The tired old cliché that posits students as a work-shy breed has met its match in the form of
"Joanna and I were working on another project and needed some photography, but we had commercial quotes for about £600, which was just too much," remembers Sue, explaining how the company came about. "We had the idea of finding a student to save some money, and we did. A lovely student called Hannah came and took some wonderful photographs -- she was very talented," Sue continues.
The job cost the pair around half of what it would have done otherwise, and they were delighted with the outcome, but the student in question was equally happy, explaining that she would otherwise have made around £35 plus tips that day, waiting on tables.
The only difficulty in the process had been identifying a suitable student because the universities initially approached were too focused on other areas to provide much help. For Sue and Joanna this suggested a gap in the market, which market research confirmed. Out of this chain of events, studentgems.com was born.
"Right from the start, we wanted it to be national, not on a local low-key basis, and we wanted to do it on the web," explains Sue. A whole lot of fact finding and information gathering was therefore required, including the compilation of details for a multitude of colleges and universities, alongside the development of the website itself.
When the small business originally launched online in 2007, it was still in its beta phase, so a good deal of fine tuning remained to be done over subsequent months. As a result, the final version of
"That was very closely linked to the funding we received," comments Sue. The business assistance in question was bestowed by the Finance for Business: Commercialisation Fund, financed by South East England Development Agency (SEEDA.) The opportunity was brought to the duo’s attention by their local Innovation and Growth Team (IGT) and mentor.
The IGT explained that in order to secure it, Sue and Joanna would need to monetise the site (they had originally planned to run it on a free-to-use basis for a longer period), which they agreed to. There were two strands to the funds, but having missed the boat for the proof of concept element, they applied instead for the commercial component, a small-business financing loan worth up to £30,000. It was this maximum award that they were approved for.
"It was a very transparent process -- not easy overall by any means, but it was straightforward to follow the guidelines to submit what they wanted," states Sue. The government funding’s administrators provided feedback to their initial draft submissions, and proved very helpful in general, before a presentation was required to a deciding panel.
Sue recalls the presentation being both nerve-wracking and exciting. "We liked talking about our business, but there was a lot riding on it -- this was an essential influx of money," she comments. "We were bootstrapped -- we’d put all our own money in already, so we really needed some funds."
The pair had, in fact, launched a two-pronged finance drive, with the other push focused on angel investment, so when the new business loan was secured through SEEDA, it had a knock-on effect, increasing confidence in potential angel investor funding sources, who also subsequently provided additional money.
"Getting the money was absolutely great, though we had to be very precise about stipulating how we’d use it," adds Sue. In the event, the funding for small businesses was utilised for a variety of purposes, including SEO, hiring a part-time administrative assistant, upgrading the server, developing the site to verify students automatically, plus the planning and implementation of a small marketing campaign.
The collective results speak for themselves:
Sue isn’t short of wise words for would-be entrepreneurs and fund-seekers. "It is a tough, time-consuming process – start ups are vulnerable, and money doesn’t grow on trees. But some people won’t even need to raise money and can grow organically, so make sure you actually need to raise funds. If you do, you will get there, but it can be a long and bumpy road," she muses.
"It’s about getting out there and talking to people who’ve been there and done it, and have some kind of knowledge base, then building up your own knowledge bank from there. The more people you talk to, the more opportunities you find."
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