EXCLUSIVE: Interview with UNiDAYS founder

Becoming CEO of a company which connects brands and services with 142 million students in 32 countries may seem like the impossible dream but for Josh Rathour it’s reality.

UNiDAYS, founded by Josh,  now connects college students, apprentices and university students across the globe but it could all have been so different without an unshakeable belief in himself – despite poor A-level grades.

“I still remember A-level results day, opening the envelope and seeing my grades.

It’s a very stark memory –the sheer sense of isolation and despair I felt. The grades weren’t good and I knew I couldn’t go to university as planned.  I remember thinking, is there even a future for me?

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"...at school there were times when I felt I was the stupidest person...”

“To be honest, at school there were times when I felt I was the stupidest person in the class.”

But he says school did teach him resilience. “When you have to work twice as hard just to keep up, you learn that with hard work you’ll be alright. In fact, it’s a bit of a trait for entrepreneurs, that inner self-belief they will be okay, no matter what.”

Even so faced with rejection from university resilience wasn’t at the forefront of his mind.

“My mum got me a job at an estate agents. It was the best thing to ever happen to me. It was a real eye-opener.”

A year later he was accepted onto a place at Nottingham Trent University studying for a degree in Real Estate Management. ”I remember finally I had found my place, Nottingham Trent wanted me; it felt like a remarkable turnaround.”

After university, he got a job as a commercial property surveyor but it wasn’t long before he had an idea for an online start-up, an online shopping basket. 

“I really thought I could make it work. I spent two years and all of our savings.  I thought it was all going to be fine but it was the complete opposite.  I invested the hours, money and tears – nothing happened, no one signed-up. I had to admit defeat.”

But out of failure came wisdom. “I learnt ideas are relatively easy – execution is not.  The biggest lesson I learnt was to never again get into something like that alone.”

UNiDAYS is certainly not a failure – how did that come about?

“My light bulb moment came when my daughter asked about social media – she was about five years old. We were online and looking at sites. All of these friend requests came in and she just asked ‘how do I know who these people are?’

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“I saw a real opportunity to create more trusted relationships, real benefits.”

“And I thought – Yes how do we know who these people are? And then I thought what if you could create more confidence?  If you could create a system of verification, reassurance that people are who they say they are, online.

“I saw a real opportunity to create more trusted relationships, real benefits.”

With student discount failing to operate seamlessly and 16-24 year olds expecting immediacy 24/7, there was he reckoned, a need for an ‘omni channel’ experience.

“What I did with UNiDAYs was to solve a relatively small problem; I focused right down on the problem of student discount. I didn’t have much capital and I couldn’t finance the team I knew needed – so I offered shares in the business.   I persuaded three others to come on board with me.”

Today from the original four founders in 2011, UNiDAYs has a staff of 220.

How did you persuade the Brands to come on board with UNiDAYS?

“Perseverance, it must have been nine to 10 months before any brand signed-up.  They weren’t interested; their representatives said they didn’t need a service like UNiDAYS.

“We used the rejections to learn, to understand their objections.  I became very, very good at understanding the brands’ ambitions and challenges.”

But it was 10 months of very hard work. 

“It’s where the resilience comes in.  I am very good at overestimating my own stupidity. But I am generally quite self-aware, I know my weaknesses and where there are gaps. UNiDAYS would not exist if we hadn’t had the ability and will to listen and understand our shortcomings.”

Why did you decide to go global?

My ambition was to build an enduring, longstanding business. Retailers in the UK have a choice. There’s UNiDAYs and competition. I knew if we were global, retailers would see us differently.  Now we’re in Russia, Canada, France, Germany, Brazil and more… with the ability to verify students across the globe.”

What’s the worst part of your job?

The worst parts of my job are the travel, the long hours and the emails – there’s got to be a better way than email. I think we should go back to just speaking.”

Josh has four children whose ages ranging from six to 14.  He had his first child at 21, having grown up in Nottingham he hasn’t moved far away from the city. His office overlooks Nottingham castle.

What are the best bits of your job?

“I heard a saying the other day that entrepreneurs are the sort of people flying the plane while they’re still trying to build it – it’s such a thrill and scary at the same time.

“I work with some fantastic people who share the same vision and purpose, helping students all around the world. 

“I love working with individuals who are growing and developing themselves as well as our services.”

What advice would you give your 16 year old self?

"Good grades or not, it'll be your choices and experiences that define you"

What keeps you awake at night?

“Diversity in the workplace, female entrepreneurship – we need to do something and I’m trying to build a taskforce to help address the issue.

“Some 60-65 per cent of UNiDAYS workforce and customers are female, but our senior leadership team does not reflect that gender split.  Lack of diversity, we need to address that.”

Careers, UniversityWeb editor