I joined the Catalyst Team, because I wanted to learn more about entrepreneurship, innovation, and making ideas happen (I know that’s the Innovation Centre’s tagline- but it’s true!). The first project given to me was to help run an annual entrepreneurship competition called StartUp Sussex. The gist of it is that participants are selected for mentoring and teaching based on their entrepreneurial ideas and general promise. They then go on and pitch their idea to a panel of investors who award the top three with £10,000, £5,000, and £2,500 worth of funding.
Admittedly, my first impression was actually of surprise that this competition even existed and I couldn’t deny that there was a hint of regret, thinking: “Why on earth haven’t I heard of this competition? Had I known about it, I definitely would have joined!”. Having to accept an overseeing role, in hindsight, I suppose there’s an element of irony knowing that the competition I now help run is one that is targeted to people like me (oh well). Despite this somewhat internal dilemma, in the planning phase I suggested the idea that our team should focus on a substantial objective- getting the initiative out there, marketing the competition, and getting fellow entrepreneurship enthusiasts signed up. Long story short, we exceeded our goal and we had a record number of applications. In previous years we struggled for 50 applications. This year, we had over three times as many.
It’s now been about 6 weeks into the competition and it has seen us run 6 workshops to develop the participants’ business ideas. We are primarily using a tool called ‘Business Model Canvas’, which is a really awesome strategic management and business model template to help organise and structure business ideas. The first few sessions were mostly introductory and explored how to think and possess the creative skills as an entrepreneur but sessions quickly moved onto identifying what customer segments to target, channels, key resources, partners, revenue streams and finance and operations (in other words the nitty gritty). I found the teaching by my colleagues from the Innovation Centre Support team to be exemplary and I could tell that the students were really benefitting from it. In fact, often times I found myself jotting down points to refer back for my own benefit! It’s safe to say I will definitely use the canvas for my own ideas, whether it be in StartUp Sussex as a participant or externally.
The other aspect that deserves mentioning are the participants, AKA the aspiring entrepreneurs. Aside from being a good bunch, when joining in on tables to facilitate discussion and listen to people discuss passionately about their ideas, so far I’ve found it both insightful and enjoyable to be a part of. For the students, apart from the teaching, I bet they find it beneficial being able to network intelligently and talk to people who are like-minded and share advice. I think it’s hugely important and refreshing to be able devote time to think beyond their degree and express desire in making ideas happen. While it’s also good to remember to take some advice with a pinch of salt, having this forum like environment is beneficial as you are sort of put into a similar position as to how a business incubator works. That said, even just listening to other people’s ideas and understanding them is good as you can go on and iterate your own.
I would say that this is the understated value of StartUp Sussex. Just having access to this guiding and safe environment is significant because as an entrepreneur you will definitely face uncertainty all the time. And we need initiatives and support to help this and encourage people to become entrepreneurs. Given the hugely cliché yet successful stories of now billion dollar companies like Facebook and Apple being communicated and even dramatized ad nauseaum, more and more people see the appeal but we forget that every startup has a near death experience in some way or form and that success does not come overnight. It's important to utilise all the help you can but help from others can only go so far. You will have to work tirelessly, learn fast, and learn from your mistakes.
To some, being without security and certainty can be an inoperable way of life but it’s becoming readily clear, particularly with app startups, that the playing field to start a successful business is leveling. In my opinion this is a great opportunity and in my overseeing role in StartUp Sussex, I’m delighted to know that students share this belief. Although, that being said, entrepreneurship isn’t just about knowing what the future holds, it is about being bold enough to shape it.