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Better the devil you know

riters starting out are often advised to write about what they know. For graduate entrepreneurs, the advice might be similar. Spotting a niche is easier when you’re in the market and you can ask your friends for their opinions; it is more difficult if your product is a power-saving device for remote Arctic communities. After all, Mark Zuckerberg, the 23-year-old creator of Facebook, started the social networking site while a student at Harvard and watched it become a global Internet phenomenon.

Olivia Bedford, 25, hopes to help graduates with more than just their social lives. As a student she applied to many popular milk-round companies, not knowing what she wanted to do. She went into PR — “completely wrong for me” — before moving into headhunting, “I really struggled,” she says. “I thought, ‘there’s got to be a way of making the right decision earlier’.” She says that the one-size-fits-all careers service can leave graduates confused. So she founded Future Prospect, a career guidance service that offers advice to help graduates to hit the ground running. “So many think that to find a job they just need a 2:1. But to be employable you need to match your skills to the environment.” HR specialists offer psychometric testing, interview training and opportunities at SMEs as well as the big firms.

The workplace that graduates join could look very different if Lucian Tarnowski, 23, the founder of Brave New Enterprises, a consultancy, gets his way. Studying religion at the University of Edinburgh, he became interested in why Generation Y, those born after 1980, “are seen as the most difficult workforce to manage”. He intends to bridge the gap between what employers offer and what graduates need. Doted-upon Gen Yers expect a more personal experience, Tarnowski says. “A challenge is making them feel that they’ve joined a team, not a faceless organisation.” For the MTV generation, entertainment and technology are part of work. “We’ve been brought up with high-interest things, so we’re easily bored.”

If firms fail to adapt, retention rates will plummet, he says. The consultancy advises on everything from reward schemes to recruitment. Already 65 firms have signed up to a spin-off, Brave New U. Graduates will be able to befriend potential employers via Facebook, “the complete opposite” of CV websites such as Monster.

After leaving the University of Oxford in 2000, Charlie Osmond and his friend Caroline Plumb knew that they wanted to start something, they just didn’t know what. “We started with the idea of helping graduate fashion designers, but realised that we didn’t know anything about fashion. So we thought, what do we know?” The result was FreshMinds, a consultancy that gives research and consulting projects to people taking a year out. “The options for smart graduates to find interesting, challenging part-time work are pretty limited. We saw an opportunity.”

Darius Norell, a University of Warwick graduate, didn’t enjoy his degree and spent most of his time organising clubs and societies. He had always wanted to start a business and the graduate job hunt provided the impetus. “I saw first-hand the stresses people were going through. It can be a very depressing experience.” In 1999 he founded Real World Magazine, a free, independent careers publication distributed twice a term on campuses. It aims to give graduates a broader idea of the job roles available and “a warts ’’ all view of the working world”.

A successful venture takes hard work. Norell estimates that he made 1,000 phone calls over four months before selling a single job advert. The idea received a lukewarm response until after the first issue, when interest grew hugely. “People didn’t understand the concept. You need confidence and resilience.” He says that graduates thinking of starting up should seize the opportunity. “I’d say go for it. There’s no better time than now.”

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