In a gloomy Carney classroom littered with Dunkin’ iced coffee bottles and candy wrappers, Riley Soward types rapidly into his laptop. It’s pitch dark outside, and he’s been working for hours. When the sun rises, he’ll have to face one of the greatest challenges of his young career. He is the CEO and co-founder of the startup market research company Campus Insights, and he’s less than 10 hours away from trying to secure a new client—Chegg, the major textbook rental company.
He and Ameet Kallarackal, head of UX strategy and research at Campus Insights and CSOM ’18, won’t sleep until late tomorrow, after they give the big presentation. Along with Irene Kim, who’s studying at the University of Michigan, they’ve spent months trying to get this chance to pitch their unique brand of services. Now, with only caffeine and processed sugar to keep them up through the night, they have to perfect their one shot at reeling in this huge client or else watch this opportunity slip away.
It’s a situation they’ve faced before—convincing a professional organization that a student-run company with six employees can provide better marketing research than large firms.
Soward, CSOM ’18, didn’t start Campus Insights with massive funding and years of experience under his belt. He started it the October of his freshman year after having coffee with Patrick Allen, BC ’13. They talked about future plans, ambitions, interests—normal fare for a talk with an alum—but when Soward mentioned his interest in apps and his habit of contacting companies to give them feedback on their product, Allen gave him a cool idea.
Why don’t you go around the Quad asking people what they think of apps and taping their responses?
That quick comment took root in Soward’s mind. Wandering around the Quad with a camera confronting people about apps might be a little bit goofy, but there was a sound idea in there. Companies want to market to college students. They need to know what these students really think. Without that information, they can’t effectively move forward.
“When you’re building a product and you know the product better than anyone else … and you’re spending all of your time in an office room mapping out the product, you just don’t know what someone who’s never even heard of the idea will think of it,” Soward said.
So he started out small. He spoke with his brother Stephen, then a junior at Michigan, and figured out a way they could approach mediated market research on a college campus. The two founded Campus Insights and began conducting the research. He sent out notices in Facebook groups, went to nearby dorm rooms, and found interested students who were willing to use a product and then give their opinion about it.
He asked questions and videotaped responses in an attempt to evaluate the student’s genuine opinion. Those findings would be sent to a company to further develop the product. With all this college student market research, all he needed now was a paying client.
At the beginning, Soward gave his research to companies for free. He and his brother were still figuring out the best ways to conduct and present the research and trying to get their name into the public eye. As a fledgling student startup, they needed to give companies a reason to trust them over established operations full of professionals with advanced degrees. The experience was necessary, but there was only so far they could go without actually selling their services.
Fortunately, BC’s alumni network proved helpful. Soward spoke with alumni about his company and offered their services to anyone who might be interested. Peter Tuan, BC ’12, was impressed and told Soward about a company that was going through the same accelerator as Tuan’s own and was looking to market to the college demographic. This company—Rocki—built speakers that allow you to play music from your phone over Wi-Fi instead of Bluetooth, which allows multi-room, longer-distance playback. They enlisted Campus Insights’ help. More importantly, they paid for it.
Soward gave interested students a Rocki speaker and had them try it out. Did they understand how it worked? Did they like it? Soward recorded his research and gave it to Rocki to complete Campus Insights’ first paid project.
“We have come a long way,” Soward said. “But in terms of feedback we got from Rocki it was all positive.”
From there, Campus Insights started to grow. John Gallaugher, a CSOM professor, introduced Soward to another potential client, which he successfully pitched. Companies wanted their research, and Soward and his brother had to quickly learn how to meet the demand.
“In the beginning, we went through a slow patch because we didn’t make the jump to hire our first person, and as a result we were just very overwhelmed by the projects themselves,” Soward said.
The next step was expansion. Soward and his brother couldn’t run the company and simultaneously conduct the research projects without turning the company stagnant. They needed fresh hires who could generate ideas and conduct research, while they focused on sales and growth.
“The long-term plan for Campus Insights is actually always for it to be a student-run business,” he said.
He took this principle into the hiring process and brought on three student employees to conduct research projects. Now that he and his brother were freed up, they could focus on taking the company forward.
Soward’s brother Stephen didn’t see this success coming. When Riley first approached him with the idea of a college market researching company, he was excited. He liked the idea of providing feedback and knew working with his brother would be enjoyable, but he was unsure of the scope and didn’t know how far something like this could go.
“There’s a lot of unknowns out there,” Stephen said.
Despite that, Stephen knew his brother was capable of great things. Back in high school, Riley and one of his friends, a musician named Zach Gospe, raised $10,000 on Kickstarter so they could go to Los Angeles, meet with Mark Mazzetti, a record producer who has worked with notable performers such as Elton John, and record an album. For someone who hadn’t even graduated high school yet, it showed that Riley was capable of taking on seemingly overambitious projects and achieving success.
Campus Insights proved this once again. Riley and Stephen began pitching to bigger clients and used the stigma of a student-run company as a benefit rather than a drawback.
“At the end of the day, a student talking to a student is a more natural conversation than maybe a 45-year-old researcher talking to a student,” Soward said.
This approach proved convincing. As Soward’s clients became more public and he learned the ropes of holding together a startup, he sought advice from BC alumni, including lawyers who helped him pro bono. Surrounded by all these opinions, some from experts in their fields, he had to maintain the vision of the company and rely on his team and himself.
“I began to trust myself a bit more, rather than just saying ‘Oh, well this really smart person suggested this, so we should do it,’” he said.
His decision-making paid off. After nearly three years spent building a base of clients and promoting across universities, Riley and Stephen eventually led the company to the crucial meeting with Chegg.
The late night spent preparing for the meeting ends before noon the next day. Sleep-deprived but full of energy, Soward and his team put the finishing touches on everything, clean themselves up, and meet with the head of research at Chegg. They pitch their student-run company and show how it rivals major firms. Approaching three years since their start, it’s a bold proposal but a solid one, backed up by successful projects and satisfied clients. The head of research hears them out, and Soward thinks it goes well, but they still have to wait for final decision.
Once the moment of truth has passed, Soward finally gets back to his bed and gets some sleep.
Shortly afterward, the head of research takes the proposal and presents it to the top 40 executives at Chegg, including the CEO.
They say yes.
Featured Image by Amelie Trieu / Heights Editor