Lessons from the President of Oxford Entrepreneurs

12 months ago today I finished my final exam at Oxford University, and was about to embark on the next stage of my life.  As it turned out, this next stage involved working as the President of Oxford Entrepreneurs, Europe’s largest student entrepreneurship society with over 10,000 members. While studying I had held presidential roles at other student societies, and I assumed (perhaps naïvely) this role would be similar. However, within weeks it was clear to me that the only thing these roles had in common was their title.

The OE Presidential role was much more like the experiences of start-up founders I supported. I started with nothing but a brand and some money in the bank (I admit this is more than many founders start with, so I was lucky there). On day one I had to find a team and source funding (there wasn’t enough in the bank to keep me going for long), and then with my new team I had to create a product(s)/service(s), design and implement a marketing plan, and deliver that product(s)/service(s). Over the first three months I had a team of six people and by the end of the year we had grown to over 50.

During the 12 months I’ve experienced the highs and lows of success and failure while running your own organisation. For the remainder of this post I want to talk about my failures and the key lessons I’ve learnt from them. I’ve selected the 5 lessons that I believe are the most important, rather than 5 biggest failures. I’m hoping, by describing these five lessons, to help the reader avoid making the same mistakes. However, if you do, to quote Susan Graham, one of our keynote speakers from the Oxford Inspires conference – “Fail hard and fail quick!”

1. There are different types of strength and intelligence

I have always been aware of physical and mental strength, but it wasn’t until recently that I became aware of emotional strength. One of the most challenging aspects of running OE was coming to terms with my own emotional strength and learning how acted as both a help and a hindrance. Over the year, I’ve spoken with many entrepreneurs about exactly this, and emotional intelligence more broadly. I would recommend that every entrepreneur works on their emotional intelligence as quickly as possible - you’re going to need it. A helpful starting place is this article from the Harvard Business Review.

2. Get your KPIs right

At first, our only KPIs were the number of attendees at our events and total revenue. This quickly changed, as we realised our KPIs did not match our goals. Our goals were to inspire, educate and support entrepreneurship in Oxford. Therefore, our KPIs had to be changed to match these goals. This included creating feedback forms to determine whether our members were learning at our events, and monitoring how many students were starting their own businesses. This enabled us to focus on the things that worked, and drop the things that didn’t. Here is a great article for those who are a fan of the Lean Start-Up Methodology and want to learn more about KPIs.

3. Patience – your idea will come

I applied for this role because I wanted to leave the events management sector and do something new. It took 9 months for me to stumble across an idea that I was passionate about. The length of time this took was stressful, given there was a lot of pressure on me to have my own idea. However, I’m glad I waited for the right one to come along. I am sure there some readers might say I could have come up with a great idea quicker if I’d really wanted to, and I would agree with them. However, my top priority was to ensure Oxford Entrepreneurs was as successful as possible, and this slowed down the ideation process for me. I imagine many other students have similar commitments too, such as studying for their degrees, so don’t worry if the ideation stage is taking some time. In reality you’ve got plenty of time to wait for the right opportunity to present itself.

4. “Team, Team, Team” – Max Kelly at TechStars London

I can’t honestly say I’ve had failures when it comes to my team. However, I know my first hires were the most important for the year’s overall success. If I had made a mistake, it would have been a terrible year. Fortunately, they were all great, and all subsequent hires have been fantastic too. When Max Kelly, the managing director of TechStars London, came to talk to Oxford Entrepreneurs members on our OEV accelerator programme, he said that the first three things he looks at when deciding which companies should join his prestigious accelerator are “Team, Team, Team”. The team is more important than the product, the market or anything else. You are only as good as your team, so make sure you pick teammates that compliment you. You can find out more about the London TechStars accelerator here.

5. There’s more than one way to build a business

Throughout the year I’ve spoken with many successful entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, incubator and accelerator managers, angels, university support staff, knowledge transfer teams and others in the entrepreneurship space. Each of them describe their own way of setting up a successful business, and what’s particularly interesting is that not one method is the same. The truth of the matter is that there are millions of ways to create a successful business. It doesn’t have to follow the Entrepreneurs First style, the Y-Combinator approach or even the Lean Start-Up method. What matters is that the approach you take works for you, your team and your idea. Listen to the advice of others but don’t assume you have to do entrepreneurship in the same way as those you meet.

So, I hope my ramblings have been helpful, and if you’ve got any further questions feel free to drop me an email at c.williams@oxfordentrepreneurs.co.uk. In sum, it’s been a great year and I’ve learnt a lot. I hope I’ll be able to turn these lessons I’ve learnt into something successful in the future. Thank you to Leah, the Oxford Entrepreneurs team, and everyone else at Oxford University who has enabled us to have such a successful year.

Christopher Williams is the President of Oxford Entrepreneurs, which is the largest student entrepreneurship society in Europe and is based in the Launchpad at the Saïd Business School of Oxford University. At Oxford Entrepreneurs, Christopher manages a team of volunteers, who work to inspire, educate and support all things entrepreneurship in Oxford. The non-profit’s work ranges from organising conferences and speaking events, to arranging trips to Silicon Valley and pitching competitions.

Christopher Williams is a graduate from St. John’s College, Oxford, where he studied Human Sciences. While studying at Oxford, Christopher was a joint majority shareholder of a student events management company, El Dorado Events, and worked as a freelance event management consultant. Christopher will be returning to his studies later this year and will be studying Global Health Science at Lincoln College, Oxford. Over the summer vacation Christopher is interning at Oxford Sciences Innovation.