2 - 4 November 2020 | Hosted by the University of the Free State

UJ presents loads of ideas for studentpreneurs - from starting a tech business to protecting your brand

There's something about a shower that generates ideas. "The shower is notorious for dropping ideas in your brain, everybody knows that," said Professor Abejide Ade-Ibijola of the University of Johannesburg (UJ). "The best ideas I've had, came to me in the shower."

Professor Abejide Ade-Ibijola

But what happens when a student wakes up, has a shower, and gets an idea for a business venture? How does that idea become a product or service that makes money? This is what Professor Ade-Ibijola (left) spoke about at the recent Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Student Entrepreneurship Week (#SEW2020), held online from November 2 to 4.

He is an Associate Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Applications at UJ's Department of Applied information Systems, and his talk on How to Monetise Tech as a Student Entrepreneur formed part of UJ's presentation. The two other sections featured:

  • businessman and UJ student, Mr Jacques du Preez, on his entrepreneurial journey; and
  • Ms Caro Buitendag, UJ's Technology Transfer Manager and Marketing Coordinator, on intellectual property.

Professor Ade-Ibijola said it starts with how a student gets into a tech business in the first place. If, say, one is in Humanities, how does one get started? He identified three building blocks: ideas, skills and funding; and then played with various permutations.

What to do if you have an idea but no skills or funds

If you have only an idea, the first step is research. Professor Ade-Ibijola has interacted with many students who have all kinds of ideas. But, very often, he has had to respond with comments such as "Hey, that is Dropbox; it's already in existence". Then there has to be a market: are people willing to pay for the product or service? Is it something that needs to be protected? Perhaps you need to get lawyers involved but if it is software, in most instances, it is protected through copyright laws and not always patentable.

Then you need to source funding, and someone to create the software – so "quite a long list of items to consider, when all you have is an idea", he said.

What to do when all you have is a skill

Having only a skill usually applies to computer science and engineering students who learn how to create technology as part of their curriculum, said Professor Ade-Ibijola. He suggested freelancing, and creating software for others, where students can ask for 5% - 10% of the value of the company as payment. This type of contact should help identify an idea. Through collaborating in this way with those in other fields such as humanities, students will start realising their inherent knowledge and skills. Those "things lying around on your laptop and you think are nothing", are of value, he said.

What to do if you have an idea and the skill to build the technology

If you have an idea and skill, again research is vital, even if you are a student entrepreneur in the technology space, "so you don't spend your whole life chasing a dream that someone did 20 years ago," said Professor Ade-Ibijola. And you need to find your market so you can do financial projections of the amount of money you are likely to make over a number of years.

In this scenario, you don't need to find funding at first because you can sit tight for three to six months and build your product alone, or with your friends, because you have the skill to do it.

What to do if you have just an idea, but lots of money

If you have an idea ''and you're sitting on a bag of cash", said Professor Ade-Ibijola, "you don't need the skill; not necessarily. Once you have done research, found the market, and protected the idea if it needs protection, then he suggests hiring developers to create the technology. Then you can hit the market and start making money," he said.

What to do when you have the skills, the idea and the funding

If you are a student entrepreneur and you have all three building blocks, "you are literally in heaven", said Professor Ade-Ibijola. "Say no more, just go ahead and make money," he said.

What to do if you have skills and funding

He said engineering students are often victims of creating a prototype of something that they pitch but nobody is interested in, because there is no market for it.

For students who have skills and funding, it is worth spending time to brainstorm to find the right ideas. And brainstorm with others, such as academics, because they will be straightforward about what's wrong, and why something would or would not work. Funding gives you the opportunity to hire people, that is, their skill sets.

Professor Ade-Ibijola's tips for studentpreneurs

He said there are over 20 funding initiatives in Africa for entrepreneurs. Find the list by getting in touch with him or Google. Then write them a proposal.

Talk to heartbreakers, that is, people like him who will ''save you years of your life of chasing a dream that may not happen" because they know what has been done before.

Advice from a serial entrepreneur and UJ student

The next speaker, Mr Jacques du Preez (right), who is studying the part-time Small Business Enrichment Programme at UJ's Centre for Entrepreneurship, is very much the serial entrepreneur he claims to be.

He started selling biltong to his friends at boarding school, for a profit, and started his most recent company, Intrinsix, an analytics platform, during lockdown in May.

He has been running BAC-IT, his company that provides information technology systems, for nearly 10 years. He started his first company, NetSight, at the age of 25, and five and a half years later sold it to MWeb, a mere six months later than he had stated in his initial business plan. And all this after he started his work career with a job as a telecommunications technician, "which is on the bottom ranks", he said, after studying light current electronics.

Mr Jacques du Preez

His advice to student entrepreneurs includes:

  • You're allowed to live your big dreams;
  • As entrepreneurs, we can't do things on our own. Look for strategic partnerships, for like-minded individuals, to help you unlock potential in your business;
  • As an entrepreneur, you really do have unlimited earning potential, and you need to capitalise on that;
  • Entrepreneurs need to be perennial learners, open to learning things, and to having discussions with people. We can't be that proud or that arrogant to think we know it all;
  • Spend time engaging with people, with the marketplace, so you understand real needs as opposed to just nice ideas. Nobody is limited to just one or two good ideas so, as you talk to people, you start to understand how you can solve issues for them, either alone or through a collection of minds. There are real opportunities, and you can monetise them;
  • The entrepreneurial landscape is tough but very rewarding. Decide: you can be put under pressure working for someone, or you can try to make a difference, start a business and take a chance. Remember, diamonds are formed under pressure; and
  • Professor Edwin Bbenkele of UJ emphasised that entrepreneurs are by nature very passionate. So if you love your business, your business is going to love you. Strive, and stick to the things you're really passionate about, and you will make a success of them.

Du Preez says he is an entrepreneur at heart. "I love that personal touch, dealing with customers. More often than not, in a corporate environment you get swallowed up in all the protocols and processes. If you have a heart for people, you want that opportunity to go out and interface with them," he said.

Do not forget to protect your ideas and brand

Ms Caro Buitendag (right), of UJ's Technology Transfer Office, presented a video to teach studentpreneurs about protecting their brand. These are some of its key points:

  • Intellectual property (IP) is "creations of the mind'' and includes inventions, names, and images used for commercial purposes;
  • You cannot copyright a thought or an idea, so the first person who presents it in a physical form has the right;
  • A patent is a right that the state gives to an inventor, that is, exclusive rights for 20 years, in exchange for full disclosure of the invention;
  • For an invention to be patented it must be novel (new), inventive (not obvious), and useful, so anything that solves a problem in a new, non-obvious way and is not specifically excluded by law, is patentable;
  • There is no such thing as a worldwide patent; and you have to file a patent in every country or region where you want to be protected;
  • Computer programs are covered by copyright, and the rights last for 50 years after its first public release;
  • You can trademark a word, a letter, a number, a drawing, a symbol, a 3D shape, a sign, or a sound that is a distinguishing feature; and
  • Claim and secure your online "real estate" by buying domain names.
Ms Caro Buitendag

#SEW2020 is an initiative of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme, a partnership between the Department of Higher Education and Training, and Universities South Africa (USAf), the umbrella body of the country's 26 public universities.

Written by Gillian Anstey, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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