Student High Street: Tom Grafton

Supporting young entrepreneurs' businesses while giving students a platform on which to shop their brands, SHS founder Tom Grafton shares his story...

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Name: Tom Grafton
Company name: Student High Street
Location: Greater London
Date launched: February 2018

Tell us what your business does:

Student High Street (SHS) is a unique digital marketplace and content platform aimed at providing essential business support for young entrepreneurs as well as a trusted destination for students to shop the latest brands whilst being served the very best relevant and engaging content.

Student High Street pledges to successfully bring together young entrepreneurs all over the country to launch and sustain their businesses nationally, whilst providing an exciting online destination for the modern student.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

I devised the concept for Student High Street following visits to other university campuses where I saw the potential in supporting exciting start-up businesses.

Students were investing time and money into taking charge of their future. They owned their space, had high engagement and understood their customer, but what they didn’t have was the platform to help launch their businesses on a national level.

How did you know there was a market for it?

Being immersed in the market – the concept was first developed while I was at university.

We also felt that it was the right time in the market with how peer-driven this market is, and how marketplaces/aggregation are becoming more and more accepted with the rise of Not On the High Street and Etsy.

What were you doing before starting up?

After leaving university, I developed business skills as an analyst at private equity house Hambro Perks, where I observed the process of how to grow a business; including the time,
strategic planning and financial investment it takes to become successful.

Have you always wanted to run your own business?

No I haven’t. I would say I’ve always enjoyed innovating and joining the dots. However, being fortunate enough to work in the start-up community before starting SHS, I knew how hard it is to get a business off the ground and the intricacies of running a start-up. There is a reason why the start up failure rate is so high!

Therefore, I felt that as long as I was making an impact and enjoyed the team I was working in (as that’s what really makes a career/job), I was happy within a firm – but I felt that SHS was too good an opportunity, so I found the team I wanted to execute the plan and then it sort of happened. I haven’t looked back since.

How did you raise the money?

We were very fortunate that I was able to attract a very good chairman with a fantastic record, and we were able to raise the seed funds based on the idea. Then the follow up round (£1.5m) was injected by one family office.

Describe your business model and how you make money

The base model is a marketplace/commission model, and then we have just launched our youth marketing company Generation, which is campaign/activation-led. We are looking to develop some further revenue streams later this year.

What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

Technology… a necessary evil. The business very nearly didn’t happen because of this. I reckon we were one week away from handing back all of our investors’ money at one point.

The issue we had was that our business hinged on building a marketplace (a multi-vendor platform) and we spent six months looking at every tech solution under the sun (in-house, outsourced, off-the-shelf with extensions…) to get an MVP – but none of them were right.

We didn’t want to build any old marketplace. We wanted to build a platform for a modern business, with modern integrations. We wanted to avoid a scenario that many early stage businesses find themselves in with tech debt, and having to re-platform.

We couldn’t find a solution that met our needs. I am a great believer that you need to look at monetising every element of your business (tech especially) so we didn’t want to be complacent. I also knew the pitfalls of tech debt and not having the correct foundations in place to scale.

One week out from handing the money back, I was at a dinner with an old family friend who is behind a few successful tech-based companies. I told him of our six-month agony and he sent me off to meet a group of young developers who he said were the best developers he had ever worked with.

I have always believed in giving young talent a shot and they said they could do it. Eighteen months later, we have built an industry-leading platform with some of the world’s top consultancy companies already interested in licensing it.

What was your first big breakthrough?

Managing to get our chairman to join the company. This has given me the mentorship I needed to help grow the company to where it is today. From this, we have been able to attract the calibre of individuals we have to execute the vision – at the end of the day it all comes down to this!

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

If you’ve got an idea don’t be scared to give it a go. If you are still at university, this is one of the best places to develop it. There’s a reason why the likes of Facebook have grown from these environments.

Don’t start building your product until you know your customer inside and out. The amount of people that underestimate this is staggering. If you know this you can test your product better and make your marketing budgets go further.

Don’t be precious about the idea; take input, spend more time listening than speaking. Let it evolve and pivot in its initial phase. Don’t be scared to ask for help, it’s okay not to know everything! Someone I deeply respect told me early on to make sure you are never the smartest person in the room!

The best founders have the best teams around them, so know your weaknesses. Virgin is a great example of this. Branson is the master of bringing the best people together to support his vision.

Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

We would like to build the UK’s leading youth brand and group of companies.

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