‘A small loan of a million dollars’: An Oxford entrepreneur on why it’s harder than you think

It’s nothing like The Social Network

Student wantrepreneurs are fairly common. Whether they model themselves on Zuckerberg, or spend hours crafting interesting sounding words with no vowels and a full stop at the end to name their new app or venture, people think it’s just for the CV boost. But the reality is far different. Actually it’s a pain, it’s tough, and it’s really hard to set up. It’s even worse when your own university aren’t as helpful as they might seem.

I sat down with Andros Wong. He’s a fourth year founder at New College, studying Engineering and Economics Management. Originally from Hong Kong, he saw a gap in how students receive funding for research. Usually this is through scholarships, bursaries and grants but also through alumni. He now aims to connect people willing to fund with the people willing to take on their own more important research. Silo, his company, he describes as an Ok Cupid for academics.

We spoke to him on the problems he found setting up his own business.

Founder of Silo, Andros Wong

Founder of Silo, Andros Wong

How much support, if any, do you receive from the university?

Some parts of the university have been very helpful, particularly the entrepreneurship centre in the Business School and the Careers service. Unfortunately we do not have support from the Fees and Funding page, but we’re in talks with them so hopefully it will change. My warden is very supportive. Even in discussions of balancing academic work with business, and which one I should prioritise, I think I’m very much keeping the entrepreneurship at the forefront because I want this to be my career and he’s okay with that.

What advice would you give to someone who has an entrepreneurial idea but doesn’t know how to get it together?

Well, I started with some friends – my girlfriend accepted a place to study Hebrew studies at Oxford and I tried for a long time to help her find a grant or scholarship, but it didn’t give me anything on Google and I realised there was a gap in the market. There was no platform that offered help. She tried crowd-funding which didn’t really work because it’s fairly difficult and she ended up relying on a college scholarship that covered tuition and a family friend who helped her out with the rest. A lot of people can’t afford it: tuition fees are going up, student loans are going up, and I think there needs to be a different way of alleviating the financial burden.

It was at that point that I started research, interviewing students, and we’ve been researching for a year to create something with the least number of features which students can use and give feedback. So, my advice is be organised and do your research.

What are the best and worst parts of being a student entrepreneur in your line of business?

It’s really very rewarding. We’ve only had the site up for a few weeks and we’ve already received emails from people thanking us for our help. I guess in some way we’re changing their lives and giving them the opportunity to get the education they want and that’s what really motivates me.

And the worst parts…?

Student entrepreneurialism has been over-glamorised by films like The Social Network.

Yeah, like, it’s all sex and beer and the Winklevoss twins?

Yeah. Anyway, it’s actually really hard, and you’ve got to be determined, you have to have a very high pain-tolerance. Earlier in the academic year when we launched, one of our core members – there were three of us – decided he didn’t want to do it anymore because of the stress and pressure. Literally four days later, the other guy dropped out because it wasn’t compatible with his degree. I was left alone.

As someone who’s pretty stable and mentally healthy, I started getting really quite bad anxiety – this project is my baby and suddenly it was dying. So I stepped back, remembered I was doing what I love and it doesn’t matter who drops out. While I’m still in it, I’m going to fight for it. I put out notices to recruit new people (literally shouting at an event that I needed people) and we’re doing alright now. We were recently accepted into one of Europe’s biggest accelerators called The Family and we’re receiving a lot of support. And now the core guys are back. We’ve got a team of seven.

Tequila and nerds

Tequila and nerds

A septumvirate. That’s wicked-cool. 

Yeah. [Looks uncomfortable again] But there’s still so much work to be done. I think we need more people who are unconventional, both as colleagues and users, people who are committed, determined and resilient. Then again, most people who go into academia have passion. It isn’t easy – I work 70 to 80 hour work weeks, but I love it. Luckily I’m a fourth year, friends have graduated, fewer distractions.