Starting a student business: Tips from an expert

16 Mar 2018
By Daniel, Writer at Unite Students

Standing on the top deck of Save the Student’s office-yacht, taking in the breathtaking view of London’s Docklands, it’s easy to forget that this business started in a halls bedroom.

In 10 years, founder Owen Burek and his team turned a bedroom blog into the country’s number-one student money site. How did they do it?

A lot of what we’ve achieved has come from a learn-by-doing attitude.

I spoke to Operations Director Jake Butler about running a student business, and how to get your idea off the ground.

Jake, where did the inspiration for Save the Student come from? What problems were you trying to solve?

Save the Student is all about helping students with money. The aim from day one has been to help as many students as possible, whether it’s with:

  • saving money
  • making money
  • choosing a bank account, or
  • spotting the latest deals.

At university, I looked for information on my finances everywhere but there wasn't a website that explained it on a simple level. That’s where Save the Student comes from.

In 2010, Save the Student moved out of Owen’s bedroom and into Manchester Met’s business incubator. How important was that move to your success?

A large part of where Save the Student is today is down to being in a startup incubator. It allowed us to network with businesses in a similar position, as well as some that had been through the startup stage and were coming out the other side.

It meant we could take on staff, as we couldn't exactly ask people to come and work in a bedroom with us. Plus we got access to joint facilities, events, meeting rooms and a receptionist. All at a decent cost, which is important when you're starting up.

We've been reasonably successful at creating effective press releases. To this day I still remember, and use, many of the tips I learnt from a PR expert at one of the incubator’s events. And that's just one of many examples.

A lot of what we’ve achieved has come from a learn-by-doing attitude.
Focus on being good, not just looking good.

You and Owen ran the site for two years from Australia, managing a team of freelancers back in the UK. What was it like managing all that remotely?

It was during our time in Australia that the business really started to take off. Owen puts this down, in part, to us being able to answer all of our emails in the morning and then focus on tasks during the day (when everyone in the UK was sleeping).

How many times have you been at work or uni and checked your emails every five minutes? Not doing that meant we were really productive. So the time difference was a help rather than a hindrance.

Focus on being good, not just looking good.

Save the Student’s Jake Butler, working remotely from Bondi in Australia. Credit: Save the Student

(source: https://www.savethestudent.org/student-jobs/10-years-sts.html)

Student finance has changed massively since 2007. And you’re no longer students yourselves. How do you manage to keep Save the Student relevant?

This has been a focus from day one. We have daily contact with students as well as an excellent team who immerse themselves in student culture (I think we're all secretly trying to hold on to that magic three-year experience).

We're talking about money and finance, so we don't have to be super cool about it - just cool enough to not come across as patronising. I see far too many brands trying to be down-with-the-kids and it just comes off as insincere.

Who’s played an important role along the way? Have you had any mentors to provide a guiding hand?

Is it a cop-out to say there's too many to mention? When it comes to specific mentors and support services, the Man Met incubator springs to mind.

But first and foremost you can’t have a successful website without amazing people. Everyone who’s worked with us at Save the Student, past and present, has had a hand in where it is today.

You can’t have a successful website without amazing people.

lot of what we’ve achieved has come from a learn-by-doing attitude. There's so much great advice online for anyone starting a business. So read up, and just give things a try.

Save the Student’s Manchester team. Credit: Save the Student

(source: https://www.savethestudent.org/student-jobs/10-years-sts.html)

What was the hardest thing about turning a bedroom blog into a yacht-based, number-one website?

The second year was definitely the toughest. During the first year you're so excited to get going and everything is about building a website that will be successful.

It took a lot of self-belief to keep going through year two.

Year two is crunch time. It's when family and friends start to wonder if this is a good idea. It’s when you wonder if you should get a ‘real’ job. Am I sabotaging a ‘career’ trying to make this startup work?

We were doing well in our second year but not amazingly. We tried a few spin-off ideas that didn't exactly set the ground alight. It took a lot of self-belief to keep going through year two.

Save the Student’s East London office yacht. Credit: Save the Student

(source: https://www.savethestudent.org/student-jobs/10-years-sts.html)

Based on your experience, what start-up advice would you give to current students?

For me, there are three things that matter:

  • Pick a good idea, something that isn’t being done or done well
  • Have enough faith in your idea to stick at it
  • Hope for a pinch of luck (which you can make yourself with hard work)

A lot of new businesses focus on looking ‘perfect’. But behind the glossy marketing and flash social media there needs to be a useful and well-designed product. Focus on being good, not just looking good.

And remember, you don't have to be a million-pound business overnight. Sometimes things take time and you never know what opportunities might arise through hard work. If you believe in it, stick with it and give it your best.

Interested in starting your own business?

Speak to your university’s student enterprise team for information on support, funding and advice.

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Daniel is a writer at Unite Students. at Unite Students