So university is a blast! You learn a lot, meet great people and importantly build the foundations of the person you’re going to become. With any degree though, a curriculum can often be a strain of the real world expectations - with business courses being the leader of the pack in my opinion.
Every company has different expectations, requirements and will face different challenges, so it’s impossible to teach you everything you’ll need to know. However I think there’s some key things they don’t teach you, that I’ve learnt since uni with my startup hollabox, which add value.
BUSINESS PLANS AREN’T THE BE ALL AND END ALL
So what’s common on most start-up and entrepreneurship pathways are a unit on business plans. A good three to four months devising your plan and research. By all means, you need an understanding of your market, the problem you’re solving and a business model, but by and large these documents are very lengthy and people just don’t have the time to read them. For example, an investor will see hundreds of business propositions a day, and so quickly showing off your value and getting the point across is key to standing out - not expecting them to read a full business plan.
You’ll need to be prepared to answer how you’re going to do what you claim, in turns of your operations, and it does help to write it down, but I feel the opportunity cost of writing a full 50 page plan could be spent building traction, hustling for early revenue or other value opps for your business. One-pagers and decks take less time to create and if done well, will compliment your discussion to show off your own knowledge for a more powerful impact than any business plan.
IMPORTANCE OF NETWORK AND TEAM
So as part of any course, you’re going to be sitting in front of a laptop submitting assignments. But one of the key things to building a business is actually getting out there and networking - not always desk work. This is both from a corporate perspective, for investors and advisors, but also for feedback with your users or clients, but I go on to talk more about this for my 4th point.
Networking allows you get advice for your start-up, which you need as a sole founder or small team, because you can become blind in your own “business bubble”. The startup ecosystem is among the most helpful, creative and intelligent, and people are more than willing to donate their time - so use it. This can be for advice on challenges you’re facing, feedback on marketing or public facing documents like a deck, or to open doors to new, value adding people. At an early stage of a business, the core team is what is judged over anything else, but the network you keep shows the strength your company possesses to move quickly and grow through new opportunities.
CORPORATION TAX, VAT, AND R&D
So unless you do a full accounting degree, no one’s going to sit down with you and show you how to fill these things out. In fact, you might not even know about some of these or think the only way to get this money is through an accountant or service. Most people are familiar with Corporation Tax and the concepts of VAT, but what you may not know is that as a small business you submit your VAT returns yourself and claim VAT back on your B2B transactions.
Likewise with R&D, as a tech company, you can claim some of the labour costs back for any technological or scientific developments your company does. These are known as tax credits. Again, these sorts of schemes can be found with research once you’re in the know, but at university, these sorts of gov initiatives remain alien, but I think they’re key to bringing to the attention of young founders because it helps when bootstrapping and managing cash flow. You can file R&D yourself as part of your CT600, but there are also a lot of companies that will do this for you, for a cut of the repayment (usually around 20%, some links at the end of the blog).
This brings me back to my point about users. Acquiring them is a challenge in of itself, but keeping them vested and retained to your product is even tougher. To ease this process, you need to create a way of keeping in constant communication with your users. You need to embrace your users for feedback, so you can be sure you fully understand the value you are adding, as it may be different to your expectations.
This will also help weed out weaker elements of your service, and know what to iterate or prioritize in your product road map. Some methods we have adopted are conventional, like feedback forms in the platform and focus groups, but others include 1-1 uninfluenced reviews, where we study how a person uses the product and thinks out loud as they do so - as well as braver moves like using our spare time during commutes for example, to ask for feedback on the train from the potential market. It’s fluent, often honest and requires no effort. Don’t ask, don’t get right? And you’ll be surprised how much feedback you’ll get without having to incentivize.
YOUR DEGREE DOESN'T MAKE YOU AN ENTREPRENEUR
A more philosophical point is that just because you’ve studied business or a degree, it doesn’t make you an entrepreneur. You only have to look at my own co-founder Arun Thangavel, to show what value adding work, with no business background, can lead too in terms of knowledge and skill. So, although working for a degree is hard - the real work starts after uni. Becoming an entrepreneur is all about working to build something sustainable from scratch, when most of the time, the chips are stacked against you. Upon finishing uni, you’ll have a degree, but the dog eat dog world of startups soon becomes your reality, and the rose tinted glasses of running a business, as published in a textbook, fall short to the realisation of the enormity of your challenge ahead. Be prepared to work hard, but more importantly work smart. Whilst your background doesn’t always matter - your attitude does, and this is key to gaining the skills you need to succeed in start-ups.
R&D Tax Credit Guide
R&D Tax Specialist Companies