I got to Cass early on the first night of CityStarters, a three-day event for students across Cass and City, University of London. As an MSc Entrepreneurship student, I was excited to watch the energy build up as student arrived for the entrepreneurship competition – the opportunity to pitch their business ideas to experts for cash prizes.

The weekend kicked off with a motivational speech by last year’s winners – Lonbrella, London’s first umbrella rental company. The team shared tips, preparing us for the scrutiny we might face while building a business. We were encouraged to network, reassured that feelings of uncertainty were to be expected and pre-warned that not everyone would like our ideas, but to remain determined.

We watched 35 brave students from first-year undergraduates to Full-time MBAs pitch their ideas in under a minute. By the end of the evening, only 15 of the 35 people were chosen to develop their ideas over the weekend.

Students who didn’t pitch or whose ideas weren’t chosen, had to approach the newly designated CEOs to explain why they would make an excellent addition to the team. I pitched to Andrew, CEO of FreeCaffe – a coffee shop that gathers market research in exchange for free coffee.

After a couple of drinks together, we were sent home to rest before the next two days of intense work!

Refining our business ideas

The second day kicked off with a speech from Christina Richardson, CEO of Nurture, who reinforced that “customers are king”. Emma Obanye, CEO of Mindful Team spoke about some of the lessons she learned on her journey including the importance of short feedback cycles to refine a business idea. We were introduced to mentors and student ambassadors, ranging from intrapreneurs to writers, each with a unique set of expertise that they would share with the budding entrepreneurs over the next couple of days.

We spent the rest of the day developing our business ideas and as the day started to draw to an end, things got a bit heated – specifically for our group. Our idea had changed five times from the original pitch, and we couldn’t agree how to move forward!

Despite our ups and downs, eventually all five members of my team came to an agreement, reinforcing a lesson spoken by all three speakers – uncertainty is an unavoidable part of the process.

Results day

Day three rolled around and we really started to feel the pressure.  Before we got started, we heard from Nina Ricafort, the marketing manager at Thread. She shared useful advice on how to implement marketing techniques on a big budget or a shoestring budget. This would soon become applicable knowledge for the three winning teams who would be awarded prizes for first (£2,000), second (£1,000) and third (£500) place to bring their idea to the next stage.

To build our confidence in presenting, Dr Ruben van Werven, Lecturer in Entrepreneurship, taught us how to craft the perfect pitch to wow investors and communication coach, Emma Zangs, taught us how to activate our confidence in an interactive session. We started to relax as we realised that regardless of what happened, we would take away many important lessons from the weekend.

Finally, it was time for the pitches. We all gathered in the big auditorium and were joined by three judges. Each group was given four minutes to pitch their idea and one minute to answer the judges’ questions.

The order of presentations was picked out of a hat and my team (Free Caffe) was chosen to go first. We had been practising for hours and it wasn’t mine or Andrew’s first time presenting in front of an audience; so the pitch went really smoothly!

Once all 15 teams presented, the three judges left to deliberate and write the cheques. Once again, the room was buzzing with the excitement of the new friendships we had made, the skills we had cultivated, and the special weekend we had shared.

The judges returned to announce the winners – in first place, Shellpod – a company developing environmentally friendly solid shampoo, followed by Facilitrip and then my team – Free Caffe!

My Team, Free Caffe, with our third place prize!

I am certain this is not the end of the road for many teams and they will go on to create successful businesses in the future.

And I know this is not the end of our journeys as entrepreneurs. Everyone I spoke to said this little taste of entrepreneurship has sparked something inside them that they are excited to continue to explore – perhaps at CitySpark in November!

Tessa Etkin-Silver, MSc Entrepreneurship (2019)