Meet the graduate start-ups rejecting City jobs

Zahid Mitha has rejected a job offer from Diageo and interest from City firms to launch a start-up that turns preparing for driving theory tests into an online game, reports The Telegraph. In a depressed job market, has the 22-year-old Nottingham University graduate taken leave of his senses? “There are options other than applying for 20 graduate jobs you don’t really care about,” he says.

Mr Mitha is at least in good company. He has spent the last two weeks at a “boot camp” at Cambridge University, where graduate entrepreneurs from across the UK have been learning from experienced investors and business owners about everything from marketing to management and raising finance.

The boot camp is part of Entrepreneur First, a national initiative to encourage talented graduates to start businesses instead of taking a job. Matt Clifford and Alice Bentinck, the young managers of the scheme, say the fortnight may have been short on drill sergeants, cross country runs and push-ups, but the graduate founders have at least been “confronted with the tough reality of what creating and running a start-up entails”.

Inspired by Teach First, the initiative which sees promising graduates teach in struggling schools, Entrepreneur First has picked 30 graduates from hundreds of applications from across the UK for the inaugural year of the programme. The successful crop have spent the past few months forming small teams and preparing for Monday morning, when they will officially start running their businesses from a shared office in east London.

After another four months of subsidised office rent, tutoring in areas such as accounting and PR, and visits from the likes of Autonomy founder Mike Lynch, Innocent’s Adam Balon and Betfair founder Ed Wray, their ventures will live or die on their own merits. Is this the point where they will start longing for the relative security of a graduate job?

Not according to Leo Anthias, 22, who is establishing a firm which will allow companies to collaborate on corporate presentations. He had run a small business selling vintage suits while studying for an English and History degree at St Andrews but looked to be heading for the City until he heard about the scheme.

“I never seriously considered this was a possibility for a graduate,” he says. “I always thought that you needed 10 years’ experience at something more conventional before launching a company. Entrepreneur First changed that thinking.”

Now he believes graduates are in a perfect position to try their hands at running a business rather than working in one. “It’s a uniquely good age to start a company,” he says. “There’s less risk than if I’m invested in a job and used to earning a lot of money. I don’t have experience of working in a corporate environment for years, but I think that can be a positive — you’ve got a fresh perspective instead of the tunnel vision you get in some industries.”

Almost all of the graduates in the first year of the not-for-profit scheme — which is sponsored by Microsoft, Silicon Valley Bank and consulting firm McKinsey — are starting technology companies. Mr Clifford says that’s no accident.

“The most common reason people are sceptical about this is that graduates have no experience, they don’t know anyone or anything,” he says. “The great thing about tech is that [starting a company] is cheap, fast and the founders can be credible — on the internet, there’s that saying, ‘no one knows you’re a dog.’ No one knows you’re 21 either. If the product’s good enough, you’re good enough. But if you’re trying to negotiate leases on a retail franchise, being 21 might be a problem.”

Emily Brooke, a university of Brighton graduate, is an exception to the scheme’s focus on tech start-ups. The 26 year-old has developed a patented bike light which, she says, can tackle the “biggest cause of fatalities for cyclists” — vehicles manoeuvring into cyclists they haven’t seen. Her product, Blaze, projects a light into motorists’ blind spots, day or night. She says Entrepreneur First has “clarified how much money it takes to get these things off the ground”, but arguably of more value are the contacts the experience has provided, whom she expects to provide manufacturing leads and legal advice.

“My next fortnight is full of meetings with people who I’ve met through this programme. I’ve got a plan, and a vision, and I know I can do it, so I’m excited,” she says.

Mr Clifford and Ms Bentinck are in talks with more sponsors to expand Entrepreneur First, which, they argue, provides an example of how graduates’ employability can be improved. “We’ve got a big vision for this, much bigger than this year,” Mr Clifford says. “The future of graduate training — turning them into economically valuable, employable people — will have more to do with entrepreneurship than it does now. We’re training them in [skills] and mindsets they can use for the rest of their careers.”

“We fully understand that some of our guys, maybe even most, won’t make it [as entrepreneurs] but if it doesn’t work out, they’ll be very valuable as employees,” Ms Bentinck adds.

While the scheme is aimed at high fliers, Mr Mitha believes it will prove that any enterprising graduate has a viable alternative to firing off CVs to giant firms: “You can do it young. As Leo says, in many ways, it’s the very best time.”