At the lowest monetary point in my college career I had $12.60 in my checking account, making the $1.69 I had tucked away in savings look like a fortune. Some students are lucky, having parents who are willing to pay for frivolous college expenses (“We’re not sending you away just to get an MRS degree” was repeated like a Buddhist mantra in my house), however more often than not they’re forced to pick either buying books or buying shots, purchasing help from a tutor versus that spring break vacation package everyone’s been talking about, or something as simple as choosing between groceries and protein powder.
For some, workout supplements are superfluous – why shell out the cash for protein when you’re willing to settle for looking perfectly average? Yet on college campuses this isn’t an option. While the main purpose of going to school is to get a degree, founder and CEO of Campus Protein, Russell Saks, knows the reality differs greatly from the ideal. An alumnus of Indiana University, Saks joined the fraternity Delta Tau Delta and was quickly informed that if he wanted to get laid, it was going to take some work. “My new pledge brothers made it pretty clear to me,” he explains, “if I wanted to get with girls I had to be hitting the gym.”
Describing himself as someone who’s always had an entrepreneurial spirit, Saks says that the idea for Campus Protein, a workout supplement company geared specifically towards college students on a budget, came to him after he noticed that his fraternity brothers were going broke trying to look their best:
Once per month they made a pit stop at GNC to buy supplements, and it was clear as day that these guys are getting ripped off. They weren’t getting them online because it took too long to ship and they needed them right then and there. I knew that if we could combine competitive online pricing with same-day delivery we would have a home run.
Enlisting help from his best-friend-turned-business-partner Mike Yewdell, the two launched Campus Protein during the “Little 5,” or as Indiana University students know it, “the biggest party weekend of the year.” Using money Saks had saved up from previous small businesses he had started, Saks and Yewdell managed to sell out of their entire first batch of inventory within two weeks.
It was clear they were onto something.
Initially using their rooms in the Delta Tau Delta fraternity house as an inventory warehouse, Campus Protein eventually became big enough at Indiana that Saks and Yewdell had to expand to an off-campus storage unit.
As each order came in they would send a text message to the customer to confirm delivery time, making sure to keep customer service satisfaction a priority at all times. “When teachers thought we were taking notes we were actually setting up delivery times” Saks explains, “I knew if this were something we truly wanted to pursue, sacrifices would need to be made.” And while the stress of juggling a full college course load combined with running a startup was overwhelming at times, neither Yewdell nor Saks had any qualms in determining which one took priority. “If I ever felt stressed, it was that school was taking up my Campus Protein time” Yewdell reminisces, “I never once lost sight of the big picture and never questioned our decision to pursue Campus Protein.”
However, without a budget for marketing the then-fledgling startup initially had to rely on word of mouth in order spread any further than simply selling to Delta Tau Delta brothers. Luckily for these green entrepreneurs, Yewdell had amassed a network that expanded outside his immediate fraternity. “I was always a social kid – somehow I made friends in every fraternity” said Yewdell. “Using my network, I was able to make sales easily. Russ taught me the business side of things and I made sure we sold all of our inventory.” One such sold-out product that jumps immediately to Yewdell’s mind was an up-and-coming pre-workout known as “Jack3d”:
I told Russ to order 30 bottles and allow me to sample one out. After 3 nights, we sold out of those 30 bottles. Word spread fast and we were supplying meatheads all throughout IU. If you went to IU’s student gym at any given point, you would see at least 20-30 CP tanks being rocked by our customers. The support from friends and loyal customers is really why we made it at IU.
Campus Protein would not be where it is today, however, if Saks and Yewdell couldn’t find a way to appeal to the market outside of Indiana University. On an analysis of 101 failed startups, 14% reported that poor marketing was their downfall, while another 10% stated that a poorly executed pivot put them out of business. Knowing that their then-fledgling startup would need to expand in order to survive, Saks brought in his best friend from high school, Tarun Singh. A student at Boston University, Tarun said that he had noticed the same problems with his fraternity and agreed to see if Campus Protein would work outside of Indiana. “Across both schools we guerilla marketed every way we could” Saks recalls:
We would litter bus stops with our flyers, put our stickers in stalls and urinals, speak at chapters, do tables and booths at gyms, and give away free samples. We did anything and everything we could to get our name out there.
According to Tarun, their marketing became so effective that it got to the point where they would see several people each day walking to class on campus or working out in the gym wearing Campus Protein tanks. During senior year they even designed a spring break “Putting the P in the V with Campus Protein” tank, a play on words since Puerto Vallarta is one of the top destinations for college students.
Campus Protein eventually grew to the point where the three supplement Bros ran out of trusted friends to bring the company to their campuses, causing them to turn to friends of friends. With the possibility of Campus Protein’s growth slowing to a plateau visible on the horizon, Singh, Yewdell and Saks had to come up with a way to spread even further without breaking the bank.
Enter: the Campus Protein rep program.
“Our campus reps are the backbone of Campus Protein” Saks explains, “They are trained on product knowledge, nutrition, marketing, sales and more.” By recruiting college students across the country to promote Campus Protein, Saks and co. had finally come up with a way to market themselves directly to their target demographic in a way that was not only efficient, but economical as well. With a campus rep database that typically boasts at least 5,000 applications at any given time and more than 1,000 active campus reps, Saks now believes that “What was once one of our biggest pain points has become one of our greatest strengths.”
The turning point for Campus Protein, however, did not come in the form of any massive financial decisions, but rather when it finally came time for the three Bros to graduate. While all three wanted to be able to make this startup their full-time job, the reality of their situation was that the company was not large enough to be able to support themselves. Begrudgingly, the young entrepreneurs began applying to full-time jobs.
But in a stroke of what some would call fate, Saks discovered the Building Entrepreneurs in Software and Technology competition (also known as BEST). Not only is BEST one of the world’s largest business competitions held by a university, but it takes place every year at Indiana University, right in their back yard. Even though it was the competition’s first year, Saks had high hopes upon entering:
It was the first year they were running the competition and you had to be a senior to enter, we knew it was meant to be. A bunch of successful Indiana University alumni such as the CEO of Careerbuilder, Matt Ferguson, Scott Dorsey of ExactTarget, and later Mark Cuban, came together to start this fund to promote entrepreneurship.
After many rounds similar to the popular television show Shark Tank, Campus Protein emerged in first place with their trophy being a seed investment of $100,000. “My first two calls after winning was to Mike and Tarun” Saks grins, “I told them to decline their job offers.”
Since winning BEST Campus Protein has experienced triple digit growth every year, allowing them to grow large enough to curate their own private line of pre-workout called FUEL. Available in three flavors, Tarun cheekily concedes that the most popular option is “Jungle Juice,” as it serves as a great memory trigger for their customers who have already graduated. “We debated becoming a student exclusive website for a while,” Tarun elaborates, “However, we’re happy to be serving customers freshly out of college to customers old enough to be our grandparents.”
As for where you can expect to see Campus Protein in the next five years, Saks says that anything is possible considering all the ideas they currently have in their pipeline. He does admit, however, that there’s one thing that’ll never stray from: helping college kids look better naked.