Innovation and enterprise blog

17 January 2020

How to start a business in 2020 if you don’t know what to do?

Anshul, founder of Academic Underdogs, started his business after recognising his desire to help people who had experienced similar problems to him and how much he enjoyed seeing the impact his work had on his customers. Since he began his business, Anshul has graduated from our Innovating for Growth: Scale-ups programme and has continued to grow his offering.

Academic Underdogs books

“What business should I start if I don’t know what to do?” and “How do I start a business with no money?” are two of the most common questions that land in my inbox.

Before starting my own business, Academic Underdogs, I also asked the very same questions to many successful entrepreneurs, but their answers left me feeling inspired but lacked the detail that I needed to take action.

Unfortunately, many of them were so far along their entrepreneurial journey that they couldn’t really remember those critical decisions they made in those early days, weeks and months.

I don’t blame them as after all, according to decay theory, we all tend to forget details in our short-term memory and only remember headline events in our long-term memory.

Thankfully, I recorded my decisions and every step I took in those few months in a journal and summarised them for you in this post.

How my business idea developed

On A Level results day I walked into college optimistic and hopeful. Standing in line, my teacher licked her fingers, flicked through the sheets and handed me my results.

D D D U

…Brilliant!

I joke about those grades now, but at the time they really really hurt. There was nothing I wanted more than to perform well and get into a decent university, but those four letters shattered my dreams.

For the first time in my life I didn’t feel like getting out of bed, and I’d just lie there for hours with a stream of negative thoughts running through my head. My parents had to physically pull me out to go downstairs and eat.

Looking back, it was probably a short spell of depression.

Little did I know then, but failing my A Levels and experiencing this trauma was a huge blessing in disguise. Without it, I wouldn’t have built the business I have today.

No one, not my parents and teachers, anticipated what would happen after receiving my dismal results. In a moment of random luck, I met someone who had been in my shoes a few years earlier. After a short conversation with him, something in my head changed and I felt quite confident that I could improve. I couldn’t articulate why that happened, but it did.

Somehow, the sting of those bad grades combined with direction from this older mentor created the perfect conditions for change. I created a written plan on how I was going to secure the grades I needed to get into university. Plans and goals were nothing new to me and I’d made plenty of them before without acting on them. But this time it was different.

Many of my bad habits went out the window and I became more productive. My understanding of topics improved the more I worked, grades improved and belief system completely changed. A year later I walked into college on results day and walked out with straight As. Many of my module marks were above 90% and I had secured a place at a top university. It was one of the biggest turnarounds my teachers had ever seen.

Then, at university I went on to achieve first class honours and an award by the dean of students for achieving one of the highest degree scores in my year group. Lots of people achieve good grades, though right?

My achievements may not seem that special to some, especially those who got As and A*s on their first go. However, for a kid who had low self-esteem and was told to consider other options at the age of 17, achieving these grades felt like coming back from 6-0 down to win the champions league final!

How I turned the idea into reality

Three years passed since I graduated, and I was working at a proprietary trading firm in London. My job involved taking speculative bets in the financial markets, and later, programming software that traded various futures contracts like the German 10-year Government Bond, EUROStoxx 50 and FTSE 100.

After one horrific month where I lost several months of profit in a few days, I took a couple weeks off to execute an idea that I’d been sitting on since school. I wanted to help students who had failed their A Levels.

My initial idea was to start a blog, then after word vomiting 5,000 words into Microsoft Word, I realised how much I had to say on this topic. After teaming up with my best friend, this ‘side project’ eventually became a full-blown book called How to ACE Your A-Levels.

How I got my first customer

Filled with grammar and spelling mistakes, we published the book on Amazon as an eBook and waited.

Two days later we got our first sale and a few weeks later, we got our first review…

Amazon review for Academic Underdogs

This changed everything.

I wasn’t sure if the book would actually be valuable to anyone, up until this point. Louise’s review was the first indication that I was on to something. I hadn’t spent a penny on the venture so far, but now with proof of concept, it was time to invest.

How I launched my first marketing campaign

My target market spent hours scrolling through social media every day. So, I discarded all the marketing strategies that had nothing to do with social media marketing, like offline advertising using leaflets.

After creating a list of online marketing strategies, I systematically tried each one until I found one that worked. Facebook at that time had a very engaged user base in the UK, and over 300,000 17 year olds used the platform. Delivering paid ads here offered the best rate of return, but my campaigns didn’t achieve the sales numbers that I wanted.

This is when I decided to create a video campaign to promote How to ACE Your A-Levels. But there was a problem. Agencies were quoting me £2,000 - £5,000 to create the video. By searching around, I found a DIY animation software called Sparkol Video Scribe that you could use to create whiteboard explainer videos. Using this tool, I created this video…

The audio was rubbish (recorded it on my phone), it looked a little amateur and had a spelling mistake – but it worked!

My story resonated with a lot of students. The video generated hundreds of thousands of views across YouTube and Facebook, and around £50k of sales. Creating the video only cost me £12.

How I grew the business

After the success of the first book, I wrote How to ACE Your GCSEs and a three-part series called ‘Level UP’ for university students. My marketing campaigns reached over four million students and generated over £300,000 in sales two years. By leveraging the success of the books, I created a set of workshops and a one-on-one mentorship programme for schools.

I now spend most of my time creating online content, driving traffic to my website and delivering programmes to schools.

Create a product that alleviates a problem

If you want to start a business, but don’t have an idea, start one that alleviates a problem, especially one you’ve had in the past. Not only will this create a psychological tailwind that helps you through the inevitable challenges that come with growing a venture, but you and everything you touch will become relatable. People are more intuitive than you think. Your copy on the website, sales pitches, products and brand will show that you ‘get it’.

There is a silver lining with emotional trauma or any other kind of trauma. That is, once you have been through it, you join an exclusive club with others who have been through it too.

Try this… go find someone with that has experienced similar trauma to you and have a conversation with them. You will naturally want to advise or help them in some way and you will leave that conversation feeling fulfilled. Not that momentary fulfilment you get from a Netflix binge or praise from your manager, this is enduring fulfilment. Helping others leaves a glow of satisfaction that sticks around for a few hours after you’ve done the deed. Now imagine writing a book for all those members and receiving hundreds of reviews and emails thanking you for your help. Each one will provide a dose of motivation. Then imagine creating a service or a piece of software that can add even more value to that group. Hundreds of emails turn into thousands. How would you feel then?

Sitting on your hands for too long? Try selling information

If you are a little risk-averse and short of cash, selling information is a great ‘gateway’ business. It doesn’t cost a thing to write and publish your thoughts online. Whether it be a blog, book or course. Even if you don’t make a fortune, you will learn a lot and your attitude to risk will change. I no longer hesitate to invest cash into an experiment that may or may not work.

Mug with begin written on it

How to start a business that alleviates a problem

  1. Write down all the traumatic events you’ve experienced in the past – highlight those you are proud of overcoming
  2. Go to your local library - Grab your essentials, your laptop and leave your phone at home (no excuses - give someone the library telephone number in case of an emergency)
  3. Word vomit 5,000 words about your traumatic experience and how you overcame it

While writing, did you reach a state of flow where you lost track of time? Did you enjoy telling your story? If so, schedule in another session at the Library because you just might be on to something.

Once you’ve written 20,000+ words, drop me an e-mail – anshul@academicunderdogs.com

To find out more information about the Innovating for Growth: Scale-ups programme, visit our website.