Rajeeb Dey is the founder and CEO of Enternships.com and is heavily involved in encouraging entrepreneurship in the UK. Here he talks to inspiresme.co.uk about his own entrepreneurial journey and the lessons he's learnt along the way.
Q: Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?
A: I wouldn’t say ‘always’. When I was young I thought I wanted to be a doctor. That was mainly because I come from a family of medics and most people around me were doctors! When I started doing my GCSEs I decided medicine wasn’t for me but wasn’t sure exactly what I did want to do.
Then at the age of 17 I started my first venture – a social enterprise called the English Secondary Students’ Association (ESSA) and a website www.studentvoice.co.uk. The premise was to give school students (the “customers” of education) a voice in the education system. While I didn’t realise what I was doing was effectively being an entrepreneur – I was just doing something I felt needed to be done and it was something I was passionate about. It was only after people started to label me as an ‘entrepreneur’ and it has stuck ever since!
Looking back I’ve never been one to accept the status quo and always like to look at alternative ways of tackling problems – something most entrepreneurs do. My parents tell me that I’ve always been a bit stubborn and like doing things my own way – again, a classic entrepreneurial trait!
Q: How did you come up with the idea for your businesses?
A: While at University I was the President of Oxford Entrepreneurs – the society for student entrepreneurs at the University of Oxford. The society is one of the largest networks of student entrepreneurs in Europe and I found myself being frequently asked to promote job roles to our members from start-ups and small businesses.
What I realised was that while the blue-chip corporations had the time, brand awareness and HR resources to come on to campus and recruit via the ‘milkround’, the startup and SME community was completely disconnected from campus talent. At the same time I thought to myself that while an aspiring banker, lawyer and accountant can do an internship – what can an aspiring entrepreneur do? The best way to learn about business other than setting one up yourself is to work in a startup/small company to learn the ropes. Thus I decided to create a new word – an ‘enternship’ to denote ‘entrepreneurial’ internships within small companies.
The site started off as a simple listing site for student at Oxford and it wasn’t my intention to necessarily work on it as a standalone business. However, when I graduated in 2008 into the graduate unemployment crisis, it became clear that there was a market gap and opportunity for Enternships to become the global jobs community for start-ups and SMEs, and help bridge the gap between the universities and SMEs. I decided to relaunch the website in 2009.
Q: What are three frustrations/problems you experienced when setting up your company and how did you solve them?
A: Up until now, the business has been totally “bootstrapped”. I have put my own money into getting the company started but this brings with it numerous challenges and forces you to be creative about the way you do things. It means that you don’t have the resources to spend on marketing your site / service so I’ve relied on word of mouth and partnerships – there is a lot of goodwill and people out there who are keen to help and support you on your journey – you just have to be proactive and seek it out.
The other challenge we face is with SEO. As “enternships” is a made up word it’s not what users naturally search for. The vision long-term is for it to become a word in its own right however for the time being we need to invest in firstly developing awareness of our site and ensuring that our site becomes optimised against searches for ‘internships’. We are however fortunate to have received lots of media coverage and links from other sites which helps our page ranking and raises awareness.
The biggest challenge I have faced, however, has been on the technical development of Enternships. As I am personally not able to do programming, I initially had to rely on outsourced developers to deliver what they had promised to do. This was a regular source of frustration as, inevitably, things would go wrong, delays would occur! Subsequently I have found a developer who has come on board full-time and has made my life a lot less stressful!
Q: What are the biggest challenges entrepreneurs face?
A: Coping with the ups and down as well as dealing with uncertainty and fear of failure is often a challenge for many entrepreneurs. It is important to remember that entrepreneurship is a long and hard journey with numerous ups and downs. The key thing is to stick at it.
The recession provides lots of opportunities to spot broken business models and new ways of tackling existing problems. Tenacity is a virtue and, if you have conviction in your idea and belief in yourself, just keep at it. It is also important to have a think about what success really means to you – people have different aims and objectives in life and you shouldn’t measure your success against other people but against where you were when you started, where you are now, and where you hope to be. Success doesn’t happen overnight and the entrepreneurs who can weather the downturn are the ones who will emerge the strongest in the long-run.
Q: Do you enjoy being an entrepreneur?
A: I love it! I wouldn’t have it any other way. Every day is different and poses a new challenge. I get to effectively shape my own destiny and the start-up phase in particular is extremely exciting. It is definitely tough and there are without doubt low points but, overall, if I didn’t enjoy what I was doing I wouldn’t do it – life’s too short to be miserable!
Q: What three pieces of advice would you give to entrepreneurs currently starting a business?
A: The first bit of advice is network, network, network. Everything I have achieved to date (with practically no money) has been due to the goodwill and support of the people around me. I started developing my network from the age of 17 and work hard to nurture it. Networking isn’t just about accumulating masses of business cards and LinkedIn contacts but about adding value to those around you. Whenever I meet someone, I think about who I can introduce them to, which could lead to mutual benefit. This not only helps the two people but also helps keep your network active. This has become second nature to me and, in turn, has led to numerous opportunities coming my way and people helping me with Enternships. While to many ‘networking’ may seem a dirty word, in reality, developing and maintaining a network is very important and definitely pays dividends in business!
The next bit of advice is the importance of being ‘remarkable’. Marketing guru Seth Godin talks about the need to be ‘remark-able’ – ie for people to talk about you. Given how much ‘noise’ there is out there, think about how you will stand out from the crowd – whether that be through a superior product offering or through the marketing/branding of your product/service.
Finally Fortes fortuna adiuvat: Fortune favours the bold – We should see the recession as a time of opportunity; historically some of the world’s most successful companies have been started during a downturn. Seize the opportunity and go for it!
Q: What are your plans for the future?
A: I am in the process of raising a round of Angel/VC funding to scale up the business so that I can hire a team and develop new features for the site. With the summer fast approaching and graduate unemployment situation unlikely to improve over next couple of years, I am keen to ensure Enternships becomes the place to go for students and graduates looking for exciting work placements. In the process, help show graduates that entrepreneurship is a career path in its own right. I have global ambitions for Enternships but this will obviously take time.
Q: Why do you think your companies have become successful?
A: I wouldn’t say my companies are successful as such – its still too early to judge. I can however talk about some of the factors which has led to my ventures being recognised more publicly.
Firstly it’s about being timely – we launched the site in the middle of the worst graduate unemployment crisis in over a decade. Our proposition is also different as traditionally small businesses have not seen themselves as graduate employers, and graduates have not always regarded small business/entrepreneurship as a viable career option. Given the importance all political parties are placing on entrepreneurship as way to achieve economic growth and solution to the recession, our work in inspiring the next generation of entrepreneurs through exposure to entrepreneurial environment has been welcomed in the media.
We have also seen very interesting case-studies of how our site is being used even by career changers i.e. experienced candidates who may have worked in banking and have been made redundant and are keen to venture into the start-up world are doing enternships too. Finding interesting angles for the media is important and helps get you coverage and as our site provides a solution for various media “hot topics” i.e. graduate unemployment the recession and entrepreneurship we seem to have managed to get a broad range of coverage in the press both in the UK and internationally.
Secondly, and I’ve mentioned it before is trying to be ‘remark-able’. I was very conscious that I wanted to create a new word – an Enternship. We are all familiar with the concept of an Internship and automatically think of banks, law firms, accountancy firms etc. Initially when people hear the word Enternship they think – oh maybe it’s a typo – however, it forms the basis of a discussion among people and provides a means of engagement with the ‘brand’. We are more than just an ordinary jobs board – we are about creating a culture change and to encourage more students and graduates to be inspired to set up their own business and hence creating this dialogue and awareness of work opportunities in small business is important. Conveying this passion is essential.
Finally we have been fortunate to have been endorsed and received support from some high profile entrepreneurs including the co-founders of Lastminute.com (Martha Lane Fox and Brent Hoberman) as well as the likes of Luke Johnson and Peter Jones. We even had pop star Lily Allen take on a few enterns for her new fashion business, Lucy in Disguise!
Q: If you could repeat the entrepreneurial process, how would you do things differently?
A: Hire a technical co-founder from the outset. I have struggled enormously with numerous technical issues and trying to balance the product development with business development on your own is extremely tricky (especially if you don’t have a technical background yourself). I would definitely have spent time to find someone to work with me from the start to focus on developing the platform and share the load!