Queen Mary alumni who built a multi-million pound business have said the university was key in supporting their entrepreneurial ventures.
Tom Renshaw was studying a joint honours BA in Business Management and Russian when he met Mile End campus halls neighbour and BSc Economics student Stefan White. Stefan always had an entrepreneurial spirit, selling sweets and drinks on the school playground, while Tom was honing his ideas and abilities at one of the UK’s leading business schools.
The pair became firm friends in their time at Queen Mary, even going on holiday to Bulgaria together – where they first had the idea that became their business. Inspired by snacks they discovered on the trip, Tom and Stefan created the Bier Company, selling nuts with unusual flavours like Jalapeno and Masala Curry in sustainable packaging resembling beer cans.
Reflecting on how their business journey began, 26-year-old Tom said: “As we were living in halls together, we were able to really build our business idea during our time at university. Queen Mary was incredibly helpful for us as young entrepreneurs, giving us a £5000 'build it grow it' grant, which enabled the business to get some economies of scale on the stock we were buying when just starting out.”
The summer after graduating from Queen Mary, Tom and Stefan ran a Kickstarter campaign that raised £7,000, which they combined with a £24,000 Government start-up loan to build their business. Having invested in 100,000 units of product, the pair spent months going from their home in Canning Town to a different London borough every day, pitching their product to independent pubs.
Stefan, 27, recalled: “We didn’t realise selling snacks was the toughest industry to get into. But the beautiful thing about London is there are 9,000 pubs. After about six months, we had visited about 4,000 pubs – my shoes were talking to me, my jeans were ripped, and I lost 20kg in weight – but we had 500 pubs on board: a 1 in 8 success rate.”
As well as pounding the pavement, they called major pub groups in hopes of selling them Bier Nuts – and hit a breakthrough with Stonegate, who stocked the snacks in 300 of their pubs. This led to more chains coming on board, so within nine months they were selling in more than 2,000 pubs. Their company has now generated £10 million in revenue, selling not just their signature snacks but also craft beer subscriptions and gift boxes, as the undeterred entrepreneurs created new products when Covid-19 lockdown forced pubs to close.
Tom explained: “We were able to build our business idea during our time at Queen Mary – and in fact we had other business ideas that we never pursed but Queen Mary supported us with. For example, Stefan being the treasurer of the football team led us to think about a product relating to portable fitness, so one of the Engineering Professors sat down with us and helped us try to design something from the ideas that we had in mind.”
Stefan added: “In five years’ time, our business will be the first name that pops up when you talk about craft beer. It’ll be the brewery, once we launch that; the snacks; draught beer dispensers in your homes; in pubs and online… This business will be everything.”
Queen Mary actively encourages and supports students to develop an entrepreneurial mindset and turn their business or social enterprise ideas into reality. The School of Business and Management is home to the UK’s first student-led social impact venture capital fund, and the whole University aims to empower the next generation of entrepreneurs. Find out more about our careers and enterprise programmes, resources, events and workshops.