James Beeson, Editor chats with former BBC Apprentice star and Exeter Alumnus Solomon Akhtar about Lord Sugar and starting a business whilst at University
With a charming and confident demeanor, it’s not hard to see why Lord Alan Sugar took a liking to University of Exeter graduate and entrepreneur Solomon Akhtar. As the youngest ever contestant on the hit BBC television series The Apprentice, Akhtar stole the hearts of the nation, gaining a huge Internet before his elimination in the semi-finals of last years programme. With the hit TV show returning earlier this month, I sat down with Akhtar to find out what motivated him to go into business, and how his time at Exeter helped shape him into the businessman he is today.
“I think that Exeter is a really good place to start a company,” he tells me, “it’s such a bubble. There’s so many students there who are interested in business, so you can always find someone to start a company with. I think it comes quite naturally when you’re at university – you’ve got loads of free time and loads of talented people around you, and a market.” I enquire as to why he thinks Exeter specifically is such a business friendly environment, “Exeter students have got a bit of money in their pockets, most of them” he replies, “so it’s quite a good place to start something or sell a product or a service.”
The 24 year-old certainly grasped the opportunity to hone his skills whilst studying in Exeter, running events at the now defunct Rococo’s nightclub, before launching an Instagram printing service, Instabear, in his third year of university. The start-up grew into a huge success, winning Best Graduate Start up 2014 at SETsquared Enterprise Awards and being named on Redbrick research as one of ‘Five Pioneering UK Student Startups 2014.’ I ask Akhtar if it was hard to juggle his business ventures with his studies. “To be honest, it (Instabear) was a bit of a half-arsed attempt (at starting a business),” he answers candidly, “we launched the brand but it hadn’t really grown into anything. It’s only when you leave university you can really see how clients react to your product and get some real success.”
Despite this, however, Akhtar is adamant that studying shouldn’t be a barrier to starting a business. “It was really hard, but I did geography! So then again maybe it wasn’t so hard!” he laughs, “I got a 2:1, but I think anyone who says they’re working all the time at Exeter is probably lying. There’s loads of free time.”
“If you’ve got enough time to go out to Timepiece on a Friday, you’ve probably got enough time to start a Facebook page or a small company, or at least have a dabble in business.”
Although Akhtar achieved success with some of his business ventures whilst at university, not every idea he’s had has taken off. I ask him about ‘Willykini’ a start-up selling controversial men’s swimwear that didn’t set the world on fire, and to date only has 75 followers on twitter.
“Hey! Willykini made a bit of money!” he retorts jovially, “But yeah, I always had a lot of ideas, not all of them great. In my second year I wanted to live stream our house constantly to the whole of Exeter. I think I just wanted to make it to make it easier to pull girls! They can see your pre-lash and you can chat with them, and if you were really tragic after a night out you could go on and plead with people to come back. But yeah basically it failed massively because it was really fucking boring; nobody ever did anything!
“I think the moral of that story is that not every idea is a great idea, but you’ve got to try your hand at stuff, you never know what might work.”
Turning to The Apprentice and Akhtar’s rise to fame, I ask whether he thinks being the youngest candidate meant that Lord Sugar and the other candidates treated him differently.
“Yeah definitely,” he says, “I think the public warmed to me the most out of being the youngest, and my own media career was really helped by people thinking I was a bit immature and hadn’t quite found my way in life yet, and that’s the reason I’ve been able to do other TV shows (Akhtar is currently the newest cast member on SkyOne reality show Desi Rascals) and things like that.”
“To be honest Lord Sugar thought I was a bit of an idiot most of the time, but respected what I had done with my company,” he continues, “I think it was fine with the other contestants.”
It was this naivety and immaturity that eventually led to Akhtar’s famous downfall on the Apprentice, after his 12 page business plan featuring pictures of sailboats was torn apart by Lord Sugar’s aide Claude Littner. Was this the moment when Akhtar realized he had been found out?
“That (the moment Littner labeled his plan a disgrace) has been turned into a meme now!” Akhtar laughs, “I saw it on Ladbible the other day, and on a betting shop about three weeks ago!”
“Genuinely I actually thought it was a bloody good business plan! I was talking to people on set and they were saying ‘Solly it’s such a good business plan! Claude is gonna love it!’ They were obviously pulling my leg!”
“I went in there thinking ‘This is the fucking shit’ and then obviously when he said ‘this is the worst thing I’ve seen in my life, get out of my sight’ that was a massive shock.”
“I was still pretty hopeful; you never really know on that show. But as soon as I saw everyone else’s and that they had all the financials in, I knew I was fucked at that point.”
Despite the disappointment of missing out on the final, Akhtar is still positive about his time on The Apprentice. I ask him if he thinks that the show gives an overly romanticized view of the view of the industry and the work that is required to be successful in business. “I don’t think it truly defines what business is, and how hard it is to start a company,” he admits, ‘but I think any show about business is a good thing in itself, showing young people going out there and trying to prove themselves.”
“It gets people talking about business and doing business, and as long as people are being inspired by it then it’s doing a good job.”
Finally, If Akhtar could give one piece of advice to aspiring entrepreneurs studying at Exeter, what would it be?
“It sounds really cringy, but just believe in yourself,” he says, “and don’t be afraid to share your ideas aloud with your family and friends.” It’s a sentiment that won’t exactly set the world alight, but one that certainly seems to have taken Akhtar a long way since leaving University, and made him a fair few friends along the way.