A-level failure? Don’t despair, Branson and other great entrepreneurs were ‘failures’ too

It’s never been easier to become an entrepreneur. On the day A-level results are published John Rosling says those who don’t get the desired grades have more choices than ever

Young people up and down the country will today be finding out their A-level results. For many it will be a day of real euphoria and for most of quiet satisfaction. Yet for some it will be a moment of despair.

Not getting the result you expect can seem like a disaster. But it may just be the start of a whole new chapter. Success has nothing to do with bits of paper. It’s about believing in yourself and your dreams.

Plenty of great entrepreneurs didn’t exactly see eye-to-eye with school. Famously, Sir Richard Branson left school with, he says, ‘no qualifications’. “Forget exam results (everybody else does sooner or later!),” he said.

“Think about what you want to achieve in your life and start working towards it. This may mean going on to college, or to university, but it may also mean starting your own business and embarking upon life as an entrepreneur.”

Is entrepreneurship really a practical alternative for a school leaver?

In researching my new book on entrepreneurship it quickly became apparent that success in exams had little bearing on success in business.

Keith Abel set up Abel & Cole because he had failed his (professional) exams and his determination and focus on delivering what the customer wants has seen him build a £65m turnover business.

Another inspiring entrepreneur I interviewed, Frank Bastow, left school with no A-levels and has built five businesses on his passionate belief in making things easier for people.

Interestingly, both he and Ajaz Ahmed, co-Founder of Freeserve (another entrepreneur without A levels) achieved certificates for swimming at school so perhaps swimming awards are more of an indicator of future success than A-levels?!

It’s never been easier to establish a business

The internet has changed everything. There has never been a time when the market was so accessible; when there has been so much support and advice; and so many forms of funding available.

We are moving into an age of entrepreneurship. Private business is the powerhouse of the economy creating two million new jobs since 2010.

The UK is the self-employed capital of Europe with self-employment growing at 8% in the last year to 14% of the workforce. For young people in the US having their own business is not just a dream. One survey of probably thousands suggested that fully 52% had either started a business or had a plan to do so.

The message has to be that entrepreneurship truly is a realistic choice for today’s young people. However, when setting up a business for the first time at any age the advice is always the same:

  1. Understand the market. Fully understanding the market you are entering and the product you are selling is absolutely critical. Yours doesn’t have to be a new invention – real business is not Dragons’ Den – but you must be doing something better than anyone else.
  2. Take advice. People want to help. Surround yourself with the best network of advisers and mentors you can. These can be professional but these days there is a lot of social and informal support out there.
  3. Get funded. Make sure you have sufficient funds to get you through the start-up phase. That means you need sensible P&L and cashflow forecasts. There are plenty of ways of raising funds these days – explore them all.

If you wake up today with the A-level results you dreaded, don’t despair. Take lots of advice but if you finally decide college is not for you it’s never been a better time to start your own business.

If you have the dream, follow it. If you are willing to work incredibly hard for yourself, even if you didn’t work that hard in Mr Perkins’ Physics lessons, you have every chance of success. Particularly if you have a school swimming certificate to your name.

John Rosling is an entrepreneur and author of ‘The Secrets of the Seven Alchemists’, a blueprint for success taking the entrepreneur to £10m and beyond (Capstone, September 2014). 

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