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How to: Get into the Cambridge start-up scene when you know basically nothing

Reflections from starting a social enterprise whilst at uni

After grabbing as much free stuff as possible at the careers fair and chatting to a few recruiters I had a realisation. I didn’t really want a job at all (awks). I want to work for myself doing the exact thing that I care about most. Cambridge is a world-renowned location for start-ups and spin-offs so I figured I’d try and get involved with this in the hope of setting up on my own one day. The only trouble was a complete lack of experience and knowledge (minor inconvenience).

Two years later, I’m Chief Operations Officer at Blue Tap, a social enterprise aimed at making drinking water safe in developing countries. We started as a small team of three but now we’re growing. I’ve been to Uganda to test our technology and our reusable bottles are on sale in all the Cambridge Cafes (they’re beautiful and fab for the environment just fyi). I still know very little, but here are my 5 top tips for getting started:

1. Join student societies involving entrepreneurship and innovation

My key examples here would be Impact Through Innovation Cambridge (ITIC) and Cambridge University Entrepreneurs (CUE). ITIC facilitates the creation of teams to create products that “impact people’s lives” whilst CUE runs workshops about various aspects of business as well as a business idea/plan competition.

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Winning CUE but still unable to take a decent team photo…

2. Enter student business competitions

You don’t have to have a fully fledged idea to get involved just find yourself a group of mates and sign up. Competitions like Shell Ideas 360 are great fun and guide you through the process of ideation. Plus, if you get to the final, you get an all-expenses-paid five-day trip to London including free cocktails and luxury hotel. Hackathons can also be great, productive fun (almost an oxymoron) if you’ve done a little coding.

3. Be on the lookout for ideas

Think about the problems people face and how you can solve them whilst making money. How pressing are the problems? If you’re interested in a social enterprise, getting some experience in developing countries is a great way of actually talking to people and learning what they need. The Cambridge Development Initiative, for example, allowed me to make lifelong friends in Tanzania whilst gaining experience along the way.

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A prime example of me being chatty whilst in Tanzania with the Cambridge Development Initiative…

4. Be chatty

Some people have lots of ideas but not the technical knowledge to carry them out. Some people have lots of experience but no ideas of their own. Finding the right team is a crucial part of starting your own successful venture and Cambridge is a great place to do this. Even just chatting about mundane day to day life may help you identify a problem or opportunity.

5. Non-student experience

This is something I’m struggling with too. Despite my reluctance to work for anyone else, learning what worked well for another company (and more importantly, what didn’t) can save you a lot of time and money when it comes to setting yourself up. Internships in start-ups are likely to provide lower pay than others (assuming they're paid at all) but could be an invaluable insight into the highs and lows of running your own business. Start-ups such as Simprints also offer volunteering opportunities.

One final piece of advice that may be the most important (soz, I’m an engineer, not a journalist): Don’t be intimidated by the fact that you know very little. Be honest when you’ve not got a clue, but be confident with what little you do know and eager to learn from your team-mates. I spent a lot of time worrying that whatever I did in Cambridge would be wrong or somebody else would do a better job of it than me. That was probably true, but I did fine. My eagerness to learn has made me more of an asset than somebody with lots of experience who can’t take criticism or is unwilling to change. I’m still learning, but Cambridge is a great place to take the risk and dive in.