Kickstart your career – entrepreneurial skills for creative computing
By news editor, on 12 March 2013
This UCL professional networking event on 19 February was the second that I have been to and I was unsurprised to find it as well-attended as the previous one.
Among the audience were several family groups, where two generations of UCL alumni had come along to seek advice before launching their first family enterprise.
The panellist’s backgrounds were varied: while Michael Doyle, CEO of the Alacrity Foundation, and Christian Nentwich, founder and CEO of Model Two Zero Ltd, had studied computer science at UCL, Sanchita Saha, CEO and founder of Citysocializer, and Nageela Yusuf, founder and MD of Cerebriam, had studied maths and archaeology respectively.
This was encouraging to see for those of us in the audience with a more limited grasp of the digital world
The right idea
The panel agreed that the strongest business ideas are market driven. Michael’s programme made a deliberate decision to move away from funding ‘a graduate with an idea’ as they have a high attrition rate and a very poor return. Instead, he exposes bright graduates to real market problems and gives them the opportunity to solve them – those who devise the best business solutions receive the funding and the support to start up.
Nageela’s current technology initiative came from her own experience that there was significant gap in the market for an audio-visual recording device that is optimised for professional use, and consultations with industry professionals, who were eager to try the technology, confirmed that a market was out there.
Similarly, Sanchita’s website Citysocializer was her response to a perceived lack of platforms for building real world connections outside of online dating sites.
Building a team
Sanchita brought the ‘sole founder’ perspective to the discussion and acknowledged that she faced considerable challenges building a successful digital company without a computer science background.
Michael echoed the importance of the right team. His company will not invest in sole founders, insisting that they tend to believe too much in their own idea and are less likely to ‘pivot’ and improve their first proposition.
Though it was disheartening for some in the room when the panel agreed that friends and family are an important financial source during the early stages, they also shared some practical steps to securing investment.
Emphasis was placed on the importance of building relationships. Sanchita cited her success in gaining the support of Bebo founder, Michael Birch, who initially she approached for advice and then revisited every three to six months to share her business milestones and build her credibility.
This eventually resulted in a financial injection that enabled her to launch the Uberlife app.
Christian encouraged the audience to focus their fundraising efforts on engaging with the target industry for your product and Nageela warned that one of the hardest struggles can be securing funding to build a prototype.
Most potential investors insist on seeing the prototype before they inject funds into the project, so at this stage it is a good idea to approach those investors who you know have previously funded similar projects.
Staying on track
The panel communicated a remarkable degree of honesty over the capacity for a business to fail, outlining the risks that they had encountered and the business models that had collapsed.
While starting a business can be emotionally taxing and requires a huge level of discipline, once you make a mistake you can be sure that going into the future you won’t make it again! One place to start, the panel agreed, is brushing up on intellectual property law and your accountancy skills.
Surviving the hurdles requires a genuine passion for your project; when 80% of businesses fail in their first year, passion is the essential ingredient to a successful entrepreneurial endeavour. On a positive note, there were huge numbers of pros for ‘going it alone’, among them: the autonomy to hire the team that you really want to work with and that, as Sanchita pointed out, you can also set your own clothing policy!
Finally, it was notable how, for several of these alumni, UCL had featured in their entrepreneurial journey.
Christian set up his first business with his PhD supervisor, Professor Anthony Finkelstein, while Nageela had returned to the UCL library to research potential technology consultants and now has UCL on board to pilot her prototype model.
Watch the panellists’ talks below: