For the last few months I have been a mentor for Young Enterprise. School or university students try running a genuine if small business, with under £1000 in capital, and see how hard it is to run it, let alone to make a profit. They are lucky -- when I was at school there was never a chance to try what the real world was like.
The scheme I am involved in is with students from Kingston University: a "live business experience module", says the Start-up a Business website. The class is conducted by Dr Corrine Beaumont.
It's been an interesting, and novel, experience for me. There are about a dozen teams, with each person having a specific role. Mentors are assigned to each team, normally a business advisor of some sort. I think I'm the only retired one in the bunch.
We try to hint and make suggestions without telling the teams what to do. It's their business, after all, and the point is for them to learn for themselves what it's all about. Which is, there is a lot to keep in mind, a lot to do, and it's hard work to make money. Just choosing the products took many weeks of debate.
My most enjoyable experience so far was being part of a Dragons' Den scenario where several teams made a two minute pitch for (imaginary) funding, and three of us asked questions. As in interviewing, I'm sure it was more fun for us asking the questions than it was for them. It was good if it made them sweat !
Yesterday there was another interesting event. The teams paid £10 to set up a stall in a large hall at Kingston University. Having worked out what product to sell they would now advertise it, and in some cases have stock available. Here's a picture of the venue.
Most of those milling about were some of the 21,000 students, and some of the products were aimed at that market. To my surprise I happily spent two hours visiting all the stands and chatting to the teams, occasionally commenting on some aspect of what they were doing,
Here are some of the products, with a few more photos. Apologies for chopping some people's heads off !
The team that I mentor is called Complex Simplicity. Their product is Brace yourself, an undergarment for sporty young men to encourage good posture by tightly fastening across the chest. I tried it -- it certainly had a remarkable effect. Here's the team !
And here's me holding it. Sorry I'm not smiling. They anticipate selling it for about £20. It's black to appeal to its macho market.
Another team's product was the Rebrella, a poncho-like covering available in several designs and colours. The idea is that if it rains you slide it over a bag so that only the straps show. Simple but effective, and at just £3 I bought one for my wife. Here's Rebrella being talked about on the module blog site.
Then there was Beebra, a sports bra that comes in three sizes. Care was taken in the choice of fabric, and there is a zipped pouch so that keys and cards can safely be carried. Why aren't women's clothes designed with pockets ? Here are two of the team with the product.
Another product is Oliver George S.A., with an expensive "Kingston" wristwatch complete with a plush wooden box, the only product aimed at the luxury market. They have their own website.
Then there's Powerpal, a device sourced from China which uses solar power or overhead lights to power up mobile phones -- a charge provides enough power for eight cycles, so you can keep recharging it without access to the mains. Handy for hikers. Likely to be priced at about £40. Here it is.
The cheapest product on offer was Speacup Stickers, at £1.80, which are packets of labels to place on any sort of cup. When hot water is poured in, a message appears in seconds. Clever. Another product with their own website.
Then there is Touch, woollen gloves with a pouch for holding say an oyster card, and two fingernails showing free to enable using a phone and so on. Priced at £5. Perfect for using the bus on a cold winter's day.
The Uni Mug was aimed specifically at Kingston University students. An insulated drinks container, with a wraparound sheet in the university's blue and white colours. Here are two of the team.
There was also Ella, a support for a baby's head (£40), Veles, a "versatile sketchbook accessory" (great for artists, a nice assortment of differently-sized pouches), Imperial Inc, a range of numerous designs on white t-shirts (as shown on Twitter), and there were a few others which I regret I didn't note down.
Finally there was Zest, another drinks container. Inside the container is a perforated cylinder into which the users squashes fruit or vegetables. Water is poured in and the flavours gradually diffuse into the water. A neat idea. Priced at £15.
Of course I volunteered to be a mentor to help make a difference, but I've also found it an enriching experience for me. I love the positivity and enthusiasm. It almost makes me feel young again !
The teams varied in their approaches. Most use, or want to use, social media. I noticed that on a few stands it was not obvious when approaching what the product was, or the price (maybe that was the idea, to get you to ask). Some stands offered a discount on the day, or if two or three were bought. I liked that psychology, as everyone likes a bargain.
In theory the businesses are wound up at the end of March and the teams are assessed. If they want they can continue to run the business,
More power to Young Enterprise: I've always believed in learning by doing. I'm sure I would have enjoyed school more if it was more like life.