Diary of a student entrepreneur 2019: Vol. 1

Four student entrepreneurs on LaunchBox, Tangent’s Student Accelerator, at Trinity have agreed to chronicle their adventures, the highs and the lows, as they build their businesses.

Robin Twist, co-founder of CashBox

Daniel Cosgrove (left) and Robin Twist (right)

It’s Friday, March 22. I submitted an assignment at 5:46am this morning, another one is due in five days, and my final exams are in just thirty-two days. I definitely don’t have time to be here, but I absolutely should be. It’s the inaugural Provost’s Innovation Challenge at Trinity, run by Tangent, Trinity’s Ideas Workspace. A diverse group of people are throwing themselves at the problem of homelessness together, forming teams and friendships, and creating ideas that aim to tackle one of the most pressing problems in Irish society today.   

Fast forward to today, and I am a co-founder of CashBox, a social enterprise that has been funded by LaunchBox, Tangent’s Student Accelerator. When I started my postgraduate degree here last August, I attended the LaunchBox Demo Day 2018. The atmosphere was one of nervous excitement, as 300 people waited to see the pitches from student entrepreneurs who had spent their summer developing their own enterprises. This was my first taste of the work that Tangent does, and it is odd and unnerving – in a mostly good way – to think that in just ten weeks, Daniel and I will be one of the teams pitching.   

“I should give them a hand, but I don’t have cash on me”

My co-founder Daniel and I started CashBox because as our society moves closer to becoming cashless, the homeless rough sleepers of Ireland are getting fewer donations.  

Speaking to the people whose problem you are trying to solve is an important activity in entrepreneurship and something that is hammered home every day on the LaunchBox programme. As part of the innovation challenge that started us off on this journey, I found myself chatting to someone who had been sleeping on the streets for a long time.  Daniel and I are striving to make it easier to give to rough sleepers like him – it sounds simple, but as we have discovered, it is far from it. My first lesson in startups: Do it anyway. 

Andriy Babiy, co-founder of Study.ie  

I was driven to start Study.ie in 2017, after failing to find a peer-reviewed Spanish course in Valencia. After searching through Google and sifting through offerings I was overwhelmed by all of the different website designs and content layouts. I was looking for a recommendation from a peer similar to the way I would find a hotel based on user reviews and that was nowhere to be found. So we started Study.ie.

Study.ie is a learning resource aggregator that is simplifying the search process and allowing people to record and share their learning experience in order to both track what they did and share it with others. Being a Trinity student, it’s a great opportunity to take part in LaunchBox, Tangent’s Student Accelerator. In addition to the funding, the opportunity to work with like-minded individuals was one of the core reasons why I decided to apply. During the first few weeks, LaunchBox really stress-tested our idea. Each week on the programme a different team runs a peer session. You have to present on a challenge you’re facing, or a product feature you’d like tested – anything that means you’re open to feedback and criticism, and that pulls you out of your startup bubble. 

“Study.ie is a learning resource aggregator that is simplifying the search process and allowing people to record and share their learning experience”

It was both a blessing and a curse to have our session early; it pushed us to get our website prototype done faster and to have the cohort use it and give us some feedback which really opened our eyes to what people wanted. Even though the session shook me and the Study.ie team to the core, and showed me that there is still a lot to learn, the insights from the other LaunchBox startups in conjunction with the guest founders has really given me confidence. Sometimes done is better than perfect. 

Laura Brennan, co-founder of EthiCart

Laura Brennan (left) and Lara Pairceir (right)

My startup, EthiCart, aims to empower consumers to shop more sustainably and buy products that align with their values so they can feel good about what they’re buying. The idea came as I was worried about climate change and my own impact. I wanted to start shopping more sustainably, but found myself unsure on what sustainability meant. How can I make an impact? I soon realised how hard it was to find clear and concise information. We hope to solve this for other sustainability-minded consumers by creating a user-friendly app with quick, accessible and easy to understand information around food products’ sustainability and ethical standards.

“I soon realised how hard it was to find clear and concise information”

Since starting the LaunchBox programme here in Trinity, we have gotten invaluable real-world experience and heard from some seriously impressive and inspiring entrepreneurs. It can feel daunting hearing from people who are so much further along, and one of the biggest challenges we have faced is realising everyone goes at a different pace; different businesses are at different stages and it doesn’t all need to be perfect right away (or ever for that matter!). One of the best pieces of advice I have learned in the first few weeks of LaunchBox is to focus on the problem, not your solution. Solve a real problem that creates real value for the world. Your solution may not be the right one but if you are focused on the problem, you will be much more open to pivoting to the right solution. We try to keep that in mind as we work on EthiCart.

“Solve a real problem that creates real value for the world”

The camaraderie and support from other start-ups has been my favourite part of LaunchBox so far, with everyone offering encouraging advice and feedback to help other teams. I’m looking forward to challenging myself and learning more this summer.

Rebecca Gilligan, co-founder of Snaggletooth

Michelle Galvin (left) and Rebecca Gilligan (right)

I am now one month into the LaunchBox programme and a lot has happened within that short time. Our start-up Snaggletooth is an oral care company, manufacturing soft-bristled, 100pc recyclable toothbrushes. Michelle (my co-founder, and a qualified dentist) and I decided to enter LaunchBox, Tangent’s Student Accelerator, to give Snaggletooth the boost it needs to become investor-ready.

Fifty per cent of the western world has gum disease, which causes sensitive teeth and can lead to serious life-threatening conditions like heart attacks, cancer, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. To combat this problem, Snaggletooth makes polyester-bristled toothbrushes which are extremely soft but clean just as well as nylon toothbrushes, making them great for sensitive teeth and perfect for maximising health. Each toothbrush is also 100pc recyclable.

“Fifty per cent of the western world has gum disease, which causes sensitive teeth and can lead to serious life-threatening conditions”

The greatest challenge we have faced so far is understanding customer needs. While we have the research behind us, we must validate our idea to make sure it’s what the customer wants. That’s why for the last few weeks, you would only have been able to find us under a pile of market research. But our next goal is to arise from the shadows and talk to our customers.

The advice and funding from LaunchBox have been essential in moving forward with the company. Speakers and mentors have given us the tools to develop our idea, while the funding has allowed us to execute it. The best piece of advice I’ve received so far is don’t spend years developing a product that nobody wants. Get out into the market, understand your customers and keep them involved in every step of the process so that when your product/service is ready for market, the market is ready for you.

It’s always nerve-wracking not knowing where an idea will take you – but that’s also the most interesting thing about startup life, and with the group of fantastic teams accompanying us through LaunchBox, we have great in-built support for the journey.

Published on 2 July, 2019.