'To be a young entrepreneur you need to do things, not talk about it'
As students prepare for university, Clare Weir talks to youths already blazing a trail in the business world
Published 19/08/2014 | 08:00
As thousands of teenagers picked up their A-Level results last week, thoughts turned to what lies ahead. While some of us reach our late twenties still not knowing "what we want to do with our life", a growing band of savvy young people are ploughing their own furrow and setting up their own companies while still in university – or even before they start.
Two young entrepreneurs who have been blazing the business trail have been rewarded for their hard work with a trip to Canada.
Cathy Campbell, from Lisburn, and Sarah McBride, from Ballymena, took part in Young Enterprise Northern Ireland's Company Programme last year where they each took the challenge of starting a business with their classmates at Friends School Lisburn and Ballymena Academy.
They will be among some of the world's top youth leaders as they gather at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, representing Northern Ireland at the annual Next Generation Leaders Forum.
The pair will face real business challenges and develop strategies in collaboration with their global peers and industry volunteers.
Sarah (18), who picked up an A* in French and As in business studies, economics and history from Ballymena Academy, said that while she plans to work abroad, she is determined to give back to her homeplace and return to Northern Ireland fully armed with business knowledge.
"As part of the Young Enterprise programme my team developed a homework diary app, I was the managing director of the company and while the product did not win, I was named the Young Entrepreneur of the Future," she said.
"Following my A-Level results last week, I have been accepted into the University of Bath, to study international management and French. I have also applied to universities in Dublin.
"I want to take a year out in Paris during my third year and I would like to do internships with the likes of PwC, EY or Morgan Stanley. I think it's important to balance education, career and real life experience as your degree is useless without experience.
"In Northern Ireland I've also had internships at the Northern Ireland Science Park which has been really helpful.
"I want to take the corporate route, I want to work my way up, I want to get into management, to be a leader and to work with people. But I also want to use that experience to start my own company and to give something back.
"Too many young people leave Northern Ireland and never come back. I had 14 years of free education and I want to contribute something to the economy that helped that happen."
Sarah said that despite the difficult financial times, she thinks there are plenty of opportunities for young people if they work hard enough.
"The tech and creative industries in Northern Ireland are thriving," she said.
"If a young person is confident in themselves, they can go to those companies and they are usually happy to give you experience. If you have high salary expectations, then obviously you want to be heading to the likes of London, but I think it is important that people come back and teach and help others, using the experiences they have gathered elsewhere."
While most stereotypes of the young involve hours of playing computer games, Belfast student Adam McKenna turned his passion into a business.
Still just 22, his foray into coding began at a very young age and he now designs retro computer games for new digital platforms.
He established his company Digi-Pop Games while studying game design at Belfast Metropolitan College and is now taking part in Invest NI's Propel programme for emerging businesses.
"Before I could read or write, my dad had an old DOS, or disk operating system, computer," he said.
"You had to put a disk in and give the computer a command every time you wanted it to do something. I used to mess around with the lines of code when I was a four-year-old. I think I ended up breaking the computer, but that was my first experience with coding.
"They say that if you are an entrepreneur you have to learn how to fail, and I learned how to fail early."
Things really took off for Adam when he and his team displayed their games at Q-Con, an annual gaming conference held at Queen's University.
"When people saw what we were offering, things really took off. We offer a nice mix, older gamers enjoy the nostalgia of playing an old-fashioned game, while we are also opening up the platform game to a new, younger audience."
Mr McKenna said that programmes like Propel were helping to guide young entrepreneurs down the right path.
Since joining Propel, Digi-Pop Games has designed and released a new digital game, 'Ramble Rumble' for platforms including Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Xbox.
"We got a lot of knockbacks before joining Propel and it has helped people take us seriously as a company. At one time we were just three guys sitting in a basement, we didn't know what we were going to do," said Adam.
"The other options would be to get a job in England with one of the big games developers. But this way, we get to have our own business, making our own games in our home country.
"The course at Belfast Met was also very helpful. The only other alternative would have been a non-paid internship. By taking this course, you get creative control."
Another young entrepreneur blazing a trail is Alex Milne (24, left), who has just graduated from University of Ulster in July.
Alex has been keen to take advantage of the many opportunities out there for young people with a business idea.
Earlier this year she won the Enterprise Ireland Student Entrepreneur of the Year Award and was named 'College Entrepreneur of the Year 2014' for her Little Deli app, which lets customers pre-order and pre-pay for their lunch from local delis and cafes, at their own convenience.
As well as skipping the queue, the app allows customers to save time and enables delis to prepare orders earlier, making their rush hour more efficient, productive and profitable.
Alex has taken part on both the Propel programme and was a finalist in the Invent 2014 competition for entrepreneurs, run by Northern Ireland Science Park's CONNECT wing.
She has just returned from trips to London and Manchester to research her potential market.
"I came up with the idea when I was on my first year of my Masters degree," she said.
"I think to be a young entrepreneur and to succeed, you need to have the voice and the motivation and you have to be person who does things and not just talk about it.
"The help and support is out there but you have to want to go out and get it.
"My next step is to roll the app out, to get a potential supply chain going, I am contacting big catering companies and using that as a stepping stone to take the name and branding to a bigger market."
Cameron pledges Government backing for start-ups
Last week, Prime Minister David Cameron said he wanted Britain to become the best country in the world to start, run and expand a business.
Speaking at the first Home Business Summit at Somerset House in central London, he said that while his ambition was still "some way away" due to excessive bureaucracy, taxation and regulation, the idea was beginning to take shape as a result of steps the Government is taking.
Ahead of the conference, Business Minister Matthew Hancock announced a series of measures making it easier to set up a company from your front room or kitchen table.
Mr Cameron, who also met some home entrepreneurs at the event, said it was a "personal" crusade for him, having witnessed his wife Samantha set up her own business from their bedroom.
He added: "This to me is not just about the long-term economic plan.
"It is also a key issue about values. I want us to live in a country where we really respect people who put themselves on the line and start a new business.
"There are very few things more noble than starting out on your own and trying to give that opportunity of a job and a livelihood not just to yourselves and your family, but to others as your businesses grow.
"I want us to be a nation of entrepreneurs that really respects entrepreneurism and enterprise. My ambition is very simple. I want this to be the best country in the world to start, to run and to expand a business.
"Now we are some way away from that because there is still too much bureaucracy, there's still too much taxation, too many rules getting in the way.
"But when you look at the things we are doing, like start-up loans, like the new enterprise allowance, like cutting business taxes and like getting rid of some of these regulations, I hope you can see an idea forming."
The Prime Minister also said he believed a lot of jobs and growth would come from home business in the future.
He added: "Sometimes when people think of home business, they think of some small, cottage industry on the edge of the UK. They couldn't be more wrong.
"Of course we want our established businesses to grow, but the fact is the real jobs growth I think will come from the start-ups, from businesses that may start small, but can grow very rapidly."