Grad returns to LI to bulk up his 2-year start-up
Saks, 22, graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., in May with a degree in business management and a fledgling two-year start-up, Campus Protein. The company, which has funding from a group of Indiana University alumni who are business executives, sells college students nutritional supplements with discounts averaging around 35 percent and, usually, same-day delivery. Its goal: $300,000 in sales this year.
"We wanted to come back here," Saks said. "It's kind of natural for us."
The company is primarily an online operation that could locate anywhere. But Saks' decision to base the company on Long Island demonstrates a style of young entrepreneurship that local officials are trying to attract to revitalize the region.
"It's all about creating an ecosystem to support entrepreneurs so that young people who have ideas feel like they can launch their business on Long Island," said David Calone, the head of Jove Equity Partners, a venture capital company in Setauket.
Calone, who is an investor in the national start-up accelerator program TechStars, said businesses like Campus Protein can help build up Long Island's "entrepreneurial density" -- with the hope that having lots of creative, young people in an area can nurture more collaboration, new businesses and jobs.
Still, Campus Protein faces challenges as an online business with inventory scattered across college campuses. Since it depends on college students to sell its product, its sales force turns over every four years.
"The thing with entrepreneurship," Saks said, "is that you keep trying until you get it right."
Filling a need
Like many entrepreneurs, Saks founded Campus Protein to meet a need. After moving into a fraternity house his sophomore year, he began working out with his fraternity brothers. But he felt they were all overpaying for workout supplements.
"Every two to three weeks we'd go to the GNC to buy protein and supplements," Saks said. "And I just couldn't believe that . . . someone was spending between $100 to $150 on something like this." Buying supplements online and waiting a week for it to arrive would be a hassle, too.
So Saks came up with the idea for Campus Protein: The business would buy workout products in bulk -- such as vitamins, pre-workout formulas and protein powder -- and sell them to students with cheaper prices and same-day delivery to dorm rooms. The business would take orders online and advertise on campus via social media and word-of-mouth.
With the help of fellow classmate Yewdell, who Saks said "knew everyone at Indiana," the business expanded to all the fraternities at the 32,500-undergrad university.
When Saks told Singh, his high school friend, about his budding business in the summer of 2010, Singh asked if he could run a similar operation at his college, Boston University. Soon, Singh was also selling supplements to students at nearby Harvard University, Northeastern University and Boston College.
Realizing the approach could be replicated at other campuses, the trio devised a distribution system. The program would recruit students at different colleges to be campus representatives, who would store inventory -- often in dorm rooms or frat houses -- sell the products and offer same-day delivery.
By 2011, Campus Protein had set up at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., and the University of Georgia, in Athens, through word-of-mouth and acquaintances. The business also expanded its website, opening it to the public -- which could also buy at the same prices but would pay $6.99 and wait a day or two for shipping. About 10 percent of sales are now off-campus.
By the end of 2011 -- when the trio were seniors -- the business was generating about $15,000 in sales per month by selling at four colleges. This year, the founders took on formal roles: Saks is the chief executive, Yewdell, chief marketing officer, and Singh, chief sales officer.
A challenge was balancing schoolwork, social life and running the company as the business expanded.
"There were times when maybe the lecture wasn't as important as a sale we had to complete or we were going to lose a customer," Saks said.
The question of what they would do after college also hung in the air. "We were all actively looking for jobs, but we had a gut feeling that we would do this," Singh said.
That gut feeling strengthened when Campus Protein won two start-up competitions. In March the group came out on top at the $1K Business Concept Competition at Boston University -- which netted them $1,000 and free office space at an incubator on campus over the summer.
In May the group took first prize at the inaugural Building Entrepreneurs in Software and Technology competition, or BEST, at Indiana. The prize was $100,000 in funding, and the group's first permanent mentor: Mary Delaney, founder of software company Luceo Solutions in Chicago.
Delaney was a judge in the competition and will be joining Campus Protein's board with Saks and Singh. She has an equity stake in the company along with the rest of the BEST judges.
"The maturity of Russell and his partners just amazed me," she said. "For example, they already had insurance for their business, and what college student thinks of that?"
Delaney also pointed to the value of the business' distribution system. Although Campus Protein is only selling workout supplements right now, it has been in contact with businesses such as Vita Coco and Monster energy drinks to sell their products through campus reps, Singh said.
"We're hoping there will be kids like us who come back and create businesses and stimulate the economy and create jobs," Saks said. "I just think influencing our hometown is one thing that's kind of cool."
The funding also will go toward revamping the Campus Protein website, developing the business' own product line, launching an alumni program for former customers, and building a software program to better manage communications between campus reps and customers.
Campus Protein also will expand to three new campuses: University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan State University and Penn State University. The group surveyed students through social media and did research about gym use and campus culture before deciding on the three. They advertised the representative position as a fun way to earn money and as a resume builder.
Campus Protein also plans to have campus representatives selling at Hofstra and Stony Brook universities by early 2013.
Challenges remain for the 2-year old company.
"The thing about their business is that it's going to be very dependent on . . . finding good quality and responsible people on each campus. How they go into each campus with the right training in place and right recruitment in place is going to be really key," said Ian Mashiter, the executive-in-residence at Boston University and a mentor for Campus Protein at the Boston incubator. "Obviously, the company's reputation is going to be set by people running the business on campus."
For now, meeting those challenges is something Saks said he's accepted.
"In business, there's risks," he said. "But big risks yield big rewards, and I think that's why we're all here."
Name. Campus Protein, campusprotein.com
Business. Discounted workout and nutritional supplements
Founded. March 2010
Employees. 3 corporate, 40 campus representatives
Most popular product. Cellucor C4 Pre-Workout
Number of customers More than 3,000
Fastest delivery time. Fewer than 5 minutes from time of order
Clothing ritual. Formal Fridays