Interviews

How I Started My Own Business While Studying At University

Most students are preoccupied with how they will pay off their debts after three years at university. Andrew Dark found a novel way to do it, by starting his own business, and he hasn't looked back since.

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Most students are preoccupied with how they will pay off their debts after three years at university. Andrew Dark found a novel way to do it, by starting his own business, and he hasn't looked back since.

Interviews

How I Started My Own Business While Studying At University

Most students are preoccupied with how they will pay off their debts after three years at university. Andrew Dark found a novel way to do it, by starting his own business, and he hasn't looked back since.

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How I Started My Own Business While Studying At University

Andrew Dark is owner of Custom Planet, a company that specialises in providing customised clothing and promotional products to businesses and individuals. He co-founded the company while studying at Northumbria university, and has gone on to establish it as one of the UK’s premier custom clothing providers.

He shares with us how he founded a company while studying at university, and how he has used the lessons from those early days to build the business in to what it is today.

How did you manage to start and run a business at university?

We had an idea to produce novelty badges that we could sell to our fellow students. We purchased a badge machine, 50,000 badge parts, and a printer. We put together a very simple website and set off to make our millions.

After a few weeks of zero sales, we began to understand that having the products and creating an outlet to sell them simply wasn’t enough. We were getting almost no traffic to the website and had no way of directing people towards it. These were the days before social media provided a free marketing tool, so the only real solution was to list our badges on eBay.

After setting up a profile and listing, we were disappointed when we still didn’t get any sales. Looking around the website at some of the other vendors, we saw that a lot of them were selling T-shirts and seemed to be doing quite well, so we decided to try our luck at that. It improved things, but it wasn’t until we started taking requests that the sales began to fly in.

We received loads of messages about printing custom t-shirts, and that made us realise that there was a niche in the market that we could easily adapt to, so we switched things up. The phone started ringing, and it hasn’t really stopped ever since, even as we have got bigger as a company and moved to new locations.

Custom Planet Team

Andy and the Custom Planet team today

If you could go back to the beginning, what would you do differently?

It really is hard to say, mostly because the whole experience was a big learning process. When we founded the company we were really young and inexperienced, so if we hadn’t made the mistakes we did we may not have learned which direction we should take the business in.

I think we held on to our original idea for too long, when we knew it wasn’t really working. Being adaptable and not being too precious with your idea allows you more flexibility when something is not going as you planned it. If it isn’t working, move on and change it. Leave yourself enough time to evaluate why it didn’t work, get advice, and come back with an idea that will address the previous one’s weaknesses.

Is there anything you wish you had known before starting your venture?

I wish we had known who the best marketing companies were, as we invested a lot of time and money into advertising that was not right for us at all. The companies that we decided to go with ended up being penalised by Google, which caused our web rankings to drop quite severely.

Find the right people and make sure you are getting a return on your investment. We also advertised in newspapers with campaigns that were geared more towards B2C, when in actual fact we have had much more success in the B2B market. I wish we had spent more time considering what the right type of market was for the company before diving in.

What is the biggest contributing factor in your success?

Above all I would say that staff are the key. We have invested in apprentices along the way and, despite one or two problems, around 40% of our current staff were once apprentices for us. At first, it can be tough trying to find the right balance between being too hard and too soft when training an apprentice.

Sometimes mistakes will be made along the way, but with the right training you will have someone who is an essential part of your team. Even if they haven’t made it with us, I think the experience that our apprentices have gained will benefit them in the future.

We also have a wealth of experienced staff who make use of their specialist knowledge to help everyone improve. We never employ anyone who doesn’t add to our joint experience, and having flexible staff who are willing to pitch in and learn new techniques has proven vital.

CustomPlanet - Andy and John

Andy with his business partner John

What advice would you give to someone who's thinking of setting up a new business?

You don’t need to do it all yourself. There are organisations out there who can really help you to get set up, like The Business Factory, who provided us with the original grant to pay for the ill-fated badge machine and other start-up costs. We’ve also used the North East Chamber of Commerce (NECC) to source apprentices and other grants and business loans.

Search for organisations in your area that can help you in setting up your new business or in applying for funding. Never pay for advice. There are plenty of ‘business mentors’ out there who will charge you for advice you can get from other organisations or the government. The government’s website has a pretty helpful page on starting your own business, with plenty of useful links.

Do your research before committing your money to anything, and make use of as much free advertising as you can. Never go into your new business with a ‘if we build it, they will come’ attitude. Make researched decisions and take educated risks.

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How I Started My Own Business While Studying At University

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