Jessica Gardner Reporter

Jessica covers Australia's technology start-up scene, writing on breaking news and trends in entrepreneurialism, media and marketing. She was previously named Australia's best New IT Journalist for 2011.

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The aspiring tycoon’s dilemma

Published 13 July 2011 15:44, Updated 14 July 2011 04:17

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Sheng Yeo, Alex Sharp and Joseph Glanville have decided to put their university degrees on hold to focus on their start-up company Orion VM, a high-performance cloud computing platform. The three friends have been attempting to balance full-time study with nurturing their technology venture but the demands have become too much.

“We don’t have enough time. It’s got to the point where we can no longer cope with both the business and university,” 22-year-old Yeo says, adding that he pulled an all-nighter the previous night to finish an assignment.

“At the moment we’re starting up US operations, which is interfering with my exams,” 20-year-old Sharp says.

Sharp and Yeo will probably finish their degrees later but Glanville, the youngest of the trio aged 19, is not so sure.

“I would finish the degree only for a sense of accomplishment,” he says. “I don’t require the degree for any other purpose.”

Glanville says his Bachelor of Information Technology from the University of Sydney bears little relevance or usefulness to his desire to start and run his own company. It is a complaint shared by many young entrepreneurs studying at undergraduate level who have ambitions to work for themselves.

They say non-business degrees, for example technology or engineering, make little reference to how the skills learnt might be applied in an entrepreneurial sense. Those studying business degrees, on the other hand, say the focus is squarely on corporations at the big end of town with scant mention of entrepreneurship, nor encouragement that starting your own business may be a valid career path.

Most of Sharp and Glanvillle’s classmates from IT will go on to be project managers in big corporations or business analysts, while Yeo’s classmates from his Bachelor of Business at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) will become soldiers in the CBD army of suits, working for large companies, the trio say.

Nikki Durkin, the founder of clothes sharing website 99dresses, is studying for a Bachelor of Business at UTS and shares the Orion VM team’s view.

“The thing that annoys me ... is that the entire business degree is taught as if you want to work for a corporate,” she says.

A foundation marketing subject Durkin recently completed focused on implementation of big-budget campaigns.

“I’m more interested in how to market a business when you don’t have a multimillion-dollar budget,” she says. “I haven’t spent a cent on marketing [my business] … I think that sometimes unis might need to get a bit ahead and encourage a bit more creativity.”

Although she’s only 19 years old, Durkin easily fits the moniker of serial entrepreneur. With her computer savvy younger brother, as a 15 year old she started up KultKandy, an online store selling custom designed T-shirts that were manufactured in China and drop-shipped to customers. While her business studies classmates were learning the four ps of product, she was processing orders on her laptop and making money. “My teacher, she would just kind of turn a blind eye,” she says.

Academically talented and nurtured at Kambala, a private girls school focused on academic achievement in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Durkin notched up an impressive final high school score of 99.8. Her decision to study business was met with disbelief by some peers.

“The path was set out for you,” she explains. “You went to this school, you studied hard, you got 99 or whatever and then you could go and do your law, commerce or medicine degree. And then you got a job.”

Durkin cheerfully talks about her business, in between sips of chai latte. 99dresses has reached 5500 members and she is feeling confident about her business plan. But despite the excitement, there’s a sense of frustration and disappointment that her entrepreneurial spirit hasn’t always been supported by her educational institutions.

She recently asked if 99dresses could be the basis of a university marketing assignment but was told no, it would be unfair.

“I see that as a missed opportunity,” she says.

UTS has been accommodating though, she adds. As the recipient of a $12,500 yearly scholarship, Durkin must maintain a distinction average and study full time, a tough ask while also developing her e-commerce marketplace.

She recently approached the business faculty Dean about changing to part time with her scholarship paid pro-rata. He obliged and it was an ideal outcome. “I assumed I would have to either defer and lose my scholarship or drop out. I was going to choose my business. With 99dresses we have first mover advantage, so it’s not like it can wait until I get out of uni.”

She says there are definitely positives to being a young entrepreneur at university.

“Uni is one of the best places to find a business partner,” she explains.

Indeed, all the young entrepreneurs BRW spoke to noted the value of the network they build during their degrees, both in friendships and business leads and contacts.

Mick Spencer from Canberra recently signed up his alma mater, University of Canberra, as a client. Spencer’s business, OnTheGo, is a marketing business, creating a range of branded products with an emphasis on active and sporting wear. The ever-enthusiastic Spencer has big plans for his business but is keen to finish his Bachelor of Business Administration (Entrepreneurship) first.

“I am quite young still,” the 20 year old says. “I don’t want it to be global for a few years. I can take the time in growing it slow.”

He studies part time and takes a “neurotic” approach to time management to ensure he can balance university and OnTheGo. It hasn’t been simple though. “A while ago I was in a bit of a pickle. A few big jobs stuffed up, uni was a pain ... I thought it was all too much,” he says. “Now I’m making more money because I’m more cruisier and not stressed. To be where I want to be you have to make sacrifices but to create a fun brand means I have to stay fun.”

While his business benefits from his study, (he recently used OnTheGo as the basis for developing a 35-page marketing plan as part of a group assignment) he suggests more practical learning would be useful and says entrepreneurship could be extended to other degrees.

“When I started my business, I was studying sports science and physiotherapy,” he says. “I could have continued that degree if there was an elective in entrepreneurship.” In this vein,
chief executive of Freelancer.com and BRW’s entrepreneur of the year in 2011 Matt Barrie
has been a driving force behind the introduction of a entrepreneurship subject to be offered
at the University of Sydney for technology undergraduates. Although they applaud the idea, the Orion VM team express some hesitation.

“The biggest problem with a course on entrepreneurship is it will either be compulsory and everyone will hate it or it will be elective and people will take it because it’s a bludge subject,” Yeo says. “You can’t force someone to do well at running at company.”

However established entrepreneurs and academics warn that missing out on a university education could hamper an entrepreneur’s future endeavours. Barrie is a staunch defender of university education. At Freelancer he hires only engineers and computer scientists with degrees. “I find that when you hire someone who is self-taught, they might be incredibly talented but there will often be critical gaps in their knowledge,” he tells BRW by email.

To aspiring entrepreneurs he says, “trust me, you might find university boring but you’ll be able to build your company faster and better by completing your studies.”

As well, Barrie warns that investors are risk averse and tend to stick to what they know, preferring to back entrepreneurs with education from institutions such as Stanford University in the United States (where he studied).

“You’ll be lucky to get investment if you went to a university like the University of Sydney,” he says. “If you have no experience or track record you’re shooting yourself in the foot by dropping out with no degree at all.”

The dean of business at UTS, Roy Green, urges his Bachelor of Business students to keep plugging away, saying it provides the conceptual foundation for understanding business management, innovation and growth. “While there is no guarantee of success in entrepreneurship and business start-up activity, understanding the functional areas of management and how they interrelate as part of a business strategy is an important predictor of organisational resilience and growth,” he tells BRW by email.

Acting dean of the University of Sydney Business SchoolTyrone Carlin says the cost of not having had formal training in areas such as financial management, business information organisation or negotiation may not manifest in the eyes of young entrepreneurs immediately, but “they’re there”.

“Success in business is about the application of skills and that means anywhere you have an opportunity to develop your skills and gain a better understanding, with greater rigour, of the risks and opportunities you face, that helps you,” Carlin says.

Most of the young entrepreneurs see some value in their degrees but yearn for more of an entrepreneurial focus. Perhaps the least confident in universities to deliver this is
24-year-old Jack Delosa, who founded MBE Education and most recently The Entourage, two business coaching firms.

Delosa ditched a commerce and law degree from Deakin University to focus on his business. “Although I enjoyed the subjects, the pace at which I was learning and the lack of implementation didn’t suit me,” he says.

“Universities are great at creating employees, [who] teach people how things have always been done. Entrepreneurs need to innovate in order to stay ahead.”

Agatha Yu, a 19-year-old commerce and law student at the University of Sydney, is taking matters into her own hands. She’s starting a society were students in teams develop a business idea in one semester and pitch it to investors. She says the business school has been supportive but she has suggestions on how her degree could help her business, Curious Bite, a social dining concept were strangers meet new people in restaurants.

“I think what they could do is make the curriculum more flexible,” Yu adds. “They could reduce the number of core units and give people more options.” And in terms of external links, her university offers many networking opportunities with large corporations but “you don’t get to meet genuine entrepreneurs”, she says.

Another UTS business student, Jonathan Boonzaaier, is in his last semester and “has grown fond of being my own boss”. With his high school friend, Brandon Els, Boonzaaier launched a board sports, art and design magazine Trunk Junk Quarterly, in October 2010. He says only a handful of his subjects were relevant to running his own business. Although glad he is now almost finished, Boonzaaier admits he “wanted to bale out of my degree at many points”.

“Uni tends to take the backburner, especially when you’re putting money into something. My father insisted that I finish uni. I’m glad I did.”

The anxiety of parents is cited by most of the entrepreneurs as the main reason they don’t just quit their degrees and run their businesses.

Although her parents are supportive of 99dresses, Durkin says they want a daughter with a degree. “My parents have a view, like you need a back-up plan,” she says. “I don’t share that view. If 99dresses fails, I’ll figure something else out. I’ve been making money off the internet since I was 15.”

Spoken like a true entrepreneur, even if she hasn’t learnt how to be one at university.

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