Most people tend to follow the conventional path to a successful life: going to university, first job, and so on. Yet, others abide by their own ideas and opt to start their companies or jump into other challenging endeavours right after, or even during, university.
This Logbook article focuses on those who decided to walk their own path, and created their own startups. These entrepreneurs shared with us their stories, struggles and successes.
Let us call these kind of startups: Uni Startups – even if they have already outgrown the moniker. In fact, there’s an increasing number of these cases, which can mainly be derived from universities’ efforts to instil a “do it” philosophy, aided by a variety of useful tools available to them.
A reason behind this could be from the fact that today’s youth seems to be a bit more edgy and ambitious than their counterparts from as little as a few years ago. Some find that a startup is a great way to keep their learning curve in the desired “hockey stick” shape, or simply that it provides them with the cooler, more exciting way of life. Either way, these individuals feel that they need to do something for themselves and (grab by the scruff of the neck) act upon it by forcing things to change.
However, this doesn’t mean there were no ambitious people before, when several projects kicked off right after their founders left university; evidenced by DRI for example. Nevertheless, the hype around startups has grown exponentially over the last couple of years, and this in turn has catalysed the appetite for such bold projects and attitudes.
We got in touch with some of these Uni Startups that were conceptualised straight out of university. For a wider spectrum of input, we made sure we contacted the most recent examples of these, as well as those which have now matured into established companies.
Taking a university project to the next level
Science4You was first thought of by Miguel Pina Martins and his work group during the final project for their Finance Undergraduate degree at ISCTE. At the time, their objective was to develop a business plan for a project called “Kits de Física” (Physics Kits), headed by a group of students and teachers from FCUL. Following this, Miguel successfully completed his degree, and started working in investment banking. However, four months later, he decided he wanted to return to his “student project”, where he then founded Science4You. Nowadays, his company creates educational toys and promotes scientific activities in more than 15 countries across the globe, and boasts a revenue of €6.5million in 2014 alone. Their main target was an academic one, but results were so encouraging that they grew to become a strong player in the market for educational toys.
“The main drive to found the company was to overcome certain rules at ISCTE. In 1999, together with a colleague of mine (Ricardo Ramos), we wanted our final project to be about the Internet, which was booming at the time. However, our teachers told us we were not allowed to because the project had to based on company briefings – the vast majority being consultancy and SAP related ones. Since we had to pick a company’s case, we figured we should create our own, send ourselves a briefing and kick off with the project we had had in mind in the first place. And so DRI was born – Diogo e Ricardo Informática.”
Surf Stoke has an entirely different genesis. In September 2013, a simple poster for a contest called Desafio Mar, pinned up on a wall at Universidade Católica, lead to what came to be the beginning of the company. Joana Matos (co-founder) called a couple of colleagues (João Rodrigues – Business Master’s at CLSBE; and Francisco Gonçalves de Brito – IT & Online Communications Master’s at ISCTE) about the event and this is how she describes what followed:
“We developed the main idea on a wave sports platform, and after inviting Nuno Ferro, we won the Desafio Mar competition in November 2013. We then worked on the idea, made some market research, and applied to the Building Global Innovators competition – a worldwide competition organised by ISCTE in partnership with the MIT. In October 2014, in what was the 5th edition of the competition, we became one of the finalists. A month later, in November, we launched the first official iOS and Android version of our App, and increased our user base to 3000 users, to what it has become today. Our major breakthrough happened this month, when we won the Best European App (check the pitch here) at the EU Mobile Challenge – we were thrilled!”
In 2011, a group of Lisbon MBA alumni started a company called PPL. All four founders – three students and a tutor – met at Católica and soon figured that the programme wasn’t the only thing they had in common. They all wanted to find a way to empower Portuguese creativity and its small projects. At the time, there were no crowdfunding platforms in Portugal, so they took it upon themselves to start their own company with the aim of kickstarting small Portuguese projects. The company was founded in May 2011, and the following month they had set up a landing page along with their brand. The final product became live at the end of that Summer, in August.
All four of the companies exemplified here either started at university, or were driven by university challenges, and they have now made it to a growth stage. This is clear evidence of how universities’ daily routines are in fact a catalyst that encourages new projects in a well-connected environment.
Young founders, future leaders.
Since the beginning, PPL had a huge asset going for it – market trust. Pedro Domingos believes that:
“It was key to launch the company straight away, whilst the backing and “quality-stamp” of two of Portugal’s most prestigious universities was still ever-present. Starting a business while you’re still at university is also great for networking and building a good advisory board. I think it was also great that we used our own project for the MBA, allowing us to continuously test it on and on.”
For Diogo Rebelo, launching a startup at such a young age was almost traumatic: “The experience was horrible! Mainly because of the environment surround us at the time. Thankfully, many things have changed.”
Joana Matos’ experience however, was the complete opposite. She believes that Surf Stoke benefited from being launched so early in the founders’ professional life: “We got to structure our business and think about it more carefully. We did so because, as students, we had more time on our hands and less responsibilities. This was key to helping us create the business. We also made the most of our university’s support, and capitalised on our teachers’ contacts and knowledge of the business plan above all.”
We had to pay for every penny from our own pockets.
Getting investors on board
In Science4You’s case, the company started off with a personal investment of €1125 by its CEO, Miguel Pina Martins, as well as an additional VC pack from the Finincia programme. “We had no problems with the investment, as we had the university backing us up. The lack of experience was compensated by the support and know-how provided by FCUL”, Miguel said.
Diogo Rebelo – and consequently DRI – on the other hand, had the opposite environment at the time of his project’s foundation: “Unfortunately there was no such thing as investment for us. We had to pay for every penny from our own pockets. Venture Capitals? Probably no one had ever heard about those yet…”
As for PPL, their initial investment of roughly €11k was cast from its co-founders’ private funds. This value was enough to pay for the company’s operation, as well as its platform debut. This is what Pedro Domingues had to say: “After that, we went all the way bootstrapping and working hard for each new client, and this is how we managed to pay our bills.”
Pedro believes that if you have a good idea, a good team and good operations, one way or another, there will be someone interested in investing. “Take MailChimp for instance: their sales alone manage to pay for the whole company”, he added.
Make sure you deliver. Create an MVP, and market it, test it, iterate it.
Young entrepreneurs take more risks.
Science4You’s Miguel Pina Martins, very straight-forwardly said so: “The best advice we can give, is to never give up! Go for it!”. Diogo Rebelo had a similar, yet deeper opinion: “You have to be persistent and keep motivated. To go all the way with a project is not all about having a good idea; one must be active and aware, and hunt for an opportunity. When this opportunity comes knocking, you take it!”. While Joana Matos keeps the board on the same wave: “Go for it and never give up! The path is rocky, but it has a lot to teach you, both in the good and the bad moments. We all felt we evolved a lot whilst developing or company, and making it a reality. Now we’re probably stronger than if we’d chosen the more conventional path”.
Last, but not least, PPL’s co-founder, Pedro Domingos, believes the following: “You should have a lean startup methodology. Don’t aim at having a perfect product straight away. Make sure you deliver. Create an MVP, and market it, test it, iterate it. Many times, what we think is the best for our product, turns out to be the worst for our clients.”. Curiously, we had heard that approach from João Romão on his Pier-to-Pier interview too.
From all of these great points of view, we can easily identify that, regardless of the point in time or ecosystem maturity that these companies were born in, good ideas based on profitable models can, and do, work. It can take more or less effort, but a company has space to develop and grow.
The main value we talk about when discussing what Uni Startups should stick to, is perseverance Francisco Veloso (Católica Lisbon’s Dean) can back that. If you’re planning to launch your own business, you must be willing to make all efforts needed to succeed. The path is rough, but things can, and will, get done.
Thankfully, Portugal now offers a variety of tools to help new founders launch their own businesses – setting them up to thrive and succeed.