“We’re just trying to help people look better naked,” Russell Saks says with a grin.
Saks, who heads Campus Protein, an ecommerce store that rush delivers vitamins and supplements to more than 250 college campuses nationwide, founded the company by accident.“It all started by wanting to impress girls,” Saks admits.
It was 2008 when Saks began his freshman year at Indiana University and somehow found himself living in a fraternity house with a bunch of guys who played football in high school.
“I had never lifted a weight in my life,” Saks says. “I don’t know how I wound up in that fraternity house but the guys told me I had to start going to the gym with them if I wanted to impress the girls.”
So Saks began tagging along with his frat brothers and noticed something startling; every month each of the guys was dropping between $250-$300 on supplements designed to help them build muscle and chisel their physiques.
“These guys were spending more money on supplements than they were on booze,” Saks recalls only half-jokingly.
The boys were getting ripped.
But were they also getting ripped off?
The Meathead Niche
Saks might have arrived on campus a weight lifting novice, but he was certainly not new to the world of business or entrepreneurship. “I’ve always been super entrepreneurial,” Saks says. “Both sides of my family run successful businesses so I always knew I wanted to do something on my own.”
Thanks to his spot on fraternity row, Saks was about to get his chance.
Sure, there were less expensive supplements being sold online, but Saks quickly learned that cheaper alternatives could take a week or longer to arrive.
“College students are notorious for being poor planners,” he says. “The workouts can really suffer if you run out of a supplement and then have to wait a week for a refill.”
The idea for campus Campus Protein was born.
Eventually, Saks found a distributor willing to take a chance on a college student who had identified a gap in the market. With nothing more than a supply of supplements and a website, Saks hired his best friend from college, Mike Yewdell, to head sales. The initial batch of inventory sold out in two weeks. (Yewdell would ultimately become a business partner as well)
But there was a twist…
Saks was also offering same day delivery. Never again would a college student at IU have to wait a week or longer for a new shipment of their favorite muscle builder. “We had a storage locker on campus filled with supplements,” Saks remembers fondly. “We literally hand delivered each order.”
But one campus does not a business make.
Planting the Seed for a Supplements Business
“It still wasn’t a real business yet,” Saks says. “I really wanted to pursue it full-time and make it a career but was looking into accepting a corporate job.”
That’s when Saks got a break time would prove he had earned.
It was his senior year at IU and Saks had built a formidable team and startup business:
- He had hired a friend, Tarun Singh, to be a sales representative and spearhead the company’s expansion into Boston (Singh would ultimately become a business partner)
- Boston’s cramped quarters are home to a handful of universities with guys looking to impress girls
- The company grew to offer same day delivery on ten campuses
“The problem was we just didn’t know how to continue helping college students save money on nutritional supplements without a ton of money ourselves,” Saks says.
Enter the inaugural Building Entrepreneurs in Software and Technology, or BEST, competition at IU. The contest allowed campus entrepreneurs to pitch their companies to well known startup investors and IU alum for a chance to win $100,000 in seed money.
It wasn’t just the girls who were impressed by Saks and his team.Campus Protein won the competition and got the cash it needed to grow.
On the flipside, they had just been given, a one way ticket to ecommerce hell.
Three isn’t always a charm.
Campus Protein was growing organically and building a brand that was something its first ecommerce platform couldn’t handle. But the three ecommerce platforms Campus Protein relied on between 2012-2015 just couldn’t handle the company’s rapid growth or failed to keep the promises made.
“We just outgrew the platform,” Saks says. “It was both a good and bad problem to have because by the time we got everything set up, we had already become too big for the platform and became limited in what we could do.”
Campus Protein, which was quickly building a campus salesforce that would ultimately reach 1,000 strong, required a platform that could grow accordingly and adapt in real-time. For instance, when Campus Protein realized same day delivery wasn’t scalable nationwide, it would need a platform that could rapidly evolve and provide the tools necessary to offer 2-3 day rush delivery.
It’s why Saks and his team figured a custom solution might be best.
“I woke up one morning and found out the site was down,” Saks says of the platform Campus Protein had custom built.
It seemed like a great deal at the time; Campus Protein would pay upfront and then be be able to add features as it grew.
“But then they’d tell us we needed to come up with $20,000 for a particular feature which isn’t what they promised,” Saks says. “Not only did we not have the funds at the time but business changes so quickly we wouldn’t be able to wait on them even if we had the money.”
Besides money, the downed site was costing Campus Protein street credibility as customers began to complain. “When I called the company that developed the site to tell them it was down they said they’d fix it but it was going to cost me some money,” Saks says. “They also said I’d have to sign a longer term agreement.”
Instead, Saks hired a couple of freelance developers to go through the site’s code line by line. It would cost him several thousand dollars, but with the site down for 48-hours, it was a better alternative than being held hostage by your platform partner. “Their favorite word was ‘project’,” Saks says. “I kept telling them you don’t understand- this isn’t a new project you should be billing me for. This is a problem with the original project.”
“I’m not the type to ever give up or throw in the towel,” Saks says. “But honestly it was just terrible for morale because we were working so hard but constantly having to deal with so many platform problems.”
The company’s third ecommerce platform told Saks and his team exactly what they wanted hear; the company would create a site that would increase conversions and sales and all Saks and his team had to do was sit back and watch as the register rang. “They told us they knew exactly how to position the checkout and which colors best triggered purchases,” Saks says. “They promised we’d see a 20-30% increase in sales by working with them.”
The increase in sales, according to Saks, never materialized. Not only did customers complain about the site, but the campus sales reps who use the site frequently began to complain as well.
“They quoted us a crazy figure when we asked for a new site feature,” Saks says. “We were trying to grow our business and they were just taking us backward.”
For Campus Protein, it was strike three.
Fortunately though, that doesn’t mean you’re out of the ecommerce game.
The Intelligent Transition
By September of 2015, Campus Protein had established warehouses across the country so it could rapidly fulfill most orders in a few days.
Little did the company know it’d soon wind up going back, at least to a degree, to a model that included same day delivery.
Switching to Shopify Plus was the best decision we ever made. It’s the best ecommerce platform I’ve ever seen.
While researching new platforms at night and during weekends, Saks noticed other platforms were attempting to copy the Shopify Plus model; an easy to use out-of-the-box solution for high volume merchants complemented by a robust applications store that allows entrepreneurs the ability to quickly customize their sites.
Once I saw the light and how everyone was trying to mimic Shopify the choice was obvious. The team at Shopify is really innovative and always coming up with insanely cool updates.
For instance, Shopify Plus recently partnered with Uber to create UberRUSH, a service that positions merchants to increase sales with same day delivery service in certain markets. “Thanks to Shopify we’re actually getting back to our roots and offering same day delivery again,” Saks says.
Interestingly, we noticed Saks routinely looking off-screen during our video interview. What was he looking at? “Oh, I love the analytics Shopify Plus offers,” he says. “I have it open all day and just love the transparency it provides.”
What kind of results has Campus Protein seen since replatforming? Saks shared a couple of data points for a recent seven day period:
- A 2x increase in conversions
- A significant increase in year over year sales
“All I can say is thank you,” Saks says. “It has just been great.”
Extending Brand Reach
Offering a great product, at a competitive price, and delivering it rapidly tends to make a brand appealing outside of its niche.
It’s a combination that has helped extend the Campus Protein brand beyond the dorm room. Besides the ⅓ of college students who take vitamins or supplements, Saks says the company is also selling to:
- Parents of college students who want their children to work out
- Adults beginning their careers after college
- People battling potentially fatal diseases
“One gentleman with cancer began taking our muscle building supplement to prevent weight loss during treatment,” Saks says. “Today he’s cancer-free but still using our product which means the world to us.”
One reason Campus Protein is able to adapt and pivot quickly is because of the three-tiered feedback loop it uses to test ideas, designs, and packaging concepts. Before offering something new, Saks runs ideas past:
- His original fraternity brothers
- Campus sales representatives
- Existing customers at whom a new concept is aimed
The ability to rapidly prove a concept combined with a flexible ecommerce platform that allows for quick feature adjustments, has positioned Campus Protein to offer products and packaging that solve real problems impacting college students. For instance, Saks notes that college students often lack the time or patience to read lengthy product directions. So the company came up with illustrated instructions like this:
Similarly, Campus Protein also includes a “Fuel Gauge” on some of its packaging that indicates how much supplement is left and inspires users to reorder before running out:
Additionally, gamification that allows users to unlock discounts by correctly answering Super Bowl related questions is a complementary way the company is improving the user experience. It’s only possible, Saks says, because the company has a platform that can grow and evolve with it.
“I love the people at Shopify,” he says. “The people make the difference and everyone there is awesome and working to help make us a success.”
Improving On Naked
“Whether they’re taking their shirt off at the beach or getting ready for spring break, we’re here to help them get the six-pack abs they want,” says Saks.
Besides new content geared toward helping college students live healthier lives regardless of whether they buy supplements from Campus Protein, Saks says you can expect the company to use technology to make connections that were once impossible to forge.
For instance, rather than purchase an expensive trade show booth, Campus Protein says it’s partnering with a popular messaging application and using a geo-filter to reach a much larger number of people than they otherwise might. “We’re always going to see ourselves as an innovative and scrappy startup,” Saks says.
But don’t expect the company to stray too far from its core belief that muscle building supplements are a key to impressing girls on campuses nationwide.
“It definitely works,” Saks says with a laugh. “The people we’re targeting don’t want to look like bodybuilders, they just want to look better naked and that’s what we help them do.”
About The Author
Nick Winkler is a contributor to the Shopify Plus blog. He helps individuals & organizations generate new leads, make more money, and ignite growth with story. Get more from Nick here.