Changing College Fitness: Interview with Campus Protein

Russell Saks is the CEO of Campus Protein, a college founded startup from Indiana University that is the leading college distributor of fitness supplements to over 300 campuses.

In this interview Russell shares his experience starting the company, overcoming obstacles, insights about what makes a new venture successful and gives advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Q1: How would you describe Campus Protein?

RS: Campus Protein is changing the way students achieve their fitness goals every day. Between our campus reps, fast delivery, and competitive pricing you get the experience and care of a local store with the ease and convenience of an online store.

Q2: How did Campus Protein start? What was the motivation behind it? 

RS: I’ve always been entrepreneurial. My family owns shoe and luggage companies and honestly this was always the only route I saw for myself. My dad and grandfather were always huge inspirations to me and have made a great impact on my life. Growing up I started a few (very) small businesses ranging from eBay to e-commerce sites and they were always super supportive offering advice whenever they could but also letting me learn hard lessons on my own. I never wanted to take the normal route that I knew the majority of my peers would take.

Fast-forward to my sophomore year of college and I am fully indulged in “frat-life”. Just like you would expect my pledge brothers are gym addicts with one goal in mind – looking better naked.

Every month I watched my pledge brothers go to GNC and spend literally hundreds of dollars on supplements, I couldn’t believe it. Here was a group of guys who complained that they barely had enough money for booze, but dropping $150 on some supplements was okay because they needed it. I had asked them why they were shopping at GNC when I was sure there must have been a cheaper alternative online. I knew that if I could create a concept where college students could get super-fast delivery with the combination of competitive online prices it would be a home run.

Q3: Did you enter any business plan competitions while at Indiana?

RS: I began to investigate different business competitions and stumbled upon one that was being held right at my school, it was the world’s largest business competition held by a university. It was called the BEST competition (building entrepreneurs in software and technology) and you had to be senior to enter. I knew it was meant to be. The competition was funded by successful Indian University alumni – Matt Ferguson CEO of Career Builder, Scott Dorsey of Exact Target and Mark Cuban just to name a few. After many “Shark Tank” like rounds we found out that we had won first place. With a seed investment of $100,000, we knew we were on our way to making Campus Protein our full-time careers.

Q4: How and why did you get involved in a startup versus a 9-5 job?

RS: I actually did apply for a few full-time jobs and even accepted a full-time job from Macy’s as a buyer/planner as a backup plan. My goal always was to win the Indiana BEST competition and I was willing to do whatever it took in order to win. I remember being up until 3am practicing the night before the final round presentation. I knew that by starting my own business I would learn a lot more than working for a large corporation. There would be hard decisions to make and bumps along the way.

But the result of those hard decisions and bumps could lead to something insanely great. You only need to be right once and if you’re right more times than you are wrong then you end up on top and that’s what I have always believed in. The experience you get from running your own business is invaluable. There are many times when I am able to take things that I have learned in business and apply them to my everyday life.

Q5: What are the factors that you believe have made Campus Protein successful?

RS: The reason Campus Protein has been successful and continues to be is for a few simple reasons. The first is focus. We are able to put all of our time and energy into the college student niche. By only focusing on college students we are able to do what our competitors cannot, which is know our customer better than anyone else. Everything we do at Campus Protein revolves around college students, from our marketing approach, to our content, down to our private line product FUEL.

The other piece for us is simplicity. If you take a look around our site we only carry a handful of brands and the site is super clean and easy to navigate. The reason we do this is that we only want to carry the best and that college students have a hard enough time figuring out what their plans are going to be that night… so picking out supplements needs to be easy and efficient.

Q6: What are some pitfalls you had to overcome in making Campus Protein?  

RS: Some of the biggest pitfalls that come to mind for me are belief in our model. This held true both before and after we received our seed investment. We had a few meetings with different angel investors prior to winning the competition who weren’t interested which, of course, was discouraging. Meetings that have this type of outcome are not great for team morale. Even though not everyone believed our model was scalable, our level of conviction was so high that we saw these meetings as merely bumps in the road.

We knew we needed to keep our heads down, our spirits up and keep working until it paid off. After we won the seed investment, we were introduced to an Indiana University professor who had invested in some businesses in the past and we were told we should talk to him for advice on how to scale.

He said that we should return the money to the Indiana University alumni who invested in us because our idea wasn’t scalable. He gave us 8-12 months before we would run out of cash and shutdown (this was back in 2012) but we knew that our model was scalable and that this professor was sadly mistaken. Since that call, we have grown over 1,500%, sales have far exceeded seven figures annually, and we have a nationwide presence at over 300 colleges and universities.

Q7: What is your view on student entrepreneurship and advice for students in college? 

RS: My advice would be if your passionate about an idea, and truly know that you will work hard at it, then you 100% should give it a go. Remember you are not only investing in a business/concept you are investing in yourself.

When I was at IU I felt like there was great entrepreneurial spirit; however, there were many students who were afraid to make the jump to start their own business. Throughout my 4 years, I heard some great ideas that I still feel would be extremely successful, if executed properly.

From my experience I think what it comes down to is risk and social pressure. Many students are either not in a position to invest money into a new business, or don’t have the resources to get financing/capital. I think at one point in time this may have been a legitimate excuse to not follow through on a venture, but with the rise of crowdfunding and even sites like CircleUp this gap for not taking the leap has been closed. It has never been easier to start a company.

Update: Campus Protein is always looking for new, and enthusiastic campus reps! If interested you can apply here:

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