Reality TV contestants are not always the best people to go to for worldly wisdom. However, Solomon Akhtar seems to be in demand for that very reason. The Apprentice semi-finalist is currently touring universities around the country giving motivational talks which offer business advice with the benefit of his experience.
The 23 year-old made it amongst Lord Sugar’s select few by successfully forming a start-up company whilst studying at the University of Exeter. As a student entrepreneur, Solly went from organising events for his peers to starting the social media-based Instabear company. The Journal caught up with the man behind the tech entrepreneur between lecture commitments to get some pearls of wisdom.
‘The great thing about university…is there are so many people with different skill sets around you.’
Don’t be Limited by Your Skill Set
‘The great thing about university,’ Solly enthuses from his Instabear base, ‘is there are so many people with different skill sets around you, I didn’t know how to create this software [Instabear] but you can network and meet people who have that expertise.’ The success of Instabear came about after Solly came to fellow Exeter student and web designer, Tom Frew, with the idea of a service for printing photos directly from customer’s Instagram account. The business has since gone from strength to strength with outside investment and partnerships with leading automotive brands.
Solly’s downfall on The Apprentice came – despite his strong concept concerning student start-ups – with a business plan which was mainly made up with picture of sail boats. ‘It got destroyed on The Apprentice because of the business plan,’ says Solly, clearly having recovered from his mauling interview with Lord Sugar’s colleague Claude Littner, ‘I don’t think it was necessarily a bad idea. I’m actually meeting some investors next week with a business plan – an updated business plan!’
The idea for We Ship Start-Ups , the business which Solly would have invested his £250,000 prize money in had he won the show, is to organise the logistics for start-up businesses allowing them to focus on the other elements, such as marketing. The entrepreneur is an advocate of throwing your weight behind an idea that you believe in, despite a lack of resources: ‘These days you don’t have to have a lot of money to start a business, just the determination I guess.’
Solly talks of his time at university fondly. Although he regrets spending a lot of the money he made on ‘partying’, he appreciates the opportunities the experience provided to him: ‘If I hadn’t gone to university I wouldn’t have met Tom, I wouldn’t have been able to network with so many people, I wouldn’t have learnt the discipline of study – all those skills are hugely valuable so I’m really blessed to have gone to Exeter and had that experience and without that I wouldn’t have the business.’ Days spent in the library networking and trying to get as many people as possible to like his social media pages were not completely to the detriment of his degree – he got a 2:1 in Geography.
‘Always write your ideas down,’ Solly advises, ‘even if you have an idea when you’re drunk, in the morning, or on the tube, however stupid it is, write it down and revisit it at a later date.’
Build a CV to be Proud of
After it garnered praise from many of Lord Sugar’s top brass in the interview stages of the competition, Solly has received many requests for resume tips. His advice is fairly straightforward:
‘During summers, I’ve always tried to get an internship and get plenty of experience to put on my CV. My one piece of advice would be always be truthful about what you have on your CV and also in interview, it’s always good to be humble, honest and realistic about what you have on your CV.’ Another top tip Solly is keen to impart is to always record what you have done as you will never know when you will need to use your CV, so keep track of the experience you are gaining.
Following on from this nugget is a technique which caused our favourite contestant to suffer quite a lot of grief on the BBC series. ‘Always write your ideas down,’ Solly advises, ‘even if you have an idea when you’re drunk, in the morning, or on the tube, however stupid it is, write it down and revisit it at a later date. I have lots of ideas all the time and probably 99% of them are really terrible and 1% viable as a business but I still write them down to get into that habit and revisit them.’
Solly is keen to reinforce the fact that a great idea does not need financial backing. A great business can be started from a university dorm room and be funded by the buzz generated by the idea: ‘Another good tip for students,’ says Solly,’ you can open up your product for pre-orders and get money for stock that way. All the businesses I’ve started, I got the money through pre-orders.’
Solly has reaped the benefits of seizing opportunities, many of which opened up through his university connections and it’s this will and determination which has seen him build a successful business career so soon after the end of his studies. He’s also grateful for the experience he gained from The Apprentice: ‘It was amazing to be in front of such distinguished people such as Lord Sugar, Karen [Brady] and Nick [Hewer] and an absolute privilege to get their guidance and mentoring.’
His may have been an unusual path, but Solly’s story so far demonstrates how much one can achieve in such as short space of time by gaining experience and acting on ideas, and writing a comprehensive business plan helps!