The Business Class

How the crisis made graduates become entrepreneurs

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
Echo | Cultura | Getty Images

Necessity is the mother of invention, so the proverb goes. Sam Atiko-MacQueen found that out when he was caught up in the biggest corporate collapse of the 2008 financial crisis.

When Atiko-MacQueen graduated from University College London in 2008, he had high hopes of a rewarding career in the city. Things didn't quite go to plan.

"I started as a grad at Lehman Brothers, and within about four months me and about 120 other graduates found ourselves without a job," he told

"They were the biggest bankruptcy in the history of corporate America. It was very much an overnight ordeal for us, and we found out the next day that we didn't have jobs. As students, we didn't have any money either."

Atiko-MacQueen found himself in a position that many young graduates will be familiar with. A good degree from a top university, plenty to offer, buckets of enthusiasm, but no job.

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"For the next couple of years it was pretty difficult," he added. "I joined another couple of firms. I worked for one – for free – for six months, and then they made a load of people redundant, so I left." In the second quarter of 2013, the unemployment rate among recent graduates was 9 percent, according to the Office for National Statistics - significantly higher than the 5 percent recorded for the same period in 2008.

Frustrated with the job market and its insecurity, Atiko-MacQueen decided to take matters into his own hands and start a business. His moment of inspiration came when looking for storage boxes in 2010. "Eventually I got hold of these old, vintage wooden wine crates, put them on top of my wardrobe and was really pleased with them," he said.

After a friend suggested he try and sell crates himself, the idea for a business was born. Today, The Wonderful Wood Company is the largest supplier of French wine crates and boxes in the UK, importing directly from France and selling, on average, 200 boxes to the retail market per week.

The company has experienced month on month sales growth of fifteen percent, and is now exporting crates to Europe and America, as well as manufacturing its own in China. "It started with boxes coming to my bedroom, and then as we grew bigger, we got a warehouse to store our stock," Atiko-MacQueen said.

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When he graduated from the University of Ulster in 2011, Paul Malone found competing in a saturated job market difficult. "[It was] really, really tough, exceptionally tough," Malone told "No matter how well you thought you were suited to a role, a lot of the times you never even got an email back, or an acknowledgement. It was that ruthless."

Interested in pursuing a career in journalism, but finding the job market flooded and newspapers unable to take on staff, Malone, together with his partner, started a business. In October 2011 he founded The Newry Times, an online newspaper for the residents of Newry, County Down.

"It's a hyper local news service and we try to engage with the community," Malone said. "In this day and age, when you have a mobile phone with Twitter and Facebook, you should be able to get your news right now, no matter what time of day it is."

Since starting in 2011, The Newry Times has seen Malone and his team win a Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in 2012, and today has between 9,000-12,000 people visiting the site each week, as well as over 2,000 followers on Twitter.

"It sort of captured the imagination of the local community, because they were getting news straight away, and it was free," Malone said. "That's the big thing for us – people are strapped for cash locally, and Newry has a huge employment problem. People don't want to pay three pounds a week to buy three different local newspapers."

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Had it not been for the financial meltdown of the last few years, the entrepreneurial nous of these two graduates would have most likely remained untapped. "It pushed me into making a decision I maybe thought I wasn't ready to make," Malone said.

"I think everybody says 'I'd love to start my own business', but they need that push in the right direction, they need that reason. If I had been in a comfortable job with a nice future ahead and the possibility of promotions, it would have been a lot harder to leave. But in the situation I was in, I was on the dole, I had no money. I had nothing to lose."

For Malone, the experience has been enriching. "You learn more in a year or two running your own business than you'll ever learn doing a degree or any other sort of discipline."

For Atiko-MacQueen, it's all about attitude. "If you do find yourself unemployed and have an idea for a business you want to pursue – and it really can be anything these days – my advice is to certainly go for it," he said.