Straight out of secondary school: why you don't need to go to uni to start a business

Starting up

18 May 2016

When it comes to starting a business, a university degree isn’t essential. In fact, it’s not even the norm.

We surveyed over 800 UK-based small businesses and startups, and found that nearly 60% of their founders don’t have a university degree. So, what skills and knowledge do you actually need to launch a business?

Education wish list

Whether they studied at university, college or the school of hard knocks, there are several skills that a significant proportion of our respondents wished they’d learned as part of their education, including:

  • Accountancy (36%)
  • Financial management (35%)
  • Marketing (32%)
  • Public speaking (22%)

Fortunately, even if you don’t have a formal qualification in these areas, there are plenty of business courses available that offer training in these kind of skills — and, of course, many entrepreneurs simply pick them up along the way as they build their companies.

The University of Life

While we found that a university degree might not be essential in starting a business, our survey found that life experience was certainly beneficial.

We asked what life experiences taught small business owners their biggest life lessons. Their responses were:

  • Having children (27%)
  • Surviving a financial crisis (23%)
  • A previous workplace (17%)
  • Travel (16%)
  • Reaching rock bottom (16%)

As interesting as the answers are themselves, it’s also interesting to note their diversity: each of our ten suggested ‘learning experiences’ was voted for by at least 10% of those we surveyed.

This illustrates that hardships are an everyday part of life, but a common characteristic among small business owners is their willingness to learn from these experiences — turning challenges and setbacks into motivators, and giving them greater resolve to succeed.

Preparing for success

There’s an image of the successful entrepreneur, and particularly the serial entrepreneur, using their education and accumulated business acumen to smartly turn business plans into instantly successful ventures.

However, several studies suggest that previous experience of setting up a business, whether successful or not, is no guarantee that the next one will work. In other words, having extensive previous business experience isn’t the key factor in creating a viable business.

Interestingly, it might actually be the case that experiencing failure is more useful for securing future success, with 9% of our survey citing ‘business or professional failure’ as their most valuable learning experience in life.

Filling in the gaps

Whatever your educational background, the chances are you’ll need to brush up on some skills when starting a business: whether it’s the ins and outs of your chosen niche or the nuts and bolts of running a business day-to-day.

Vocational qualifications and apprenticeships have proven a very solid foundation for many UK entrepreneurs. In fact, a third of those we spoke to had exactly this background — that’s almost as many as the 42% of respondents who hold a Bachelor’s degree, Masters or PhD.

Other business owners found the specialist skills they need, whether related to their particular industry or running a business generally, in other qualifications. 36% hold GCSEs, a quarter have A-levels, and 7% studied on HSE or HND courses. As well as being offered to students at schools and colleges, all of these qualifications are available to adults on flexible schedules.

For those who believe they already have a world-changing idea or a rock solid business plan, there are even opportunities to learn from dedicated start-up incubators and accelerators. These are specifically set up by specialist investors to find, support and grow promising projects. As well as providing financial firepower, they also offer the added benefit of the collective wisdom of large institutional investors as you build your business.

Always learning

Ultimately, however, the path you choose is only part of the equation: how you respond to it is just as important. That could mean taking on board the lessons life throws at you, or looking ahead and grasping every opportunity to develop and hone your skills.

As well as everything your business will teach you, the government offers lots of opportunities for skills development, including some that are funded. There’s always more to learn, but with a little openness, resilience and the willingness to grow, you can make your idea into a resounding business success, regardless of your educational background.