Tom Grafton is on a mission to create more people just like him; which is to say high achieving young entrepreneurs. Grafton, a first class graduate of politics with geography and study abroad, has achieved more since he left Exeter University in 2014 than many of us do in an entire career, and he’s barely warmed up.
In fact his entrepreneurial instinct was already apparent while he was still at university. During his studies he established a business called EXEC, which was essentially a loyalty scheme that connected independent retailers with students. It was from that venture that the seeds of what were to become his current business, Student High Street, were sewn.
He observed on his travels to various universities across the country that there were many student entrepreneurs (often designers) who, as he puts it, “owned their space and understood their locality. Also every student is on Instagram so there are engaged, targeted communities.”
“By aggregating all these networks,” he realised, “overnight we would have one of the most engaged youth markets in the country.”
However, after leaving university, Grafton first became an analyst at private equity house Hambro Perks, where he helped other entrepreneurs grow their businesses and advised high net worth individuals on investments. It was all to prove valuable experience and contact building and within a year he went back to the idea of harnessing the potential of the student entrepreneurs and consumers.
In August 2015, with the support of some high profile backers (including Clive Beharrell, a serial investor and entrepreneur whose past investments have included Agent Provocateur, Crew Clothing and Fat Face), Grafton established Student High Street from a small office (soon to be larger) in the Truman Brewery in East London.
At first glance it seems to be an e-commerce fashion marketplace targeting the youth market. And it is indeed that, but it is much more besides. Via the platform, Grafton not only intends to help young designers and brands sell to young consumers (the platform takes a 20% commission on sales, though Grafton encourages brands to view this as a “marketing investment” as opposed to a sales cost), but also gives them the support to develop and sustain their businesses with a suite of professional services, provided by credible partners, in the fields of accounting, finance and fulfillment among others.
This “support network” is key to the Student High Street offer. “Lots of students start businesses at university and they are great businesses with great potential but they get to the end of university and think ‘oh I’d better join KPMG or Deloitte’,” he says. “Hopefully with our help more people will give it a go for 12 months.”
The potential for the Student High Street goes even further than that. The marketplace technology platform that Grafton has developed allows the brands to self-serve and upload their content and products in a simple, intuitive way. He spent a long time looking at the technology of other other marketplaces use and decided none of them did the job sufficiently well, so developed his own from scratch. It Is a fully mobile responsive platform and makes it easy for brands to add users and permissions and also to integrate their social media accounts, for instance.
Apart from the potential value of the sector he is looking to corner, the technology is of “intrinsic value” and has the potential to be “white-labelled” in other markets. It is this, in part, that has given the investors the confidence to back the business at an early stage (though one suspects they view Grafton as its most valuable asset).
If that wasn’t enough Grafton also has offline ambitions. He has just raised another round of funding from a private investor (he can’t say who) and has acquisition targets in mind, such as marketing and events businesses that specialise in the student space. “If you could tap into all the youth networks, you could do all of the [marketing] activations, you can do events – you would have an extremely valuable youth group,” he says.
He’s got the backing, the platform, the vision and the strategy – success seems fairly assured in that case. “It’s all about execution and people,” he says of the key to success. “There are so many business that, in the right hands, would be worth six to eight times their current value.”
This business (and those of the entrepreneurs on the platform) are in the hands of Tom Grafton and if his execution is as impressive as he is, then those investors could be in for some healthy returns.