How to start... a business while still at school
George Edwards is the founder of Gas-Sense, a product which helps people track the amount left in gas canisters - perfect for BBQs and camping, ensuring that you don't run out. By monitoring the amount of gas left and wirelessly transmitting to an app on your phone, it's a simple and ingenious solution to a problem that's been ruining outdoors occasions for decades. And even more impressively, the product was invented and brought to market whilst George was still in the process of studying for his A-levels. Here's how he did it.
I had had a desire to get into business from a very young age, but wasn't expecting to do it at school. When I first exhibited a school coursework project, which ended up becoming Gas-Sense, the public response was incredible. I had hundreds of people asking if they could buy one - it seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. So rather than letting them down, I took as many peoples' details as I could (and quickly had some cards printed). A few weeks later, I had a patent application, and a registered company where the Registered Office was my room at school. Roughly 18 months later, we have a factory ready to build, have completed a successful crowd-funding campaign, and expect to see the products on shelves internationally in the next few weeks.
Initially, my first step was to build a great product and really understand the market. But that was before I realised I was preparing to start a business. When that happened, I spent several months thoroughly researching everything relevant to my work - IP, company registrations, my market, its trends and thought leaders, things that had worked before. I found my age to be very helpful at this point, as very senior people will often be more than happy to give you an hour of their time. And it is the one time in business when nobody expects you to know everything. That period was truly remarkable - I must have spent a fortune on the fast train from Canterbury to London, because most weeks I would spend a spare afternoon sitting in the office of a FTSE 100 director who was giving me honest advice, and then be back in time to do my maths homework (usually).
Friends and family
I had a very mixed reaction from friends and family. Lots of people were very supportive, but other teachers were very concerned about the time I was spending on my work (rather than theirs). Initially, I had to be quite assertive, but when I started making some real progress and getting some recognition, people couldn't have been more supportive. I typically find it useful to seek lots of people’s opinions, but ultimately go with your gut and take feedback with a pinch of salt.
Managing my time was probably my biggest challenge. I run my company on my own and hardware startups are notoriously time consuming. I have three mobile apps, an internationally certified widget and a patent, and had to balance all this whilst also managing my A-Levels (for UK university) and SATs (for an application to the USA). So I sort of had two parallel school lives and a business on the side. I found meticulous planning and giving thought to how efficiently you were working helped to lighten the load. When you are working on your own time, your motivations are very different and I found myself fundamentally changing the ways I work.
I didn't have much of a set routine, it was different depending on which day of the week it was and what was happening at school. I tend to think that rather than necessarily sticking to a fixed routine, being flexible and finding something that works for you is best. In a startup your workload is very variable, and similarly, my school work was quite seasonal. So whilst I had set periods of fixed work and periods for meeting people etc. I only really planned how many hours a week I would spend on each activity.
Asking for help
Again, I was really taken aback by how generous very senior people are with their time. So I was able to build an advisory network to try and combat my lack of experience in business. I tried to choose people with very different experiences and perspectives from me - which always makes for some stimulating and challenging debate. This I find helps keep me on course and prepares me to avoid some of the common pitfalls.
Any tips to anyone else thinking of starting a business while still at school?
Go for it! The experience and education is worth it. But make sure you start with a product and not with the desire for a business. Lots of people just want to be part of a startup, so they start one and then find a product - this often leads to services which don't really meet a need and are hard to sell.
Experience and education aside, age is a decreasing asset when it comes to opening doors for you. It can help while you’re at school, but by the time you have spent three years at university you'll be fighting for meetings alongside everyone else.
You'll have to do lots of boring meticulous planning, as people will by default be worried that you aren’t serious and that they shouldn’t be taking a risk and doing business with you. By showing yourself to be prepared and professional, you will dispel these doubts and fill them with confidence!
Finally, don’t be halfhearted - completely commit and enjoy it!