All work and no play: the rise of the unipreneur » SMEInsider

All work and no play: the rise of the unipreneur

Most students see university as a path to a career, but fewer take the opportunity to start a company before they graduate. Meet two entrepreneurial undergrads that swapped shots and sleep-ins for business success.

Becky White, onesixeight

Becky White launched her first venture at just eight years old, washing cars for neighbours in her village, which she even promoted herself by handing out flyers for special offers. But it was in 2009, during the second year of a Sports Management degree at Loughborough University that she seriously decided to explore setting up a business.

After researching the university’s Enterprise Society on the internet, she came across an opportunity to apply for funding and support from Enterprise Inc., an organisation in the East Midlands that helps students and graduates to launch a company.

research laptop

White had been offered a place on a programme in the US, but, when her funding application was accepted, she decided to fast track her entrepreneurial goals instead and onesixeight, her personal training business, was born. Her studies naturally fed into the project, giving her all-important insights into accounting, marketing and other vital business areas. “I knew what I wanted to do, but this helped me think about the financial and marketing side of things, how to get clients,” she says.

Initially, White planned to lay the groundwork in the run up to her exams, giving her the summer holidays to really get the business moving forward. If it took off, she would defer her final year. “I never intended to do both at the same time,” she says. But when it came to making the choice, she couldn’t bear to risk leaving the degree unfinished and decided to try balancing the business, her studies and her dissertation with two part time jobs to pay the bills. “Looking back, I didn’t really live the student life,” she says. “I threw myself into the business and my studies.”

But White doesn’t feel that she missed out at all. Doing what she is passionate about means she never dreads going to work, and the company, which now employs several staff members and interns, has grown year on year. Loughborough University, which awarded her the title of Inspiring Graduate of the Year, regularly invites her back as a guest lecturer, giving her the opportunity to inspire the next generation of Sports Management students in the same position that she was in five years ago.


It would be easier to add up the hours I don’t work,” says White, who feels that passion for what you do is an essential motivator in the cash-strapped, time-intensive early stages of running a company. Holding on to her part time jobs as she built up a client base also meant that, at first, she could keep as much money in the business as possible, without relying on it to survive. 

This gave her the freedom to experiment with different marketing ideas. At one point, the company broke the world record for the most people on trampolines – a great PR stunt, but one which involved buying 200 trampolines, something she says she wouldn’t splash out on now. “When you’re a student you can say yes a lot more,” she says. “You don’t have the responsibilities and outgoings that you have in later life.”

And that, adds White, is why university is the ideal place to test out a business idea . “Just do it,” she says. “There won’t be a better time in your life to do it.

Sarah Watkinson-Yull, Yull Shoes

Being tarred with a hungover-and-unreliable student image was the biggest worry for Sarah Watkinson-Yull, who set up Yull Shoes during the first year of a Business Management degree at the University of Westminster. “One challenge is that when I tried to sell into a shop I never wanted to admit that I was still studying as I thought they might not take me seriously,” she says.

Book pileAlthough nervous about misleading clients about her student status, dealing with outlets who need stock delivered on time meant that she couldn’t risk sending a less-than-professional image. And keeping up a full-time professional persona at university meant seriously honing her organisational skills. “The hardest thing is time management,” admits Watkinson-Yull, who managed to make it to all her lectures despite the extra pressure. But whilst tricky at the time, getting used to juggling two roles can be good preparation, she says. “When you go into a full time job you discover you have more hours in the day than you think.”

Building on the creative skills learned during a foundation degree at the prestigious Fashion Retail Academy, Watkinson-Yull found that her BA gave her the research facilities and practical foundation that she needed to start a business, whilst funding from the Princes Trust helped turn her dream into a reality. Plus, she says, setting up a company during her degree gave her a direct opportunity to put her studies into practice, whilst running a business fed back into her studies by giving her a real life case study to work with.

What’s more, Watkinson-Yull, whose business instincts kicked in early when she started selling clothes to other girls at school, says coming from an entrepreneurial family has been a “tremendous help,” not least because her parents have been through the same struggles and are highly supportive. “My Dad tried to write me a Top Ten Tips for Business but I think it turned into about 18,” she says. “It’s still on my wall.”

barkers of Northallerton

His advice, she says, ranged from always focussing on the customer rather than yourself, through to getting rid of late paying clients and outsourcing paperwork to give you more time for sales. And, she says, he emphasised the importance of treating your staff fairly, as you can’t get achieve anything without them.

Since its founder’s graduation, Yull Shoes, now in its fourth year, has gone from strength to strength. In addition to retailing directly to the public via her website, Watkinson-Yull sells wholesale to 45 stockists across the UK and Europe and has just signed a deal with her first department store, Barkers of Northallerton. “People can tell themselves that it can’t be done, but I’m living proof,” she says.



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