It’s a magical thing when someone who you’ve never met before comes up with an idea that changes your life. This happened to me when a business school student, David Porter wrote his dissertation on why it would be a good idea for Pearson College London to set up a Business Incubator programme. He gave many good reasons as to why it would be a brilliant idea: authentic learning, better ties with industry, mentorship, and ‘in-sourced work experience’. He was so convincing that Roxanne Stockwell, Principal of Pearson College London, not only said “yes”, but became it’s biggest advocate.
Across town I was sat in a fairly miserable waiting area of a modestly priced gym near Paddington (which had become my ‘office’ for lack of better options). I had quit my job at Amazon Web Services just one month earlier with a vision of “helping universities to recruit more students using their student ambassadors online.” I heard about the Pearson Business Incubator at an event, submitted an application, and the rest, as they say, is history.
One year on, I want to share a story of what is, without doubt (well, in my biased but perfect sound opinion!), the best example of Higher Education and startup collaboration in the country… Possibly the world… Possibly… ever?
I arrived at Pearson College London on Wednesday the 8th February 2017. We were going to be the first ever ‘startup in residence’ at Pearson College London. I was shown to our very smart room which had a nice desk, shag-pile carpets, and big comfy chair in the corner. It certainly felt like the kind of place a startup should inhabit, the only problem was that it was just me - alone with some ideas. Luckily an incubator within a university, surrounded by hundreds of self-starting and smart students, was the perfect place to be and it didn’t take long for things to change.
I got involved in the App Design Class, giving a 15 minute update each week about what I was working on and encouraging students to help us with feedback and testing - all ideas they were learning about in class. We also set up a Legal Advisory Group consisting of Law students who were tasked with starting to think about our legal position as a business. Two research projects were commissioned to look at how the competition and Markets Authority and Advertising Standards Agency would affect us. This was all information which came in very handy, not just in the terms we ended up creating in our contracts, but also in meetings when we were handling these objections. By May, the team had grown to two…
Over the summer we gave internships to two Pearson College London students through Pearson Business School’s Guaranteed Internship Programme. Finn and Liam were fantastic and helped us to learn about our users, and the changes we needed to make in our product, so much faster than we would have been able to by ourselves. Finn’s internship and work with us continued for several months - right up to the beginning of term time, such was his value add. By September we were revenue generating.
In the autumn term we got more involved in the syllabus, forming projects with the Accountancy Modules, Consultancy Modules, and contributing in classes to the Entrepreneurship and Principles of Business Modules. We also continued research projects (which were entirely student-led into the scope for collaboration with schools in Ireland), allowing us to learn about the future of our business whilst keeping on top of the day to day. By Christmas, we were there and had closed sales of over £90,000 with 10 higher education institutions including the Russell Group university, King’s College London.
The business incubator has given us the best chance possible to go on to become a successful business, and I know that we’ve positively contributed to the learning experience and, more generally, the student experience of tens of students who we’ve worked with.
So, for any institutions out there thinking about setting up a similar incubator programme, and for any startups lucky enough to be on one or even for any students thinking about taking part in one - here is why I think Pearson College London’s Business Incubator has been such a success:
Timing. If we had been a shiny startup who already had a great product and were scaling, there would have been less need to learn from the students and involve them in our learning. Incubators should be for committed founders in the early stage of developing ideas. Choose a startup that is working on a problem that students will find interesting, can add value to, and is in its infancy. It’s seems higher risk, but if the goal is to mutually add value to all participants, it’s the safest option.
Overlap. As I just alluded to, it’s essential for the startup to be able to benefit from student involvement across a range of different areas - from direct feedback to skills based work. This goes both ways as students can be fickle and the mission of the startup must resonate with them in order to establish long term collaboration. With a good amount of overlap, the scope for collaboration is huge and, as we’ve increasingly realised, can work well as a practical supplement to the curriculum.
Long term. It’s boring, I know - but good things take time and many incubator programmes are simply not long enough. Most successful startups are not successful because their first ideas were the best, they were successful because they had the opportunity to try out the second, third, (even tenth idea)!. A commitment, but not a guarantee, of long term support is beneficial for both parties. It gives the startup time and opportunity to iterate through more ideas and it gives the university time for stronger relationships and better initiatives to form which in time return more value.
We’re still making big changes to our business and are grateful for Pearson College London’s ongoing support. We look forward to welcoming and supporting the next participant of the incubator programme later in the year and will do all we can to make this programme successful over the long term.
Massive thanks to Pearson College London for the support; special thanks to David Porter who birthed the idea; and sheer admiration for the leadership team at Pearson College London for listening to their students and running with such an innovative programme.
Written by George Olesen