Getting investment in your start-up can be stressful, especially when your office is located in your tiny university bedroom and your only staff – yourself. You might start to get discouraged and lonely. Confused on the next step, how to seek mentors and guidance, how to go about getting a product market fit, and these sort of thing.
Christian Jakenfelds is the co-founder of Student Upstarts, an accelerator that gives investment and guidance to any student or recent graduate who wants to start a company. The accelerator is backed by Nick Wheeler, founder of Charles Tyrwhitt.
Hi Christian, Thanks for doing this. How are you doing today?
Thanks for having me, happy to get involved. I am doing very well thanks.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
Of course, I am a co-founder of Student Upstarts (http://studentupstarts.com) with Matthew Stafford, which I started at the end of my first year of university. We are an accelerator backed by Nick Wheeler, the founder of Charles Tyrwhitt. Nick invests up to£15k for an 8% stake and Matthew and I help the startups grow and get to the next stage of fund-raising.
In my time away from Student Upstarts I am still a full-time student at Imperial studying Biochemistry with Management for my undergraduate degree. It can be a bit of a squeeze managing them both, but incredibly challenging and enjoyable.
When did you get the entrepreneurial bug?
For me it came when I took a year out prior to starting university. I worked for 6-months with a pair of entrepreneurs, who were father and son, near Baker Street. Working in a small office meant that every day was different and that we were our own bosses. In a single week we would be looking at potential investments, the legal aspects of certain industries, negotiations, as well as 5-year plans for strategy. The control you had on the direction of your business fascinated me and I loved the immediacy of decisions. After this experience I was sure that entrepreneurship was for me.
You mentioned studying Biochemistry, a lot of entrepreneurial driven individuals would have chosen a business degree, why made you choose the course?
There were several reasons for it. Firstly, I have always enjoyed the life sciences and I wasn’t ready to stop learning about them, so was looking to study them further. But also I don’t think that straight business degrees in the UK are as valuable as studying other topics. A big part of university is learning to learn, as strange as it sounds. University is about growing up and being charge of your own life. Unless you really like business I think you are better off studying a topic you find interesting and then moving into business later.
On top of that, I was lucky enough to find the perfect degree at Imperial. I am doing 2-years of Biochemistry before switching to the business school and doing the equivalent of the Management masters course. That means I am able to studying Biochemistry to the level I want to before moving on to business.
How did the idea for Student Upstarts come about?
While in first year at Imperial I did a lot with the entrepreneurs society. I saw so many smart and capable students who were drawn in by the big money of consulting and banking. They were all good enough to start their own companies, and most wanted to, but they just didn’t have the opportunity or guidance to do so. Most said “I will do it later once I have earned enough money” but the simple fact is that by that time you have a mortgage and a family and so can’t take the same risks. You will never be in as good a position to start a business as while you’re at university.
So, I set about finding a way to get investment and mentoring to these students who just needed that help to start something big.
Tell me about the early days; what was the hardest part of starting the business?
Personally, I find the legal side of things quite difficult, simply because they move at a much slower rate compared to everything else. But they are incredibly vital and so have to be done right, and that means taking your time with them.
Otherwise, it would have to be just building up a brand. At day 1 no one knows who you are, so you need to get out there and spread your message. We knew people were looking for something like us though, and so that did make our job a lot easier.
What is Student Upstarts? And what are you trying to solve with it?
It is an accelerator that gives investment and guidance to any student or recent graduate who wants to start a company. We are trying to change the mindset of the incredible graduates that we produce in the UK to make them realise they have got what it takes to start a business right now, not in 10 years time.
How have you been able to fund it so far?
Nick Wheeler, the founder of Charles Tyrwhitt, financially backs us and is fairly involved in how we operate. Nick is fantastic because he completely understands what we are trying to do. He actually started Charles Tyrwhitt at university when he was studying Geography at Bristol; however, when he graduated he started working for Bain. After a year or so he decided he would rather run his own company and jumped back into being an entrepreneur. So when we tell 22 year olds that they are good enough, they only have to look at our investor to see we are telling the truth.
What makes a good start-up? What do you look for before investment?
It all comes down to the team. The saying goes “I would invest in a grade A team with a grade B product over a grade B team with a grade A product.” Quite simply, a good team is going to get things done. So even if their idea isn’t as good as others, they will execute it better than anyone else, and that is what matters.
What advice would you give to entrepreneurs looking to raise funds for their start-ups?
First off they should ask themselves what they really need the money for. Quite often it is for things like marketing, which I argue you can do without money. If they still want to raise money it used to be that you should look to friends and family, but I think with the support that Student Upstarts provides, and the addition of Start-up Loans to the mix, that people should be looking more at seed to pre-seed investment. What makes this so good is the mentoring that comes with the capital.
How have you been able to run this concurrently with your studies?
It all comes down to my brilliant co-founder. I was very lucky in being able to find Matthew incredibly early on in my vision of Student Upstarts, and even luckier that he shared the same vision. We make for a very strong team as we share a lot of the same views, but have different strengths and weaknesses. I can be comfortable in knowing that if I can’t work on Upstarts for a period due to university, that Matthew is in absolute control of what is going on. Again, a team is absolutely vital to success!
You were also the former president of Imperial Entrepreneurs, how was that experience and what are some of the key things you learnt from that experience?
It was a great experience. Working with other students in a university setting really lets your imagination run wild and that gives you the opportunity to think big. I was excited to work with the society and in my first term the Vice-President, Serge Vasilechko, took me under his wing somewhat and taught me an awful lot. It taught me a lot in terms of project management, and also team management. We have all done group projects before, but when you are running an event for the first time, with members of societies across London, the amount of work that goes into just making sure people get things done on time is huge. It taught me that there is as much skill in making sure things get done, as in doing the things themselves!
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
The first few months of Upstarts? They were exciting, but very scary too. I had taken a year out of university to get it going and so really felt like I had to perform. I learnt more in those 2-3 months than any other period in my life. You have to get your head around networking, legal work, website design, branding, taxes and the list goes on! What is special about those early months is that when something goes your way, it feels like the best thing in the world. Just to see your hard work getting repaid, I am not sure anything else compares to it.
How did you initially get traction?
It is all about coming at getting traction from as many directions as possible. I worked on getting the message out through the entrepreneur societies at universities and Matthew worked on getting it out through mailing lists and already established networks. At our first set of interviews we had applications from UCL, Kings, Royal Holloway and Queen Mary’s, so we were really happy with how we had got the message out. Since then we have spread to even more universities and can see our traction growing more and more.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow it?
Engaging with your target audience is key. From going to events, as well as hosting your own, as well as reaching out to anyone that has looked at applying. Get a coffee with them and talk about their business. You will benefit because you will find out more about your target market, and they will benefit from being able to talk about their business.
Also, get good mentors. We enter a lot of industries and areas we don’t have a huge amount of experience in, so it is vital to have someone you trust that can answer any questions you have and guide you through things. Through Matthew we were able to have Damian Tanner get involved in our first interviews and he has been an incredible mentor on investing and technology.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
I am incredibly proud of getting us, and our teams in the Sunday Times. I had a goal of being in the Times by the time I was 21, sadly I missed out on that goal by 1 day! The paper was published on the day after my birthday. But it was still incredible seeing your work getting noticed. I also love the energy in the room when we finalise any investment. At that moment you can really see anything is possible for the team we are investing in, it is now down to them to go out and get it.
What should we be expecting from yourself and the Student Upstarts team for 2013?
More companies! We now do Start-up Loans as well and all we want to do is get out there and find more fantastic students and graduates who are looking to start their own company. It’s as simple as that.
So anyone out there thinking of applying for a loan or investment from us do it! Both applications are up on our f6s page:
- Apply for equity investment - http://www.f6s.com/studentupstartswithequityinvestment#programs/ajax-application
- Apply for a Start-Up Loan - http://www.f6s.com/start-uploanswithstudentupstarts#programs/ajax-application
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Really good question:
1. Get out there and talk to your target audience/market. You may think you know what they want, but you need to go out there and talk to them. If you want to succeed you have to push yourself to do this.
2. Do something. Anything in fact. Just do it. Try your hand at buying and selling some goods. See what you enjoy, and find out what you are good at. Engage with people and you will find out a lot about yourself and learn more about business than you can from most books.
3. Help others – no one wins on their own. Help others on their journey and you can both get a lot further.