The oft-discussed “Boston College bubble” can be hard to break. Students do community service, explore restaurants, or peruse museums in the pursuit of something more real and grounded than the maroon-and-gold-tinged haze of the Heights. For Riley Soward, CSOM ‘18, breaking the bubble meant creating a company.
During Soward’s freshman year, he and his older brother, a junior at University of Michigan at the time, created Campus Insights. The marketing and UX research firm provides companies valuable insight into the opinions of college students with regards to products, apps, and websites. Beginning with filming BC students in their dorm rooms, the company quickly expanded.
Soward recounts multiple sources of inspiration in creating the company. “I had sent feedback emails to companies my whole life,” he states matter-of-factly. “I also participated in interviews for company research and feedback."
"It was an uncomfortable experience and not a good way to get feedback,” he explains further, citing the sterile rooms in which he was interviewed by people much older than himself.
This experience led Soward to the Campus Insights idea: research by college students, of college students, for companies targeted towards college students. While seemingly simple in inception, the project required incredible devotion, time commitment, and passion. Soward notes that BC students engaged in entrepreneurial endeavors often “get stuck in the idea phase. They labor over an idea but don’t see it to completion.”
Soward spent a year perfecting his process, researching how to create highlight reels and turn 15 hours of footage into five-minute company presentations. In addition to professionalizing their company, the Soward brothers worked towards hiring other college students to expand their team.
This proved to be no small undertaking. While Soward describes adding Ameet Kallarackal, CSOM ‘18, to Campus Insights as a natural progression, expanding the rest of team took much longer—six months in fact. One hire was Kelsey Bishop, CSOM ‘18, who served as the head of Business Development.
Bishop was tasked with managing projects as a sort of try-out. Soward, who exudes collected, professional confidence, shed this demeanor for a moment in his excited exclamation that Bishop, “totally crushed it.” It is not lost on him that he is still a twenty-something almost college graduate.
It seems that the grand startup experiment was a constant process of growth.
“There wasn't a single moment where I had a realization that Campus Insights was no longer just a project and that we were an actual business. It was much more gradual,” Soward concludes. “Each time we closed a larger deal for a bigger company, and each time we impressed our clients with the quality of our research, Campus Insights felt slightly more legitimate.”
Humility aside, the company is more than just slightly legitimate. Campus Insights has worked with clients such as Venmo, VSCO, GoFundMe, Chegg, and Airbnb.
“All the clients we’ve worked with are impressive, really smart, fast people,” Soward says. “Throughout the project you know if you mess this up, there are much bigger implications than with a smaller company. It just pushes you to work even harder and deliver even better work.”
This drive has led to Campus Insights becoming a newly acquired part of Harvard Student Agencies, the largest student-run company in the world. Soward is now an advisor for the company, succeeded as CEO by a current sophomore at Harvard University. This succession and acquisition are true to the mission of the startup—to keep the research and company in the hands of the target demographic, college students.
As for the future, both Soward and Bishop are going to continue working in the startup field. The experience acquired through Campus Insights has been invaluable, and the startup bug remains unshaken.
Bishop encourages those interested in joining the “startup ecosystem” to, excuse the cliché, start up!
“As a young person and especially as a student, your risk is low and the reward is unbelievable high,” she remarks. “You have the opportunity to learn what it's like to build a business—everything from marketing, sales, product, and strategy, but without the risk of not being able to pay rent if the company doesn't succeed.”
Success, as it would appear, is abundant in the Campus Insights community.