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“We gave the brief and they found the students”

“We gave the brief and they found the students”

Dr Tom Bartley, CEO of SETsquared Bristol member Barbal, tells us about his experience of IKEEP, a fully funded programme that brings together intrapreneurially trained students and businesses to boost skills and provide helping hands.

Barbal is a two-year-old co-authoring and collaboration technology start-up, that offers businesses a completely new way to collaborate faster when drafting complex contractual documents through its innovative software.

We were part of the IKEEP programme’s pilot year, giving students the chance to test newly learnt business skills, whilst providing us with extra support to complete a long-awaited project that would benefit the business.

We had a team of three University of Bristol students from very diverse academic backgrounds join us for about a month in February 2020 to undertake a project of our choice. We set them the task of building a go-to-market strategy to tackle the challenge of selling our product to the government sector and regulators. Although that was our original project, when the students started, we agreed to pivot the project to aim the strategy at selling to universities to better fit their field of experience, whilst still benefitting Barbal.

The team did a marvellous job, producing an amazing set of data and strategies that we could adopt if we were to work with universities. They also brought together some great statistics that we can quote to investors in the future, which is very helpful.

We’ve had interns before, but found that as we got busier, we were increasingly hesitant to take them on unless we knew we could give them a lot of support. IKEEP requires students to be closely aligned with the business problem they are brought in to solve and to have the level of knowledge that they need to be able to do that task. The fact that the students have already completed business skills training before they join your company, is hugely beneficial and makes it distinctive from a traditional internship where often no training or support is given.

What was also great about IKEEP was that they were working as a team, which meant they could work quite independently. We had a call once or twice a week, which lasted anything from 15 minutes to half an hour and that gave them everything they needed to go off and complete their task. So, it was quite a light touch from my perspective, which was not expected but very useful as we were still operating ‘business as usual’ throughout the project.

As a business taking part, I think the challenge is finding a project that’s small enough and contained enough that it can be delivered in the time you have available and by students from different disciplines. We didn’t know what subjects our students were studying, we just knew that there would be one postgraduate and two undergraduates. But the calibre of the students was excellent, and they did a really good job. I think both sides of the equation found it very fulfilling.

What I learnt from the students and my IKEEP experience is that putting people in teams to complete a task is much easier than leaving someone on their own. We also learnt that if we were to hire interns again, we would hire a team and let them work together as a unit, rather than give a potentially overwhelming task to one person.

From the students’ perspective, I think they got important insights into a technology start-up and how a business can operate and evolve. They got to see what goes into a business plan, what kinds of questions matter and what the components of getting a business started are.

They seemed to very much enjoy it and we all met up for lunch a couple of weeks ago because we didn’t get to meet each other face-to-face during the project due to the pandemic. They also seemed to feel confident that they can now do something in the workplace that’s not academic or just coursework, which is hugely valuable to take into future jobs or interviews.

In fact, after the IKEEP project was completed, we took one of the team on as a part-time intern for a couple of months to work with us some more, which was really positive.

I’d encourage SETsquared members and other businesses to find out more about IKEEP and sign up to get access to beneficial opportunities like this through SETsquared’s newsletters.

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