4 Reasons why AIESEC provides the perfect education for an Entrepreneur: Part 1

This is two part Guest Blog post from Tom Weaver, previous Member Committee President of AIESEC United Kingdom 2002-2003, Founder of Flypay.

“A startup is a company designed to grow fast. Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of “exit.” The only essential thing is growth.” 

– Paul Graham, investor & founder of startup incubator Y Combinator

My story: University, AIESEC and becoming an Entrepreneur

The AIESEC experience is like being thrown in the deep end of the swimming pool when you’ve just taken off your life jacket. Fortunately, this is exactly the induction that is needed for the aspiring entrepreneur. With AIESEC’s safe environment to try new things and fail, members are able to learn and acquire practical skills that are very much needed in the world of startups.

I felt I was in the deep end at every step of my AIESEC career, from a new member, to Local Committee President in AIESEC at the University of Southampton, to a trainer, and finally to National President of AIESEC United Kingdom in 2002.  The kinds of issues and challenges we faced day to day were well beyond what I needed to deal with for many years after, until I founded my startup company, Flypay.

At that point, I felt like I’d jumped into an even deeper swimming pool.  Fortunately for me, I knew a little bit about swimming by now.

Flypay’s Journey: From an idea to a startup

Flypay is an app that allows restaurant customers to check, split and pay their bill from their smartphone. The typical restaurant customer waits over ten minutes from the moment they are ready to leave, until the moment they are paid up and can leave. There are all sorts of difficulties with splitting the bill with others at your table. I felt that my business partner and I could solve this problem.

We launched in Wahaca, a major London Mexican restaurant brand, last month. We’re now slowly rolling out across their estate, as well as having some very positive discussions with some very large and well-loved UK restaurant brands.

Now we’re focusing on growth; growth in the number of restaurants using our solution; growth in the number of consumers using the app. And we need that growth fast! We need to get there before the PayPals of this world decide they can do what we do.

We’ve gone through one investment round, and will shortly begin our second, much more significant round.  We’ve had our first transactions, first users, first press, first positive tweets, and have just been nominated for Mobile Business of the Year (we need votes for this, so if you think we’re onto something please help by voting here)!

Through all of this, the skills I had gained in AIESEC were critical to our success, and I realized why AIESEC is such a perfect primer for startup founders.  Here are my four reasons.  It was three, but who needs to follow convention anyway?

Reason 1: Entrepreneurs need to be a generalist as well as a specialist

Aside from designing and creating the actual product, here are some of the things I’ve had to do in order to get Flypay off the ground. They may sound familiar to the well-seasoned AIESECer (a term we use for “members of AIESEC” for those of you who are not in the organisation):

  • Cold email the Managing Director of our first customer to persuade him to meet us
  • Persuade our first customer to take a chance on us in our first meeting
  • Persuade critical partners to work with us by selling them the vision of what we were going to achieve, and how they could be a part of it
  • Develop a business plan outlining what we were going to achieve (used as the basis for fundraising)
  • Pitch for funding (somewhat like going for sponsorship, only a bit of a larger number)
  • Build the best possible Board of Directors
  • Create a new business development and marketing strategy
  • Develop the product and execute the vision you’ve sold everyone
  • Sort the finances, and develop a very focused budget

Some people have very defined careers. They build up specialisms that determine their day-to-day job descriptions and projects.

Running a startup is not like that.  It is just like working in AIESEC- every day holds something very different.  One day I’m meeting a new client.  Another I’m networking with senior executives at a conference.  Today I’m running a board meeting and had a lot of materials to prepare.  We’ve got employees to manage, and product deadlines to hit.  I’m interviewing PR companies this week. I need to prepare a contractual agreement for a potential new client.

Being able to deal with a wide range of things from the very big picture to the very small details and shift from concept to execution very quickly is essential to the success of a startup.  This is what AIESECers do all the time.

Reason 2: Entrepreneurs need to be very good at persuasion and presenting

When you initiate a startup, you have a vision for something you want to change.  Often, you need to persuade a myriad of people to work with you.  We’ve needed to convince a lot of people that Flypay was worth their time- including our first clients, the restaurant systems that client used, a very large payment gateway provider, several merchant banks, investors and initial consumers.  They had to take a chance on something that (at early points) didn’t even have much of a product to put in front of people.

AIESECers learn to be persuasive because what they are selling is very conceptual (you don’t have a physical trainee there) and relatively complex (there is a whole process to go through).  That is a very useful thing to learn.

Once I left AIESEC I was blown away by how poor “normal professionals” are at presenting.  I saw, and still see, many highly paid and important, but insanely poor presenters. Yet, in AIESEC, we are used to getting up in front of large groups all the time.  It gives you a huge advantage.  When you go to pitch for investments you need every inch of those skills.  We had one presentation of five minutes in front of 25 “dragons” followed by five minutes of questions, but were told we were unusually good at presenting and made an excellent impression (and gained two investors and an offer of more from the experience).

Interested to hear more? Come back on Wednesday for the continuation of Tom Weaver’s guest post, as well as his final thoughts on AIESEC and entrepreneurship.

Are you ready to start improving the skills you need to become an entrepreneur? Sign up to become a member of AIESEC now!

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Matic Kašnik
9 years ago

Great article! I as well am fresh AIESEC alumni and I can totally relate to what was just written here. Even though I’ve just cofounded a social enterprise, I can already see the similarities and the benefits which I got to learn from working as president of local entity 🙂

Can’t wait for part 2!

Best regards from Slovenia,

Tom Weaver
9 years ago

Thanks Matic – much appreciated. I think the skills are useful no matter what work you are doing, and in the case of entrepreneurship, no matter what type of organisation you start. I’ve started a couple of different organisations now, and each time these skills come into play. I’ve found Flypay to be the most extreme because it’s the most large scale, but that’s where the AIESEC experience really plays a part.

Dan Bell
9 years ago

Super post Tom and very helpful for people wanting to drive something themselves and needing a little positive encouragement.

Gordon Ching
9 years ago

Great post, been wanting to see an article on how AIESEC relates with entrepreneurship and I couldn’t agree more!

Cassandra Ruggiero
9 years ago

Thank you everyone for your comments. We will be continuing to showcase our alumni stories throughout the year!

Alex King
9 years ago

From my LC of 25 people there are at least 5 of us who have gone on to start a business! It’s really encouraging when you see people in your own peer group taking the plunge. I can’t think of another social group you can join where such a high % will go on to start a business.

Vishal Jodhani
9 years ago

Great post Tom. There’s been a lot of talk about AIESEC nurturing and providing top talent to a range of organizations. And while that is absolutely true, the focus on AIESEC as entrepreneurial playground adds a very valuable dimension to the conversation. I look forward to the rest of the post. Cassie, thanks for curating!

ndetto mbalu
9 years ago

I am from Kenya been in AIESEC as well. The article is very inspiring because i have been able to open an Investment Firm using skills i learned in managing AIESEC Finance & Administration, i wish you all the best.

Emmanuel Kwamr Ahiafor
Emmanuel Kwamr Ahiafor
9 years ago

This is just so awesome and inspiring.Aiesec i think is a must join if you have great visions and goals.Keep it up!!

9 years ago

Awesome and truly inspiring. Today as I am working as a tech entrepreneur and researcher, the learnings as a member of AIESEC many years back is playing a big role.

8 years ago

Nice post.It was very inspiring.I am a member of AIESEC and really I dint know my WHY of AIESEC.Really your post made me to stay in AIESEC.Thank you .All the best for your future.

Bhuvi Kumar
4 years ago

Nice information, You have shared all the important facts that an good entrepreneur need to consider. Thanks a lot for this great share!