Interviews – Technology – Nicolas Shulman

Nicolas Shulman is founder and chief executive of the student business portal anything!student. At just 23 he is poised to become one of the country’s top dotcom entrepreneurs. He reveals what fuels his ambition and how his knowledge of the student market has given him a competitive edge

Getting started

What is anything!student?
Anything!student.com is aimed at an international audience, and has sites launching in the UK, North America, Latin America and Australia within the next few months. It provides products, services and information for students aged 18-26. It covers academic learning as well as student lifestyle. If you want material relevant to your law course, for instance, you can go online and see a leading lecturer discussing the latest human rights act. We will transcribe the lectures too.

The site was designed and built by Andersen Consulting’s dotcom launch centre in London. It is personalised with calendar organisers, information on music, bars and clubs, food and drink, and on the best travel deals, so students can use it to organise their lives.

How did you come up with the idea for the site?
The student market is one I’m very familiar with and in which I spotted a market opportunity. I was toying with the idea of doing a simpler site, but realised if I was just going to do a student job site, or a student travel site, those were specialist industries, and students need far more opportunities than that. I started seriously working last October and had the business plan written by January. It’s been developing ever since.

Experience

To what extent was Anythingstudent.com born out of your own student experiences?
When I was at King’s College, London, and president of the Law Society, I learned a lot about student attitudes to companies and corporate attitudes to the student market. I realised there was a lot of untapped potential. When I went to America to do my Master’s degree in corporation law at the New York University School of Law I found a lot of US multi-million-dollar stock exchange-quoted companies actively participating in the student market. I was surprised to find there wasn’t an equivalent in this country. While I was in America I focused on e-commerce and took classes at the Stern School of Business in e-commerce and entrepreneurial finance. I learned a lot about dotcoms and setting up a business, and met many people who work in the industry.

Will you be keeping up law?
I intend to maintain a keen interest in law, as long as it’s not as a defendant!

Staying ahead

What gives Anything!student.com a competitive edge?
All the other UK student sites concentrate almost exclusively on student lifestyle, but being a student is far more than that. The academic learning part of student life, whatever degree you are doing, is also very important. Anything!student concentrates on both those areas. And it will be the first global student site.

How’s it going to make money?
Anything!student has a number of strong revenue streams, and our skill is spotting the gaps in the market which can provide value to the business without harming the student pocket. For example, our revenue streams range from corporate finance fees from our incubator Anything!ventured, to telecommunications revenue through our wireless brand Buzzmeup. In fact, sponsorship and advertising revenue is not expected to be significant in comparison because we do not want to exploit students by being a virtual billboard. We’re here to enhance students’ university experience.

Tell me more about some of the innovative features on the site?
We’re starting our own incubator called Anything!ventured to help students who come up with business ideas on campus, but don’t know how to develop them. We can advise on contacts, meeting the right people and writing a business plan. A lot of the best ideas are generated on campus. Microsoft, Dell and Time Out were all student ideas. It’s also for exciting experiences. A student might want to know about white water rafting, or bungee jumping, or abseiling. We can help hook them up with the right people.

Through Buzzmeup, our wireless brand, we will provide students with a free unified messaging service as well as a number of helplines, and we are also producing our own learning materials and careers programmes. We will also be the first student site to have WAP functionality.

Setting up shop

How did your get the idea off the ground?
I approached a firm of accountants called H.W. Fisher who specialise in media and Internet companies, who have a number of excellent contacts. I showed them my idea and they immediately hit on the potential of it.

Now their Head of Corporate Finance, Paul Beber, also sits on our Board. We attracted investment from Capital Tech PLC, a venture capital firm, as well as from several private equity investors.

How many staff do you have?
We have eight at the moment, but are expanding. In addition to a first class management team, our business development team who have more than 30 years’ collective experience in marketing , branding and promotion from companies such as Coca-Cola, Colgate Palmolive, Wrigley┬╣s and the Rank Leisure Group. One of the jewels in the crown is our chairman, Robin Squire, who was Minister of State for four years in the Department of Education.

Does your age work to your advantage or disadvantage?
I don’t pretend I know everything, but in a student business it’s actually an advantage because I’m much closer to the mindset of students, having recently been one myself. I’m able to look at the other product offerings on the market and critically assess their value, and make sure that Anything!student is the best it can be.

Getting on

How do you see the future for Anything!student.com?
Anything!student will aggressively expand globally both on-line and offline, providing a fully integrated service for students and to organisations wishing to undertake activity in the student market. We have a number of major deals signed which we will be rolling out over the next few weeks, and it is only fair to describe them as ‘showstoppers’. With the technology and strategy advice provided by Andersen Consulting, Anything!student is positioned to be extremely scalable and become a leading business in the student marketplace.

What’s your corporate style?
We’re a professional business. We don’t dress down. We wear suits. And we don’t have an attitude.

How does the attitude to start-ups differ in the US from the UK?
It’s a much more entrepreneurial culture and even failure is seen as a badge of success because of the business experience gained. Fortunately that’s trickling through to the UK now. For instance, when Boo.com folded, almost everyone managed to find jobs pretty soon afterwards because of the experience they’d got working there.

Words of wisdom

What advice would you give graduates?
Do as much work experience in as many different companies and industries as you can. I’d say my work experiences have helped me a lot. Most of them were legal placements but I also worked in a very small travel agency, so I’ve got experience in that business as well.

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