With the term beginning to come an end, there’s a growing sense of panic among final year students, at least judging by recent top Yaks on Yik Yak and from talking to friends and coursemates. With summer term likely to pass in a flurry of exam stress, which for most is over by late May, their time at university is drawing to an end. The dreaded question – ‘so, what are you going to do next?’ – crops up like a bad penny. The Civil Fast Track service were outside the Forum only the other day, and increasingly graduate schemes stands are appearing in the Street. The pressure to know what you’re doing after graduation is reaching a palpable peak, and as a second year I am already dreading it.
I’m speaking to Alex Somervell, who does not represent the standard ‘graduate success story’ we have come to accept (and fear) as the norm. Having “scraped a first” last year in IR with Italian and Portuguese, he didn’t end up following the graduate scheme stereotype, instead deciding to set up his own business with a school friend, Jonny Pryn. One Third Stories is an innovative language learning enterprise for children, which creates bedtime stories that start in one language and, by gradually introducing foreign words and illustrating the stories with pictures, and end in a different one. They are initially creating their own stories, with a vision to inspire children to love language learning in the UK and beyond. Alex gives an example, “We’d love to take Winnie the Pooh, and have it starting English and end in German. You’re literally learning the language as a consequence of enjoying the story.”
Managing One Third Stories is not where Alex thought he’d end up on graduating, but it’s clear from his passion and vision when talking about his business – and the fact that I’m the 7th Skype call he’s fielded that day – that he’s landed on his feet.
One Third Stories began with a Young Enterprise project at school, and a little book entitled ‘Jump On Board With Bib’ (which you still find on Amazon, much to Alex’s amusement). Born in Paraguay and raised bilingually, Alex explains that the idea emerged following the realisation that his friend and co-founder Jonny, “one of the smartest people I know, really struggled with languages.” Further inspired by the Russian slang of Clockwork Orange, Alex and Johnny began with a “crappy powerpoint” that focused on using context to make foreign words clear and reinforcing learning. All of this, however, Alex confesses he regarded as little more than a side-project when approaching graduation.
As Alex recalls, and as no doubt many final year students can begin to empathise, year three was harder, and more stressful than previous years. Returning to Exeter after 14 months travelling on a year abroad was, Alex admits, “a bit underwhelming”.
“All the people I knew, myself included, were panicking about grad jobs,” Alex remembers. “There was such a big emphasis on the grad job and the need to find a scheme where you had a career afterwards.” While not disparaging of those who do opt for the ‘grad scheme’ route, Alex is quick to reference figures of high graduate unemployment and a reported 25% dropout rate of graduates going into new jobs within just a year of starting. Now, Alex says most of his friends “are happy to get any job without really having thought about what they’re truly wanting to do.”
“All of my friends were panicking about grad jobs”
At the time, however, Alex too was caught up in the panic of final year career angst, and went to a graduate scheme interview promising a “really good salary”. As Alex recalls, “the interview went quite well but I brought in ‘Jump on Board with Bib’ to show extra-curricular activities” but he didn’t get the job. Instead, he received some feedback that would go on to jump-start One Third Stories; “my interviewer actually told me that I’d showed far more passion for this little book that was just meant to be a CV booster than the company I was applying to.”
This seems to have a sign that perhaps Alex was on to something with this idea. He is cautious when I ask whether Exeter helped him in terms of going ahead with a language business start up as opposed to going for the grad jobs. “I went to the Career Zone a couple of time, but I wasn’t made to see an alternative”, he says. “Exeter is very focused on the big corporations, there is very much a sense that ‘this is the only choice you have.” That being said, he is quick to praise the Innovation Centre at the university, which advised him on taking his project to the next level, shared contacts and gave him the chance to apply for a £2,000 grant as a start-up from the centre. “It’s a shame it isn’t better publicised,” Alex considers, “it’s an amazing resource that isn’t being used much – it really should be encouraged more.”
On the subject of giving advice to students potentially interested in starting up their own business, Alex becomes immediately animated. It’s clear that having so recently been through the entire process, he’s acutely aware of what he’d wished he’d been told. “Talk to anyone and everyone about your idea,” he enthuses, “and don’t be scared about people stealing it – we’re still here a year and half later and no one has stolen ours.” He’s a major advocate of networking, and the ease of social media facilitating this – ”you can send anyone a message on Twitter these days, or Linkedin”. His own experience of this was speaking to the founder of Rosetta Stone, having simply sent an email to an address he found online. Alex recommends being as “personal, humble and unique as possible … All entrepreneurs have been in this situation, where they don’t have a network – they understand.”
In the same breath, however, Alex warns that despite speaking to everyone you can and hearing what they have to say, “be selective about who you listen to… We spoke to millionaires, CEO etc, and tried to take all their advice which meant that we flip-flopped early on.” Looking back, Alex realises he should have been aware of the perspective this advice was coming from, and their own biases, despite their commercial success.
“be selective about who you listen to”
Speaking of the future, Alex is hopeful that ultimately One Third Stories will change the way people see language learning in the UK and beyond. “I’d personally love to go back to Latin America and start stories that begin in Spanish and end in English, maybe eventually tapping into poorer communities with access to technology.” Eventually their aim is to partner up with publishers and writers to have the biggest impact possible.
Alex firmly believes that following his own idea was better than any grad job could have been, and his passion, drive and commitment to his project are refreshing. Our chat might have been the 7th Skype call of the day, but I get the feeling that when it comes to talking about One Third Stories, Alex would quite happily talk all day. One can only hope that we might all be so enthusiastic about graduate employment, no matter what we decide to do.
One Third Stories is running a Kickstarter campaign at the end of April and have an ongoing story-writing competition on their website.