Editor's Spotlight

Campus Protein: 'The college student market is really big, but no one was doing marketing targeting them'

By Adi Menayang contact

- Last updated on GMT

Campus Protein reps. Photo: Campus Protein
Campus Protein reps. Photo: Campus Protein
In college, Russell Saks and some college friends took a risk by buying sports supplements in bulk and selling them to fellow students at a loss. The risk paid off.
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Russell Saks, president and CEO of Campus Protein.

Saks’ collegiate entrepreneurial endeavor back in 2010 grew into a company called Campus Protein​, in which he serves as president and CEO. It garnered $1 million in investor money last November​.

The company’s proposition is simple: Sell sports nutrition products to college students at a price that fits their budget.

“It was super tough in the beginning, no one wanted to do business with us because, obviously, nobody knew who we were,”​ Saks told us.

“What we ended up doing was we went to a really big distributor in the space. Our pricing wasn’t that great. We were selling product at breakeven or even a slight loss just to build that reputation that we really do have competitive prices with really amazing service.”

It was a bet that Saks and his fraternity brother Michael Yewdell, now Campus Protein’s chief sales officer, knew was worth a shot.

“All of my brothers were buying supplements at GNC and other stores, and they were spending $200 to $300 a month, which seemed crazy to me—these same guys complaining that they didn’t have enough money for drinking,”​ he said.

“So obviously I knew supplements were of pretty high importance, so my question for them was ‘Why aren’t you buying them online, isn’t it cheaper?’

“They said: ‘It is cheaper, but there’s no personal experience, there’s no one to actually talk to about my specific goals, and there are way too many products to choose from.”

There was a void to fill, Saks thought. He imagined a company where college students can buy affordable sports nutrition supplements from their peers they can trust and talk to about their goals.

A specific demographic

According to Saks, the activities of college students across the nation can be boiled down to three things. “They’re partying, they’re going to class, and they go to the gym, so there’s a lot of free time,”​ he said. To him, it was a no brainer, no sports nutrition retailer was targeting the college demographic. “The college student market is really big, but no one was doing marketing targeting them,”​ he said.

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In 2012, the Campus Protein won first place and a seed investment from Indiana University;s BEST competition.

For the first year, Saks’ fraternity dorm room was lined with inventory, which he and his friends hand-delivered to buyers on campus.

They were able to sell-out their first batch of inventory in two weeks. This showed promise. That summer, when Saks went home, he told his high school best friend Tarun Singh about the new business endeavor.

“Tarun said he saw the same problem at his school in Boston University. So he replicated the model really quickly there, and he was able to expand it to other colleges in the Boston area,”​ Saks recalled. Singh now serves as the chief marketing officer at Campus Protein.

In 2012, their business won first place and a seed investment from Indiana University’s Building Entrepreneurs in Software and Technology (BEST) competition. 

Now with numbers to show vendors, the Campus Protein founding team roped in a big account. “Once we got them on board, there was a domino effect and other larger brands were easier to bring on board,” ​he said. The company didn’t have to settle with selling supplements at a loss again.

Campus Protein works with a small number of manufacturers. “So on other platforms you’ll see 15 pages of protein to scroll through, on our site it’s just one page of the absolutely best products,” ​​Saks said. Brand examples include BSN, Cellucor, Optimum Nutrition, MusclePharm, and Nature’s Best. Because there are only a few partner brands, this allows Campus Protein to build close relationships with their partners and pass on more savings to the site’s shoppers.

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Campus Protein's campus reps help replicate the personal touch of speaking with a store sales associate, blending it with the convenience of ordering product online

Standing out in the age of Amazon

Today, the company has a community of 1,500 campus representatives that go through online training in around 300 US campuses.

These campus reps have discount codes to offer their peers. The idea is that the campus reps will help replicate the personal touch of speaking with a store sales associate, blending it with the convenience of ordering product online.

Campus reps also help ‘recruit’ new supplement users, a clever strategy that gives Campus Protein an advantage over online retailing giants like Amazon.

“We are in a fortunate position that most of our customers are very new to taking supplements. So the value that we add actually having a campus rep walking you through the whole process of which products are best for you, and also figuring out how to best use that stuff is super important for somebody that hasn’t taken a supplement before,”​ Saks said.

“When you’re buying something on Amazon, most of the time you have a pretty good idea of what you want or at least a category of product you want. You go there with a specific purpose in mind with what you want. Whereas the people who come to us, they don’t know what they want yet. They don’t know what supplements they want since they’re so new to taking them. We have an advantage in that regard.”

Interested in Sports Nutrition?

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The inaugural NutraIngredients-USA Sports Nutrition Summit​, in association with the International Society of Sports Nutrition, will bring together leading scientists, brands and retailers, market analysts, and innovators in a unique, market-leading face-to-face event. 

The key themes of this event include: 

- The “size of the prize”
- The power and importance of social media
- Positioning and differentiation
- Sports nutrition and the military - product use survey data and enhancing the performance of Warfighters
- The State of the Science: Sports, fitness and exercise Nutrition
- Sports Nutrition products and Elite Athletes 
- Alphabet soup: Everything brands need to know about GMPs, NDIs, AERs, DASCA, SARMs…
- Bacterial boosts – The microbiome and sports
- Personalization and the digital revolution
- Nootropics & sports nutrition

Register now to make sure you are there!

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