Campus Insights is a Startup company created by two Boston College students who are under the age of twenty-three but already selling their Company to Harvard Student Agencies. Campus Insights is the brainchild of brothers Riley and Stephen Soward, tech-savvy Silicon Valley natives, who thought of the idea in 2014. Their company is centered on recording students and young professional’s reactions to various products and thereby collecting data on those items for a range of companies and brands.

Essentially, Campus Insights is emerging as a leader in marketing Research among the demographic of people ages 14-35.

It is the largest student-run company in the world and is quickly gaining international acclaim.

Riley and Stephen Soward recently granted an exclusive interview where they discussed the Campus Insights company and their hopes for its future.

Startups, business, and product research

Meagan Meehan (MM): When and why did you startup Campus Insights and how did you select the name?

Stephen Soward (SS): Growing up in Silicon Valley, my brother and I always had a passion for sharing feedback on apps and websites to help companies make their services more valuable for their users. Through our experiences providing feedback to startups and participating in user interviews, we saw an opportunity to build student-run user research company around the core idea that students are the most comfortable talking with their peers, compared with talking with professional researchers in a more artificial research lab environment.

By having students conduct research, we believed that we could uncover more candid, accurate insights from college students. We didn’t want to do anything too fancy for our name. We wanted something that would give a potential client a general idea of what we offer. Because we ultimately deliver insights to our clients, we knew “insights” was definitely going to be part of our name.

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Then we played around with a range of words to put before “insights.” Ultimately we were deciding between “Chasm Insights” and “Campus Insights.” We picked “Campus Insights” because it best conveyed what we do.

MM: What products did you initially try your idea out with and how did people respond to your research model?

Riley Soward (RS): We set out to test this idea and bought two cameras on eBay and went around college campuses filming students’ reactions to various startups’ mobile apps we found through the app store.

We then sent these videos to the startups who made the apps and found that many of the companies responded positively, asking if we could conduct more interviews with them.We did a few full-length pro bono research projects in the beginning so we could learn the best practices for conducting unbiased, natural interviews which subsequently helped drive our business forward. The pro bono clients had some constructive feedback, but overall found the research to be worthwhile, so we tweaked our processes and then soon started charging.

MM: What kind of products do you most seek presently?

SS: We mainly work with consumer websites and mobile apps. Many of them are interested in younger demographics, usually somewhere between 14 - 35-year-olds, but we have done quite a few projects interviewing individuals much older than 35-years-old.

Company, college studies, and the brand

MM: How did you go about getting this company so recognized, even by Harvard?

RS: In terms of how we’ve grown our client list: we’ve focused on delivering a high-quality service that our clients want to tell their research friends about. A lot of our projects are referred through existing clients. For example, one time UX designer we worked closely with at Company A quit his job, and then was interviewing for a new role at Company B. Company B asked him about his design process and how he gets feedback on his prototypes. He shared all about Campus Insights and a day later Company B contacted us with a project they wanted us to do. Outside of inbound interest, we do spend a good portion of time sending cold emails to companies we think will be interested in working with us.

In terms of how we got in touch with Harvard Student Agencies: during a team-wide Campus Insights offsite on a cold winter day in 2017, we ran into a friend of ours, Ben Pleat, while standing in the checkout at a Whole Foods in Cambridge. As we talked about the paths we were exploring for Campus Insights’ future, Ben said we should connect with Harvard Student Agencies and made an intro right there in the checkout line.

We hit it off immediately with HSA. From the beginning, we were impressed by their passion, ambition, and genuineness. We loved that they had 60 years of experience building student-run companies. And as we chatted with HSA about their plans for Campus Insights if they were to acquire it, we realized they could not just keep Campus Insights student-run, but also they could scale our business and expand our research offerings in many ways.

It was the best of both worlds.

MM: You are in college now, so what are you studying and how do you envision your studies benefiting your organization?

SS: I actually graduated from the University of Michigan in 2016. I studied marketing, entrepreneurship, and sustainability. Riley is class of 2018 at Boston College, studying business and computer science. We’ve gained so much over the past three years at Campus Insights: we’ve seen how thousands of consumers interact with different products, we’ve learned how to close deals with large companies like Airbnb and GoFundMe, and we’ve grown as team managers. Campus Insights has helped teach us the parts of the business that you can’t learn in the classroom.

MM: What elements of your company are you most proud of and what has been most rewarding about establishing this startup?

RS: We’re incredibly proud of our team: both what they’ve done for Campus Insights and what Campus Insights has done for them. Some of the best moments have been ones where a teammate really impressed a client, or a teammate took the initiative on something. Other best moments have been ones where we see the value Campus Insights has created for a teammate, such as let them do a project for one of their favorite products or helped them learn more about user experience and how to build a great product.

MM: What is coming up next for the Campus Insights brand?

SS: Under HSA, we see Campus Insights growing in three main ways.

Research Offerings: HSA has access to a state-of-the-art user research facility with eye-tracking glasses and accessibility equipment, which we’re looking into utilizing for select projects. Additionally, given HSA’s global network and the range of languages the Campus Insights team speaks, we’re exploring researching languages beyond just English.

Further Focus on High-Quality Research: HSA has mastered how to find, hire, and train the top students at Harvard year after year. This means Campus Insights will consistently have some of the hardest-working, brightest students in the world on our team. Furthermore, by having Campus Insights be under a larger organization, we’ll have a separate team dedicated to taking care of legal, accounting, office space, benefits, insurance, etc.

This allows us to focus 100% of our time helping our clients, rather than being distracted by the random work that comes with operating a business.

Broaden Interviewee Recruiting Capabilities: Over the past three years, we’ve built strong recruiting capabilities to find participants between the ages of 14 and 55 in the US. But we still have a lot of room for growth. Through the networks of HSA’s 15 other agencies — such as HSA Tutoring, which runs workshops with high school students across the United States and has partnerships with companies across the world — Campus Insights will have an even broader and more precise reach for recruiting research participants.

Please note: under HSA we will continue researching with folks of all ages, both in the US and abroad (i.e., we aren’t just going to be interviewing Harvard students).

MM: Is there any other news about Campus Insights--or anything else- that you would like to share?

RS: One other thing to announce is that moving forward, James Swingos, who's our head of business development, will be taking over as CEO. We’ve also hired a few new superstar researchers.

We’ve taken this transition very seriously and have dedicated hours each day over the past six months training James and our new researchers. James and the new team have reviewed almost all client analysis decks from the 3+ years of user research projects we've done; shadowed user research projects with our more veteran researchers; led their own projects; recruited participants for projects with highly precise demographic criteria; and more.

James and the new team officially took over on February 1st, but they’ve really been running Campus Insights for the past two months. They’ve been doing awesome so far – I have a tremendous amount of faith in their ability to ensure Campus Insights continues to turn around projects quickly while also maintaining a super high bar for the quality of our research.