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To start-up or not to start-up: How to manage a new business while at University

Tue, 31 May 2016

Contributed by Edible Bug Farm founder, Matt Anderson
This is the fifth blog of a special Shell LiveWIRE series celebrating and demystifying student entrepreneurship. 
Running a business can be a daunting and intensive task at the best of times, but trying to stay on top of things whilst also in academia requires a lot of careful planning and organisation. That said, it can most definitely be done and the rewards make it worth all the effort.
University is a fantastic time to start a business as it gives you access to various support networks such as student business incubators and, depending on your university, potentially top class academics who may be interested in collaborating with your start-up. By taking advantage of these, your start-up gets a boost not easily accessible to those outside of academia, and by definition, you won’t be delaying starting up until the end of your studies – a tactic that can definitely be dangerous if you’re thinking of entering a fast-moving sector!

As an added bonus, when you do eventually finish your studies, your work ethic will have developed to such an extent that the thought of running your business and nothing but your business no longer seems as daunting as it once did at the start.
To give you some background, I am a final year PhD student in Complexity Sciences working in cancer research, making me both a Biochemistry lab monkey and a computer programmer. But I am also a founder of Edible Bug Farm, a company I began almost a year ago with my co-founder, Adam Routledge (recipient of the November 2015 Shell LiveWIRE Smarter Future Award). We aim to address the future protein crunch forecasted by the UNFAO, through the development of sustainable, automated and cost-efficient technology for use in insect farming, be that insects that can be used directly as human food ingredients or as feed for our larger livestock.

I have been lucky in a sense, since the nature of my PhD means that I can be a bit flexible with both my lab work and my coding. This means that if we need to attend a business event or meeting, I can potentially move things around. The flipside to this, of course, is that most weekends will be spent making up time in the lab or in front of a computer screen.

The name of the game has to be sacrifice, but it’s important to make sure that neither your studies nor your business suffer, so this extra time has to come from replacing what you could call ‘low-value’ activities with your new workload. By this I mean completely cutting out things like TV and aimlessly browsing social media news feeds – two common time-killers for students – but it can also mean cutting down a little on some of the things university life is all about. This doesn’t mean dropping your social life, but it does mean that you probably shouldn’t be going out drinking every night – something you really shouldn’t be doing by the time you get into a PhD anyway.

Adam and I are a two-man band at the moment and this means that one of the things we needed to get good at very quickly was keeping on top of business emails and social media. From a practical perspective, I get all my emails (general, university and business-related) redirected to the same email address and then use filter rules to automatically sort them into folders so they are kept separate and I know exactly how many I have to reply to. My 38 different email folders with 75 filter rules may seem a little excessive (and some might say obsessive), but I know it works for me and it was absolutely worth setting up to preserve my sanity.

Another tool I now use (and can’t imagine how I ever managed before without it) is a project management tool called Asana. There are Pro features which you can pay for that allow you to have more team members involved (along with other nice perks), but the free version works just fine for us and allows us to keep on track with all of our projects, tasks, meetings, deadlines, etc. It’s almost like having a secretary to organise your time and I can’t recommend making use of this kind of tool (and there are several out there) enough.

I guess the take home message I would like to leave you with is that you have to have good organisation skills, not just to manage a business whilst at university, but really even to do either on their own. If you don’t have the skills or the patience and you still want to go down this route, it’s either going to have to be a case of putting the time in to get better at the balancing act, or to give up and go home. I know which one I would pick!

About Matt Anderson (Co-founder of Edible Bug Farm)
A Complexity Sciences PhD student working in cancer research, Matt began farming mealworms as a hobby in 2014 after reading a UNFAO report on their potential as a sustainable and nutritious food source. Along with Adam Routledge, they co-founded Edible Bug Farm and now focus on nutritional profile optimisation and developing different ways of automating the entire farming process in order to improve the quality and affordability of insect-based products in the mainstream market.
More info at
You can follow Edible Bug Farm on Twitter

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