Advice from success stories who didn’t take the university route

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Sean Mallon, 30, is the CEO of Bizdaq, an online platform that allows small business owners to sell their business without costly commission fees.

“I set up my first business with next to zero capital, a yellow pages and a desk phone.”

When I left school at 17, I was undecided as to what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. I didn’t really intend to go to university but my application had been accepted so I started doing a civil engineering course that I had little interest in or the right skill set for.

I took out the necessary loans and I went to my first lecture. By the end of those two hours I decided I was going to leave as soon as possible. I didn’t go back to another lecture but decided to see out the year in Liverpool where I got my first job working in sales with a local company. I stayed on the register at university and they were slow to remove me so when I finally left I had over £10k debt in but I have no regrets as I had found the route to what I was looking for.

While working I found that I was good with people and I could think on my feet which enabled me to be successful. I was headhunted by a client who wanted me to work for his company.

After a couple of years working for two different business sales agents, I decided to take the plunge and I set up my first business at 21 and haven’t looked back since. This business has grown to be one of the largest in the sector in the UK with over 30 staff. I have recently launched my company Bizdaq and it has raised £1m in venture capital funding.

For anyone debating going to university or not, I would advise being sure as to why you are going. If you don’t have a long term idea of a career then you may regret getting into lots of debt with few options when you leave. There are plenty of other routes available now, including work based apprenticeships as well as employers who are keen to take on talented staff that can be developed internally rather than at university. My companies, for example, look at the individual first and the CV second.

I found my career by what seems like luck, but I made it happen by giving things a go that I could have easily missed. I set up my first business with next to zero capital, a yellow pages and a desk phone. I quite literally started calling local businesses seeing if they wanted to sell and got a good response, it took off from there.

“If you are a good problem solver you will never struggle to find work.”


Louise Roberts, 35, is Recruitment Manager at RSVP, a telemarketing agency that specifically hires actors in its call centres.

I didn’t have the option to attend university for financial reasons so I decided the best path was to get a job. Initially I worked as a telephone agent at RSVP whilst pursuing a career as a musician. I have had seven roles since then working in diverse areas of the business from customer service to account management. I think I have always been promoted because I look at how I can make processes more efficient and reliable.  It is always important to think whether you can work better or smarter and this will get you noticed in any industry.

I manage a team of four and we interview and recruit staff as well as manage the social media and website content for the business. In an office that solely employs creative people there is always something exciting and unusual happening. We hire actors because they are extremely articulate, eloquent, motivated and lively staff who are excellent at representing our clients’ brands.

Hard work gets you a long way in life, as does common sense.  If you are a good problem solver you will never struggle to find work so always remember to use your initiative, ask for additional duties, show an interest and never be afraid to ask for help.  Whether you attend university or not, it is the practical application of the knowledge you obtain in life that is important and that is what will help you to succeed.

My advice to jobseekers is to show enthusiasm to make sure the employer knows how much you want that job and how hard you are willing to work.  A degree is no guarantee that a staff member will be suitable to work with us just as a lack of one is not an indication that they will not be. I did not go to university and have personally not found it an issue where career progression is concerned. This is largely due to the fact that I have never seen it as a barrier and have always been confident in my ability to learn and adapt.

“I think it’s a part of accountancy that many don’t appreciate. You can do accountancy and lead an exciting lifestyle. The sky’s really the limit.”


Rob Jones, 36, was the Financial Director of Alstom in Madrid and the Netherlands and now runs his own recruitment firm RJF.

I left school at 16 and couldn’t afford to go to university or college. To get by I started working in construction. When I became ill as a result of the hazardous substances that I worked with, I knew I needed a career change and I started doing data entry at my mum’s company. The Financial Director noticed that I had a good aptitude for accountancy and took me under her wing. She encouraged me to do my AAT Accounting Qualification. I attended college in the evenings and worked during the day. Whilst studying, I secured a job as an accounts assistant with a building company. Similarly, the Financial Director there recognised my ability and passion for the job. He showed me the ropes and supported me whilst I finished my qualification.

Upon completing my AAT, I applied for a job at Alstom, a multinational company which holds interests in the electricity generation and rail transport markets, as I knew I would have the opportunity to travel. At 26 I became a Financial Director for the company based in Madrid and then later for The Netherlands subsidiary. It was a beautiful journey. I got to see a lot of the world, learn about other cultures and make friends for life along the way. I was always travelling to different factories and offices all over Europe. I think it’s a part of accountancy that many don’t appreciate. You can do accountancy and lead an exciting lifestyle. The sky’s really the limit.

After several years as a FD, I decided to start my own business, a recruitment firm, RJF, whilst riding my bike – that’s when I get my best ideas. Part of my role as a Finance Director involved recruiting and training finance teams for a mixture of onshore and offshore projects so I felt equipped with recruitment experience. I have built a rich networking system with a lot of connections over the years. This helped massively when it came to launching my business and it’s been going strong for one year now. While I can’t deny that the financial benefits are very alluring, hearing the positive feedback from my clients is equally fulfilling. I work a lot but I find time for music which has always been a passion of mine. I taught myself to play and since 2010 I drum for the band Empire Signal. Not to boast or anything, but we now record in the same studio as The Charlatans with their producer on a weekly basis.

Dale Rolfe is AAT's Content Manager.

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