Staff writer Diya Nadeem interviews King’s College London (KCL) alumnus Kostas Baronos who turned his entrepreneurial dreams into a six-figure £££ reality.
From humble beginnings in his bedroom, Kostas’s business has grown to now being part of a £3.2 million purchasing framework for the higher education sector. His journey is one of persistence, dedication, and hard work, and we had the pleasure of sitting down with him to learn more about his inspiring story. Join us as we explore Kostas’s path to success, the challenges he faced along the way and the lessons he learned that helped him build his business empire.
Roar: Tell me a bit about your background.
Kostas: My name is Kostas and I am currently a final-year medical student at King’s College London. It is my 8th year at University, having completed a 3-year bachelor’s degree prior to the 5-year medical course MBBS. Over the last few years I have been looking for opportunities to expand my skill set both within and outside medicine. In particular, the so-called soft-skills which you don’t really learn at college/ University and it is all about interpersonal skills, leadership and problem-solving. Starting the business Student Essentials has been my ticket in doing so.
R: What is your business and how did you start it?
K: Student Essentials is a business I set up from my student bedroom whilst at University. We offer curated University Starter Packs to students moving into their new accommodation. We offer a wide range of pre-made packs to kit out your new room, such as duvet, pillows, kitchenware, electrical appliances, cleaning essentials and lots more. For international students coming to the UK, our service provides massive convenience whilst also saving them time and money. They can now explore their new city rather than spend 4 hours at a supermarket getting all their room essentials.
It is quite interesting how the business first started. I personally found the move-in to University process super inconvenient, especially as an EU student coming from Greece. I remember making a long list of things I would need in my new student room and things I had to pack in my suitcase. Only to find out that all my belongings will not fit in my suitcase and I had to resort to finding a supermarket big enough near my university that will offer all those room essentials. That made me extremely anxious and it was all on top of all the other important things I had to get sorted such as passport, travel documents, accommodation contract, university induction, finding where my lectures take place and making new friends – and the endless list goes on. So I set myself to change this and make it just a bit easier for future students. Over the last 4 years, my team and I have been working on setting up students for success by providing the best move-in experience. Student Essentials offers not just curated room starter packs, but also supports students through the Student Guides with useful and related information such as “how to apply for a UK visa” and “how to find student housing” etc. But we aren’t stopping there, we are also launching a number of student-focused services, such as airport pickup, laundry services, student storage and many more. This is what I call a holistic approach to solving our customers’ problems.
R: With 90% of startups failing, how did your business make it past this break point and what were the challenges?
K: There are always going to be challenges and barriers to market entry when starting a new business. For me, the first challenge was to get the capital to get the business off the ground and the second challenge was (and still is) time. As a full-time university student, you don’t have a lot of free time or disposable income to spend on such projects. I knew I had to raise £124 pounds so that I could buy wix.com website annual subscription and start designing a website (proof of concept essentially). So I signed up to all tutoring platforms I could find on google at that time and started delivering 1-on-1 tutoring lessons to GCSE and A-Levels students in the subject that I really loved, Biology. This allowed me to raise enough cash to buy this subscription and start designing the first version of Student Essentials. But time became even more limited as not only I had to study for my university, but also deliver tutoring lessons and work on the business. I slowly started sacrificing my Wednesday nights out to a Wednesday night in coding for the website, my call-of-duty gaming session with mates to researching suppliers for our products, and my Sunday-fun-day Netflix to watching YouTube how-to videos on web design. By sacrificing my social time with friends, I was able to find plenty of time during the week to balance my studies and business work whilst still being able to socialise with friends every now and then. This has been a winning formula for me and continues to be. There is nothing that can beat massive levels of action – as long as you are delivering results and have a direction that you are working towards. Massive levels of action is what’s most often quoted in self-learning entrepreneurial books. In the early stages of business life, trial and error is your best friend. Keep trying until you get it right, and once you get it right, continue developing this hypothesis/concept.
R: How has your time at King’s College London supported you in your endeavours?
K: I do believe in the concept of being at the right place at the right time. Starting a business is like putting yourself on a path where you are guaranteed you will fail multiple times, over and over again. During your low times is when you need the right support network, that will help you get back on your feet to continue working on your business. The good thing is that there are a lot of people out there who want to help, it’s just a matter of finding them. For myself, this has been my work line managers Madeleine and Harry from King’s College London. After explaining to them what I have been working on, they were very supportive and with their insight into the student experience, helped me build the business from the ground up and secure a partnership with my home university.
I also found very useful the entrepreneurial events hosted by the Entrepreneurship Institute and King’s Business School. This is where you get to network with other entrepreneurs at various stages in their career, build your communication skills and opportunities to discuss your ideas with successful entrepreneurs and get their views on your business model and how to scale it. At the end of the day you are in London at one of the best Universities in the world. You can take this as an unfair advantage, for those who have read the book by Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba (UK’s Business Book Award 2021).
R: The framework that you are part of sounds incredible, how did you manage to get in on that?
K: I was over the moon when Student Essentials was announced as one of the suppliers for this framework. A bit of background about what the framework is: the full name of it is UK University Purchasing Consortia and it allows selected suppliers who meet certain criteria (both on pricing, product option, ethical product sourcing, ESG of the business etc) to supply all Universities and Colleges across the UK. If a company is not on this list, then you will find it almost impossible to offer your service/products to the higher education sector.
The application is open once every 4 years and the estimated annual spend by member institutions is around £3,200,000 a year, which is an astronomical amount. The application process is very extensive and it requires details on every possible aspect of the business, from how the deliveries take place, and how complaints are resolved to providing the right software infrastructure to support certain business activities such as tracking student sales and tracking the supply chain from the point of manufacture in the country of origin. When submitting the application I used a holistic approach and made sure no stone was unturned. I reviewed every fine little detail and ensured that we would be able to offer the best business and product offering. My medical background turned out to be quite useful here as when we examine patients in medicine or take a focused history we need to be holistic and review every single fine detail. Although business and medicine can seem like two unrelated professions, there have been many transferrable skills I was able to utilise from my medical background to business – for example, another skill is effective communication using simple terminology, avoiding jargon, so that anyone can understand it – this is the classic thing we say in business – if your grandparents cannot understand your business then you are not explaining it well.
A fairly new formed business to be part of this gigantic framework was certainly a shock to the competition and our plan is to continue doing exactly this, disrupt current practices and bring innovation in a mostly unchanged industry for decades with the ultimate mission of setting up every student for success.
R: what are your last suggestions for businesses or entrepreneurs willing to pursue a career in business?
K: There was a concept I was recently introduced to, called the 3 P’s behind every successful business. Purpose, People, Profit.
Find out exactly what your purpose is and what you are trying to solve. Try to be the best in your industry through trial and error. Once you have that, recruit people who believe in your vision mission and values and they will act as the vehicle to deliver them. Generating profit goes without saying. Often times a business will need to move quickly and work on the 3 P’s at the same time, rather than one by one.
Find out more on the Student Essentials Website.