Business Ideas for University Students

Updated on 27 January 2020

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business ideas for university students

This article was originally published in February 2018, due to its popularity it’s been updated with additional business ideas.

“When it comes to business ideas for learners (university students), the biggest tip I can give is to look at your circumstances and environment and try to identify where the biggest challenges are,” says Jalal Ghiassi-Razavi, association director at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation.

“What are the biggest pains you see in your daily routine? The chances are, if it’s a pain for you, then it’s a pain for others as well. This is worth exploring and one of the things we teach our beneficiaries on the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Programme,” Ghiassi-Razavi adds.

The Allan Gray Orbis Foundation targets matric and university students. The foundation provides its fellows with funding for the university, in addition, to access to support and development to cultivate an entrepreneurial mindset.

Successful South African entrepreneurs who are foundation fellows include, Maurice Madiba, founder of Cloud Atlas Investing, a Johannesburg-based investment firm, Yoco CFO Bradley Wattrus and Melvyn Lubega, co-founder of global learning management system, GO. They put the valuation of fellow businesses at R850 million.

Youthful energy is a big advantage

One of the benefits of being a student is that they often have a skillset and passion that they’re already following, says Ghiassi-Razavi, especially given that you are studying a particular qualification.

“Combined this with the energy of youth and you’ve got yourself a powerful weapon in the bid to generate some money on the side.”

Ghiassi-Razavi’s action steps for starting a business at university:

– Identify the pain points
– Decide on a service-based or product-based business
– Validate your idea
– Open up your shop

Service-based business ideas

Now, there are two routes to businesses that you can explore as a student. The first involves the provision of services – “Service-Based”. This is likely the easiest route to take as you don’t need much capital to start these types of businesses. All you need is some time, and with the energy levels that students have these days… time should be aplenty. Service-based businesses typically involve the selling of skills, competencies and resources.

While these types of businesses allow you to start with relatively little capital requirements, they are more difficult to scale given that you need resources to deliver value. In service-based businesses, the skills are not separated from the provider.

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Examples of service-based businesses include:

  1. Mentoring (high school scholars, university tutorial groups, head tutors etc.)
  2.  Offering services commercially in line with your course of study – architecture mock-ups, legal contract review and drafting, engineering drawing & design, software development & coding, financial modelling and so on
  3. Micro-jobbing (getting paid to do chores for others – e.g. cook meals, do laundry, run errands)
  4. Digital media – website building & maintenance, SEO campaigns, copywriting, CV writing, podcasts
  5. Health – personal training
  6. Delivery and transportation – tourists, packages, people, and moving services
  7. Babysitting, care-taking, house-sitting, pet-sitting, dog walking
  8. Event organiser, promotions, photographer


The second category of business is “Product-Based”. These businesses sell a physical, tangible product, which can be in the form of an actual good or in the form of a service that is delivered through a system/software solution (which is the product).

The beauty of product-based businesses is that they can scale given that you do not always need new resources to deliver the required value. The challenge with these types of businesses, however, is that they require some form of investment, whether to develop the system/solution or in the form of working capital (goods that are eventually sold).

business ideas for university students 3

Examples of product-based businesses include:

  1. Buying and selling goods, food, snacks, equipment or even stationary
  2. Buying and selling used textbooks, furniture or clothes
  3. Vehicles – cheap cars, scooters etc.
  4. Handmade crafts – t-shirts, jewellery, clothing
  5. Stock photos
  6. Software-as-a-service, Product-as-a-service solutions, platform solution development (large-scale potential businesses)

The earlier you get in, the better. The nature of start-ups is that you’ll likely pivot


Online-based Businesses

There is money to be made online. One of the fastest growing sectors and one which presents a great opportunity to start a business is as a social media marketer or influencer. The rise of podcasts also means there is an opportunity for South African youth to generate revenue from audio, as well as video and images.

Examples of service-based businesses include:

Social media influencer

Influencers are online content creators who have succeeded in amassing a large social media following (they choose a platform or more like YouTube, Twitter, Instagram or Facebook), and are successfully leveraging this popularity to become (paid) brand ambassadors – and are enjoying the big bucks that come with it as a result.

Influencers make regular posts on their preferred social media channels and generate large followings of enthusiastic, engaged people.

According to Atiyya Karodia, Lead Strategist of VML SA, a digital marketing, advertising and transformation agency, a local influencer at the bottom end of the scale can earn R1,000 per month, but one with international influence can earn up to R50,000 from their content.

YouTube Influencer

Similar to the social media influencer, the YouTube influencer makes their money by marketing a brand’s products to their loyal following.

Kirsty Sharman, a marketer for South African online influencer platform Webfluential explains what they do. “These YouTubers are storytellers, personalities, and trusted advisors to many South Africans because they make content that people care about, content people want to watch. A recent study by Google uncovered that four out of 10 millennials think that their favourite creator understands them better than their close friends – as a result, these YouTube creators have incredible influence.”


While still an emerging medium in South Africa, according to local research conducted by Matt Brown Media, podcasts are the fastest-growing sector of media consumption in South Africa.

Podcasts are audio episodes that users can download from the internet. They can cover a variety of topics from money and budgeting to fitness and health.

Basic skills required include interviewing, sound recording and audio editing.

The opportunity to generate additional revenue lies, according to Forbes, in brand sponsorships from brands looking to gain exposure from your audience.

Podcaster, entrepreneur and entrepreneurship specialist, Mashudu Modau, has a very comprehensive a guide for launching a podcast on his website The guide offers all the technical ins and outs of launching your podcast, from how to upload your first podcast, to editing tips and everything in between.

20 Business Ideas for University Students

Idea vs Execution

Just do a Google search and you’ll find thousands of potential ideas to pursue. Having a great idea though is not what makes you successful. Identifying a problem or need that is worth solving and having the ability to execute or deliver is what counts. So start engaging on a journey of whatever sort. The lessons learned will no doubt serve you well in the future.

Be lean & agile

The biggest piece of advice is to work on establishing “product-market fit” before formalising your business. We all have ideas for business ventures. The question, however, is whether or not there are customers who are willing to pay for your product/service. Without buyers, you don’t have a business. Get out there, engage with your target market, and understand what their needs and pain points are.

This will help you to identify exactly what it is that you can look to solve. Once you’ve done this, put your product/solution offering out there and see how they engage with you and your product. If things start to get serious, then you can look to formalise a business. If not, then pivot and try a different approach or offering to address their needs.

Start your journey

There are plenty of resources available on the web relating to how to grow and develop a venture. The first and most important tip that I can give however is to just start! Take the first step. Don’t worry about getting all your ducks in a row.

The earlier you get in, the better. The nature of start-ups is that you’ll likely pivot, multiple times as you search for that “product-market” fit. Some businesses will succeed, many will fail but, if you consider it a journey of entrepreneurial development, you’ll better position yourself to be a success, if not now then certainly in the future. The key though is to start the journey.

A great analogy is to think of someone who is looking to get a fit and healthy body. Going to the gym for a single 24-hour session will not give you the results you are looking for, however, going to the gym for the same 24 hours but split over 30 minutes, 3 days a week for

Opportunity is everywhere. Anytime you’ve had a thought such as “Wouldn’t it be nice if” or “Why don’t they?” or “Why isn’t there?” or “I wish there was a” or “this is frustrating” or “where can I find a?” then get excited because opportunity lurks.

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