Starting an online business whilst at University (with a small amount of money)

Friday 17 December 2021, UCAS advice


Starting an online business whilst at University (with a small amount of money)


Starting a small online business whilst you’re a University student is a great way to start your journey into entrepreneurship and gain some first-hand experience on how the world of business works.

You don’t need vast amounts of financial backing to start a small online business, I started Protein Package with £300 of savings during my first year at University. We allow customers to pick and mix healthy snacks without needing to order large quantities of protein bars and be stuck with the same flavour for weeks on end.

Pick a niche that interests you

Firstly, the best place to start with your online business is to select a niche or area you’re interested in. The last thing you want to do is start a company and in a few months, you’ll get bored of it. Look at your hobbies, what frustrates you when you’re buying products? Is there a product or service you have a passion for?

Don’t sit for hours trying to figure it out, keep the idea of starting a small business in the back of your mind, leave it a week or two and then sit down to brainstorm. Over a couple of weeks, you’ll notice areas you think you could make work and industry standards you can improve on.

Once you’ve decided on a niche, you’ll need to come up with a name for your business and create a logo. You can do this on the free software Canva, it’s a powerful online tool that’s similar to Photoshop but more simple to understand and very accessible.

Check the legal requirements on the government website and register the business unless you’re going to operate as a sole trader. The government online guidance about setting up a business is surprisingly easy to understand and not too complicated.

The main thing in the early stages is to determine if the public will gain enjoyment, benefit from or get value from your product or service that you’ll be offering online.

Do your research

You can’t start an online business, no matter how small, without doing a little bit of research into the market beforehand. If you’re doing a degree in business, you’ll certainly have come across the SWOT analysis which identifies your businesses strengths, weaknesses, internal opportunities and external threats. Many analysis techniques are hard to use in the real world but the SWOT analysis is genuinely a great tool to use and it’s super quick to do.

Next, search for your relevant suppliers online and get samples sent, then produce a prototype for your product or practise the service you’re going to offer. You’ll need to then do some financial analysis to set prices to ensure you’ll be making a profit on each sale.

Bounce ideas off other students

At University there are cultures from around the globe who each have their unique views and ideas. The University campus is an amazing place to get free opinions and criticisms from multiple perspectives. Bounce ideas off your flatmates or create a questionnaire to get feedback from your potential target market. If your niche is in the fitness industry, ask to see whether you can hand out questionnaires in the University gym with a link to submit their answers. If there’s a suitable University society, go and ask the people their opinions on your business idea.

Make use of free online resources 

As you grow, there will be things you’re unsure about. Nowadays, you can get help on virtually anything from YouTube tutorials - so use them. Don’t run with the advice of the first video, watch a few from different sources so you can create informed decisions.

Forums are also a great place to seek free online business advice, you’d be surprised how many people are happy to help without requesting any financial compensation in return.

Build your website and grow it

Creating a website isn’t like it used to be. Platforms such as Shopify, Squarespace and BigCommerce provide drag and drop website builders so you don’t have to worry about coding or anything super complicated like that. If you wanted to add special features down the line, you can definitely do that with the help of a developer but when you’re starting out, just use their free website themes - they’re more than enough for almost any start-up.

All these platforms have guides to walk you through setting up everything and Shopify for example has a dedicated live chat feature to reach experts for free support. These do carry a monthly subscription of around £50 but many offer 90 day free trials so you can get ready, start making sales and then begin getting charged.

The power of social media and organic search traffic is unrivalled. You can go out and spend on pay-per-click advertising but start by building a social following and ensure you optimise keywords on the website to rank higher on Google and get free traffic.

I feel that whilst you’re at University, it’s one of the best times to start a small business of your own. Many students don’t have to worry about providing for children yet or paying a mortgage, you’ll also be beginning small and growing over time so you’ll only lose what you put in. Start off with between £100-£500 and don’t feel pressured to invest more, see what profit you can make with that initial investment first.

The best advice I could give is to just go for it. Don’t think about it too much otherwise, you’ll keep putting off starting. If you think other people will get value from your idea and you’re genuinely passionate about it, I’m sure it will be a success.

Written by George Greenhill, Founder of Protein Package and previous Aston University student who achieved a First Class (Hons) degree in BSc Business and Management.