HR & Management

How important is a degree to business success?

11 min read

02 June 2015

Experience is most valuable to employers, rather than grades or the university attended, according to a new report. What about those who want to start up their own businesses?

The research from Universum, a company specialising in recruitment, said 58 per cent of employers rated work experience as “the most popular qualification among those presented” followed by a student’s personality at 48 per cent. Some 15 per cent said they wanted a degree from a specific university, while 16 per cent said that grades from a prestigious university were important.

There has been much discussion of late as to whether the current degree system provides enough insight into a student’s value and individual self – as well as the role of grades being used as a yardstick for potential graduate jobs. PwC recently announced it was changing its A-level requirements, though its graduate positions still want a 2:1 as a minimum for applicants.

Someone who knows the trickiness of navigating the current climate without a degree is 28-year-old Becky Campbell. She left education at the age of 18 because, “I didn’t know where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do”. “I didn’t want to do something I was unsure about and start with a load of debt,” she explained. “I knew I could always go back to university at some point in the future if I needed to.”

Deciding it would be more sensible to immerse herself in the world of work and build up experience, a moment of clarity came when she secured a job at a marketing agency at the age of 22. “I felt like the world had started again”, she admitted. When she joined, the company had around 20 staff and she was involved in a range of areas to help boost the business in its earlier stages. It now has over 200 employees and has gone from strength to strength. It seems Campbell has too.

The experience involved everything from “setting up customer service to account management”, which began to put the wheels in motion of where she wanted to take her career – although she hadn’t fully realised it yet.

Campbell always had an inkling that becoming an entrepreneur could be on the cards – her father had also created his own business, and as a child she used to follow him around with a briefcase. The actual process of going about establishing her business wasn’t without difficulties however.

Campbell’s father gave her £3,000 as a starting point, and her current project, digital marketing agency Reflect Digital, was born – but she admitted the initial process was tricky. Determined to develop her business independently, she said: “I didn’t want to steal clients from my old places, so I didn’t have any initially. I just started cold calling people.”

She secured a developer team based in Ukraine, but didn’t have case studies to show prospective clients, so the process of selling was a steep learning curve. “I had to convince them I could do it, but without any proof. I will be forever grateful to Waterfront Solicitors, which were my first client,” she added.

Since starting Reflect Digital in 2011, the company has grown from Campbell running the business alone in her room to her current position as managing director of a team of 21. “We’re no longer outsourcing development which is a step forward. The team we were using was great, but the long-term plan was always to bring it in-house,” she said.

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The future plans are essentially “continued growth” or as Campbell joked, “world domination”, and a big target for the year ahead is aiming for turnover of £1m – which would mark 100 per cent growth on last year. 

A current focus is diversifying the business, with Campbell taking the interesting approach of asking her employees to discuss what they loved in their own lives and were interested in. She wanted to see if they could find a way to link it to the business, “so they’d be even more enthusiastic about work!” and several members of the team mentioned football.

Reflect Digital is now working with Premier League club Tottenham Hotspur, with recent projects involving its membership renewal campaign. Campbell said she’s enjoying rising to the challenge of the demands of having the club on board. “It’s a big business so it’s very much deadline, deadline, deadline, which is exciting,” she said.

In terms of other future plans, Campbell also said the company has recruitment plans plotted out, on which roles they will need to fill and when.

The interesting consideration is how she herself now recruits – as someone who started a business without a degree, does she view it as a useful requirement when looking for suitable candidates?

Image: Shutterstock

“When we hire it’s not about qualifications, it’s about the person and whether we think they’re right for the role,” she said firmly. Campbell feels that for smaller businesses like hers it’s particularly important to get the right people in the team.

She spoke to local universities when looking for developers and they were surprised to discover they weren’t nurturing the skill set she was after. “They said the students probably weren’t equipped with it and admitted they probably weren’t setting them up for our industry, which was a bit of a worry!”

Campbell also feels those coming straight from university have a “big difference in expectations”. “They immediately expect a big salary and don’t necessarily have the work skills yet – they still have a journey to go on,” she explained. “Sometimes you have to take them down a peg or two – but in a nice way!”

While not having a degree hasn’t stopped Campbell developing her own business she said it was a barrier beforehand when applying for jobs. “Obviously, when you go through the listings, they all say you need a degree,” she explained. 

She is though sympathetic to the dilemma of how best to sort through piles of applications. “I can see that you need some criteria in place to start wading through CVs. I mean when we’ve put out a job advert, we’re inundated with over a hundred CVs in some cases, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for bigger companies.”

Instead, Campbell suggested those individuals who haven’t got the grades or degrees, should focus on how they can convey their suitability for a role. “I think it’s down to them to be creative and show why you could do the job, with or without a degree. Whether it’s a video CV to stand out, or something else.”

Interviews too, are another sticky issue – how can you accurately assess what a person is like in such a contrived and uncomfortable set-up, no matter how seemingly relaxed you attempt to make it? Not to mention, being able to judge a person’s character in a short space of time. 

Campbell pointed to an example of one of her hirings. “One guy we were unsure on, as he massively undersold himself in an interview,” she said. “We thought he could possibly offer more, so we put him on a trial to see. He’s now one of our best developers, but we nearly didn’t get the chance to see that because of the initial meeting.”

One hiring which also worked out well was the now marketing director of Reflect Digital, who is in fact Campbell’s fiancé. “We got together when I was setting up the business – we were both in the digital space, but tried to keep it separate,” she explained. “Eventually it seemed silly, so he came on board, but we have very distinct roles.” 

The one downside she conceded, was waking up and going to bed talking about work. Campbell reflected on the development of the business and thinks if it had been anyone else, it may not have been so successful. “Work is so consuming in those early years – I think anyone else would’ve wanted to kill me, it was all I talked about!”

Image: Shutterstock