To some people, it seems like a waste of time to study for over five years at university only to end up running your own business, and for some people that might just be the case. However, for me, taking the path through university served as the perfect ‘figure out what you wanna do’- time. A solid education is always a good investment and for me personally, it now serves as a life jacket should our ship potentially sink or hit the shore. Which it wont, of course!
This article is my reflection on going straight from university to starting our own web agency, Webbgaraget. I’ll take you through some things I learned – and some things I wish I had learned – from five years at Uppsala university.
I’ve never been a very good student. I never found it particularly fun studying the technical courses at high school. Instead I found social science studies far more interesting. So why did I take on one of the harder educations that the Swedish education system had to offer? I don’t know, to be honest. It had something to do with choosing a broad and comprehensive education, to be able to not having to decide what you want to do for another five years. That statement still stands to some extent. There is always tons of stuff that I want to do when I “grow up”.
During our second year at the program for IT-engineering (the first was mostly spent on studies and parties) two other guys, Erik, Anders and me found each other through a common love for web development. I came from a design background and they became the developers in our new team.
Our first project came from a local guy running an paintball company. We had heard through a friend that he needed a website for his business, and what he was willing to pay for it. Without any thought that there could be room for negotiation, we approached him saying that we could build his website for that price.
In true entrepreneurial spirit, we often retell this story with the words that we created our own summer job. And we did. In hindsight though, the money we got, divided by three didn’t give much. But the feeling that we had landed a client on our own, and did everything ourselves, was far more rewarding.
The years of financial independence
During the later years of our education, we started building more and more websites for clients. The great thing about this period was that we could do things at our own pace. We did most of the work during the summer, when the school had a break. During the semester, we could run the company at whatever pace we wanted. Being young and mainly living on noodles and financial aid from CSN made it quite easy. I guess you could say this was the closest I’ve ever been to financial independence.
Being able to take things slow was good from two perspectives. First we learned all we could about running a company. The numerous evening lectures about tax, reading books about VAT and so on took time, but luckily – there was no rush. Starting our business was as much about learning how to start a business, as actually running one.
The second thing we could do at a steady, unforced pace was to build a solid foundation of clients. Most of our work came from advertising agencies in Uppsala and Stockholm, to whom we served as coders making websites from Photoshop documents.
We kept a low price, which helped motivate our clients to go with us. People would hint at times that we were guilty of price dumping, and that is something I can totally understand. Nowadays, we can be the ones snorting at others for the same reason, but I always think that you should compete with quality, not price. There is enough customers for each and every one of us – from those who are hiring the most expensive agencies to those who let their nephews do the work. I believe that’s just fine, because that nephew may as well be a great web developer someday, and that particular gig may be an important stepping stone towards that.
Besides, it’s always funnier trying to compete with the bigger players than snorting at the smaller ones. Your aim should always be pointed upwards.
Learning the art of learning
So what did I learn from five years of M.Sc. studies? I learned a lot, and I think most of us in our class discovered the same thing, whether they started their own business or became employed. We learned how to learn stuff faster.
I believe the reason we studied hundreds of hours of mathematics was not that we would become experts in mathematics (if that was the case, I have definitely failed on that goal). It was to practice logical thinking, which would help us in the future. We were studying to become problem solvers. This has given me the the confidence to say “Hey, we can help you with your problem. We’re not quite sure how to do it right now, but we’ll figure it out”. One of the things with Webbgaraget that I’m most proud of is that we have never turned down a job because of lack of skills or knowledge. We’ve always solved the problem that our client may have. Solving problems with a deadline in sight was something we often did during our education.
Some courses in software development were also very useful. They provided both theoretical knowledge and insight to software development methods like SCRUM and other agile methods.
Things I wish I had learned from the studies
University studies gave us a lot, but all the knowledge was strictly theoretical. The connection to the workspace and practical work was never present.
School had an inability to inspire me as a student. Lack of inspiration is a pervasive problem for Swedish universities. From uninspiring lecturers to the inability to get students to understand that they can do great things with the education they receive.
There is not a single path mapped out, although for us, it probably was to join a consulting firm, who sometimes came to visit and give lectures on the domestic career ladder.
For me and my friends, starting our own company after five years of studying at the university was founded primarily on curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit. But for me personally, there was also an element of fear in there. I was never interested in working for the companies we came in contact with during the program, which usually presented a stalked out path for you and your carrier – in their company, of course.
Their inability to inspire me, or my inability to be inspired by them, made it pretty easy to go my own way. I will always remain grateful to my friends who made the same decision. Still, my years at Uppsala university gave me the confidence to stand on my own feet.
After almost two years of full-time work on our own business, we’re doing better than ever and we will continue to challenge ourselves and aim even higher!