The New Entrepreneurs Foundation (NEF) offers a unique experience for graduates who want to take the first steps towards starting their own business. To get an insight into the programme, we caught up with Olivia Martyn from the NEF class of 2014.
Tell us about yourself and how you heard about the NEF
I studied Psychology at the University of Birmingham. In my final year all my friends and I were applying for graduate programmes as it seemed like the right thing to do but I knew I didn’t really want to go down that route.
All the schemes seemed to be in big corporate environments and quite field specific; I wanted a broader experience. Although I'd dabbled in running my own business and I knew it interested me, I didn’t know how a recent graduate could make it. I was completely unaware of what support was available and I had a real moment of confusion and uncertainty.
I came across the NEF by chance and applied as quickly as possible. I sent in my application late at night worrying that it was full of spelling mistakes but I was also really excited.
How did your passion for entrepreneurship begin?
My mum ran her own business from the kitchen table so I knew it was possible to be successful and financially independent. I helped out from a young age so had a good understanding of the different elements.
I hadn’t realised to what extent my mum inspired me but throughout school I would comb London’s charity shops and sell the best finds for a profit on eBay. I loved being in control and from then I knew I didn’t want to be stuck in a job where I had no say in how the business is run.
Tell us about your NEF application with Bright Network
Initially, I was surprised every time I got through to the next stage but it also really built up my confidence.
The whole application process with Bright Network was really smooth. Everyone I came into contact with was lovely and I enjoyed meeting people at each stage, whether over the phone or in the face to face interview. It was quite a challenging process but I enjoyed it. I particularly loved the assessment centre.
The key for me was that I was always being myself. When I was applying to other graduate schemes I felt I had to be someone else but with Bright Network all I had to do was show how passionate I am about entrepreneurship.
Where did you spend your business placement?
I worked at Seatwave during the programme and it is definitely one of the greatest experiences of my life. I learned an insane amount. On my first day I was told I was CRM (Customer Relationship Management) Manager and I had to subtly look up what CRM meant.
I was completely thrown in at the deep end. My manager left three weeks after I started so I ended up taking on his responsibilities too. It was a very small company and I had to quickly become an expert on a lot of new things but that’s the beauty of working in that environment.
How has NEF helped you?
It was amazing in so many ways and it’s sometimes only looking back that I realise how much Bright Network helped me.
They gave me the confidence to start my own business, to go out there and take that leap. They also provided fantastic skills and training workshops where you learn the foundations for a successful business.
Another huge help is the network you build both within the cohort and with the business leaders you regularly meet. It was reassuring to have the advice and support of everyone involved in the NEF.
In fact the networking was probably the best aspect. All the training is really useful but you can’t beat face to face time with people who have been there and made a business work.
You’re now running your own business, a line of British handbags called Olive Cooper. How did you get it off the ground?
Starting my own business was a real learning process. When I first got going I tended to go with my gut but as we moved forward I realised what mattered the most.
For example, we started with production based in Britain for convenience and to guarantee quality. As time has gone on we have built relationships with different factories and producers. They are all family run businesses and we’ve come to understand how important it is to maintain customer relationships. These are now central principles of Olive Cooper.
I knew I wanted to make bags and accessories and I was taught by the NEF how important it is to have a story people can connect with. My story was that I was working in the City and found myself lugging my big bag from desk to dinner every day with my laptop and whatever else I needed. I realised I couldn’t really relax with half of my desk in my handbag.
I wanted to create a bag that could separate so professional women could actually switch off and leave the work part of the bag under their desk when they left the office.
What surprised you about starting your own business?
I think when anyone starts out they’re often over confident and think it’s going to take off straight away. Once you actually get started you realise that things take a lot of time and no business is a success overnight. This is when you realise how important perseverance is.
In fact if you speak to anyone starting in business you hear about so many knockbacks so don’t start this journey unless you’re resilient.
What three tips would you give those joining the NEF?
1. Get stuck in
A lot of people feel like they have to plan and research everything to the last detail. But you don’t really know anything until you get started and it is the best way to learn. Even if it’s just building a website and starting to build interest, you need to begin somewhere.
2. Look forward
Don’t let setbacks wear you down. There will be always be problems so don’t waste time thinking about yesterday; move forward. Every entrepreneur has been kicked down a million times. It’s the ones who keep going who succeed.
3. Use your network
Make sure you talk to everyone you can. The NEF gives you an amazing opportunity to build a professional network so start surrounding yourself with people who know more than you do.
Inspired by Olivia's story? Find out all about the New Entrepreneurs Foundation here.