offers tailored advice on everything from sales and marketing to HR, financial performance and strategy.

Many universities have their own support networks and contacts in the wider business world you can tap into. We have been very fortunate to secure such an opportunity but, even it doesn’t offer the same facilities, it is worth speaking to your university to see if they can put you in touch with similar initiatives to help you take your business to the next level.

3. The banks wouldn’t take us seriously

Securing funding has also been a real challenge and as students, it was difficult to convince banks we were serious. Through the support we are receiving from KUSBP’s Nova Centre we have been in put in touch with trusted local contacts who can help us plan our finances and I would encourage any student with their own business to seek all the advice you can from your own university to help you navigate these challenges.

4. Living in a bubble meant no outside network

Since we started out, Inspiring Imagery continues to go from strength to strength and our customer base is growing all the time. But, we are looking to life after university and recently joined a new networking organisation, Business for Breakfast, in an attempt to further expand our client base to include photographers, councils and also schools in our region.

5. With success will come tough decisions

We are reaching a point where we have too much work for just Graham and me to contend with. For example, we ran a Facebook campaign for mother’s day. It was a huge success, but we had to work really late evenings to ensure that all our customers received their gifts on time. It was a great feeling to see our strategic marketing pay off, but it raises the question of whether it is time to employ an additional member of staff to help us grow the business. As young entrepreneurs, we are handling these big decisions for the first time, which can be daunting. But we are making the most of support from the Nova Centre and advice from more established businesses to help us!

People can shy away from working for themselves or starting their own business and of course it is a risk, but I don’t feel there will ever be a better time than when you are a student to take that risk and hopefully reap the rewards.

Liam Neal, 20, is co-founder and director of Inspiring Imagery and third year International Relations and Politics student at Keele University. http://www.inspiringimagery.com / www.kusbp.co.uk/29/the-nova-centre

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