4 things that surprised me about being an entrepreneur in college

My name is Conor Lynch, and I’m a 2nd year Mechanical Engineering student in the National University of Ireland, Galway. I also run a business called Conor Lynch Woodturning, where I design and handcraft a range of high quality wooden homeware, including clocks, bowls and pens. I started woodturning when I was 11, and turned it into a business in 2013. I have been running it ever since (I’m 19 now) alongside school and college.

Like almost every young person, when I was applying for college I hadn’t a clue what I was doing— I went to talk after talk, and loads of university open days, but I still didn’t 100% know what I actually wanted to do. I paid hefty prices for an “expert” to tell me to do a generic course based on my intellect and how many points I’d get in the Leaving certificate. These people just didn’t seem to factor in that I had interests and hobbies outside of school that I wanted to build on. In the end, I chose the right course for me. I’m currently studying Mechanical Engineering in the National University of Ireland, Galway, and I can genuinely see myself in a Mechanical Engineering job in the future. When I actually got to college, a couple of things really surprised me, in good and bad ways. Here’s a few:

1. Entrepreneurs do exist in college

When I was applying for college, I always thought it was the place where business ideas go to die — you’re there to get a degree, and anything else is distracting from your study. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

The thing is, I had just come from secondary school, where grades were all that mattered. Coming up with your own ideas was discouraged and “just following the pack” was the ‘right’ thing to do. I came from an institution where you had to get permission to go to the toilet, into an institution where you have complete control of what you do. I joined the NUI Galway Entrepreneurship society, and it was probably the best thing I could’ve done. I met like-minded people, and there was 6 or 7 fellow students I met who run their own businesses. These include Edel Browne from Free Feet medical, which makes medical devices for people with Parkinsons disease. I also met Ruari McNicholas, who has started a computer hardware company making products for computer enthusiasts, called Chrono Labs.

Being surrounded by these incredibly talented, motivated people has had a hugely positive impact on me — I’m now a far more motivated and ambitious person. I am now the Secretary of the Entrepreneurship society, meaning I have a great insight into how the society functions. It can be very busy at times, but I’ve had access to events that I just wouldn’t have access to otherwise, like a networking event I attended last week, organised by the Galway Chamber of Commerce, for businesses in Galway to meet up in an informal setting and share ideas.

2. The supports are there to help your business grow

University really surprised me in how eager they were to support anyone with a business or idea. Around Ireland, and worldwide, business incubators are being set up to help startups develop. An example of one of these in NUI Galway is Blackstone Launchpad. It had just opened in my first year of college, so it was timed very well.

Showing off my new bespoke packaging for my clocks in Blackstone Launchpad, at one of their events. I always get fantastic feedback from people when I meet them at events like this. (Photo credit: Blackstone Launchpad)

Blackstone Launchpad is a platform which helps students if they have a business or business idea. I was reluctant at first to book a mentoring session, because I thought it was only really for ideas, and not established businesses. Nonetheless, I booked a meeting and was blown away by all they could offer. In the meetings that followed, myself and my mentor would discuss the challenges facing my business, and how I could face them. Having an outsider come in and critique my business was incredibly helpful, because it showed up flaws that I may not have noticed.

Pitching my business at Blackstone Launchpad’s weekly “Show & Tell” event. A few of my friends showed up, so it was fairly nerve-racking, but I was happy with how the pitch went. (Photo credit: Blackstone Launchpad)

I also got the opportunity to travel to a couple of really interesting business conferences, Inspirefest being the most memorable one. Inspirefest was a 2-day event packed with incredibly inspiring speakers from across the globe, speaking about tech, science, design and the arts. Equality was a core topic in all of the talks; the majority of speakers were women in tech. It was an incredibly Inspiring event, and one which really opened my mind.

I was also asked to be a judge at the Bank of Ireland StartUp Academy for Transition year students, where I was blown away by the students, who were all between 15 and 16, and had come up with incredible ideas and worked in groups to achieve them. One of the head judges happened to be Barry O Sullivan, who I had pitched in front of on Junior Dragons’ Den 3 years ago.

Bank Of Ireland asked me to be a judge in their Transition Year Startup academy, and the head judge happened to be Barry O Sullivan — one of the Dragons I pitched in front of 3 years ago. Opportunities like this only came about because of Blackstone Launchpad.

3. I’m the busiest I’ve ever been

When I would hear about college from people who were there, to be honest it just sounded like a big party. It is a lot different than that. Of course, I go out, but I also work harder than ever before. I’m up earlier, working long days, and I love it.

It depends hugely on the degree you choose to study — engineering has some of the longest hours, up there with medicine, which nobody told me! I have to work very hard to keep up with college work, but I think that’s the way it should be. This year, I’m actually studying throughout the year instead of leaving it until the last minute! The work I do with the Entrepreneurship society can take up a good bit of time, between meetings, emails and attending events, and then there’s the small matter of my business to attend to!

4. People still think your Leaving cert points, and not interests, should dictate your choice of college course

You might think this point is slightly off-topic, but loving what I do has made me more motivated, and this motivation is essential for running a business alongside college.

For any of you who aren’t familiar with the Irish education system, you spend 6 years in secondary school, and do the Junior Certificate in 3rd year and then the Leaving Certificate in 6th year — the grades you get in Leaving cert are what determine whether you get into your college course or not. You do exams in all subjects you are studying (usually 8) and then choose your best 6 results. The system has changed now, but when I was in Leaving cert, you were marked on a scale of 0 to 625 points, 100 points for an A1 (25 bonus points for passing higher level maths).

I worked myself into the ground for my Leaving cert, having very little social life and just working all the time for about a year. In the end, it paid off, I got 615 points, which meant I would gain entry into whatever course in Ireland I applied for. The points for Engineering in NUI Galway were about 430, so I had 185 points “spare”.

I’m now studying Mechanical Engineering in NUI Galway. The newly completed engineering building in this picture is one of the reasons I love studying here.

Now, here’s where I get frustrated — I had a few people, both adults and students, come up to me and say that I was “wasting points”, and that if I should have applied to study Medicine or Nanoscience, because they’re the highest point courses in Ireland (in the high 500 range). They said I was wasting points by going into a course with only moderately high entry points.

This really annoyed me because people were telling me to not follow my passions and my interests — they were telling me to stick to the status quo. My business showed me how much I love the design side of things. I also had an interest in maths and physics, and Mechanical Engineering combined all of those things. My Leaving cert points didn’t show my passions, and ultimately I think your passions are what should guide you in your choice of college course.