Interviews – Technology – Iain Aitken

At 26, Iain Aitken is managing director of Freefund.com – a rapidly developing website that matches up students and scholarships. He gives us his views on the future of dotcom companies, and why a good idea is worth its weight in risk

A website with a lot to offer

What is freefund.com?
It’s the web guide to scholarships and funds. If you’re a student and you need money, then there’s hundreds of millions of pounds of scholarships and bursaries across the European Union that are never tapped into. Only 29% of students and 18% of parents have ever considered applying for a scholarship. We are up and running in the UK, Sweden, France and Germany.

How great is the debt burden faced by students?
The average student currently leaves university 8500 in debt. The National Union of Students says that’s going to rise to 12,000. For someone in their early twenties that’s an awful lot of money to have hanging over your head when you’re trying to make a name for yourself. More people are going to university now, so students are under more and more pressure. If we can help reduce that pressure, that’s a good thing.

What sort of grants are available?
There’s a wide range, from small ones, like a parish in Scotland that is offering 5 a year if you abstain from alcohol for 12 months, through to the Kidney Foundation Fund, which gives a 9,000 scholarship to PhD students doing research into kidney disease. We’ve only been going a couple of months and we’ve got 1m. We reckon that’s about a fifth of the money that’s available in the UK, so call it about 10m.

How effective is the functionality of the site?
It’s good. But, as with anything, it can get better. Matching somebody with an awful lot of details and criteria to something else with an awful lot of details and criteria is never the easiest thing in the world. The trick is to do it, make mistakes, learn from them and redo it. We’re lucky we have sister companies like Icon Media Lab and Parallel Consulting who help us out and do a lot of work on our site.

Getting started

Where did the idea for the site come from?
Jesperjos Olssen, founder of Icon Media Lab, Europe’s largest internet consultancy, and one of the main backers of Letsbuyit.com, is a major investor and the founder of Freefund.com.

He was in America on business and came across two sites called Scholaraid, now owned by a company called Student Advantage, and another American site called Fastweb, who basically do a very similar thing to Freefund. He thought it was a brilliant idea, and helped us launch it here.

Where does your revenue come from?
The main revenue streams will be e-commerce-based market research, surveys, recruitment and advertising.

What makes your business model likely to succeed?
We get our money from businesses, not students. So we’re going after a sector that has a lot of money and a need to communicate. We don’t need a massive television campaign or anything like that. It’s very easy to target and talk to people if you know how to do it. And because we’re a pure internet company and deal only in the business of information our overheads are tiny.

We’re great believers in the network economy. For example, BOL.com is our Freefund bookshop. They run it and have all the books and all the logistics and the networks behind it. That’s why we don’t staff the Freefund bookshop because we do it through someone else on the network economy principle.

What’s the future for Freefund?
Freefund needs to be Europe-wide, indeed worldwide. We’ve got 20 staff in London at the moment. We need to grow fairly organically, so we don’t get burn out. The next stage will be Italy, Spain and Holland, where we have our head office in Amsterdam.

A life less ordinary

What’s been your career path?
I went to boarding school in Stamford, Lincolnshire, then to Hull University where I studied history and politics. I come from a military family and had always planned to join the army. But at the last minute I decided not to, which was probably a good decision.

When I left university I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to run my own business. My first job out of university was working in graduate recruitment. I then did search work in the media and then within banking and got involved in the internet through recruitment websites. Before coming to Freefund I helped rebrand Stepstone and launch it in the UK.

What are the main challenges of your job?
Recruiting people. I was given an opportunity that was above me, which means I work a lot harder. Everyone I’ve hired, like my marketing director, or marketing manager, has never done their job before. So making that step up means that everybody works harder.

I’ve worked for companies where there have been far too many managers, or else have chief executives that are too hands-off and don’t give people personal attention. I try to do that. It’s the most demanding part of the role, but the most rewarding at the same time.

What’s your main motivation?
I really like the way the media sometimes appears to hate the new media and the publicity we’ve been getting, because it makes you want to prove them all wrong.

There will be mistakes, but they need to happen. Europe is bad at failures compared to the Americans, because we don’t learn from them. In the States people who have made mistakes would be rehired immediately, because you’re not going to make the same mistake twice.

We need to go through that learning period. People are too quick to criticise. I really want to prove to people, especially those who are sceptical, that if you’ve got a good idea and you’ve got talented people, then no matter what industry it’s in, it will work.

Americans tend to think differently and decide on the basis of whether is it a good business idea or not. Again, that’s something we need to learn how to do in Europe.

The bigger picture

What career advice would you give to graduates?
It can be quite disheartening if you haven’t got a job to go to when you graduate. But, don’t think you’re in a minority, you’re in a majority. Most people haven’t got a clue what they want to do when they leave university and I find most people normally end up doing something that they’d never thought of, and are blissfully happy doing it.

You will change your career several times over these days, so be as flexible as possible and if your first job is low paid, it might on the other hand be incredibly interesting and lead to great things.

Meet as many people as possible, you never know who could do you a favour or who’s going to have a job offer in the pipeline, and learn as much as possible as you can from those who know a little bit more than yourself.

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