How CampusReel Built a Business With Student-Generated Videos

How CampusReel Built a Business With Student-Generated Videos

Many entrepreneurs experience several failed attempts before succeeding. That’s not the case with today’s story. Nick Freud and Rob Carroll started CampusReel in their early 20s, which was their first experience with a startup. In this interview, Nick shares how the pair built a platform that genuinely helps students who don’t have the resources to visit colleges in person.

Nick and Rob pivoted during the pandemic, and they haven’t looked back. Nick shares a lot of valuable insight, including why he believes that growing too quickly can do more harm than good. He also shares openly about the emotional turbulence involved with life as a startup founder.

👇 Key Takeaways

  • Both co-founders quit their jobs very early on to pursue CampusReel full-time
  • They quickly built an MVP and iterated through extensive client feedback
  • Nick and Rob took advantage of an opportunity during the pandemic by quickly pivoting
  • Nick’s advice is to raise as little money as possible while getting your business off the ground

Overview

Business Name: CampusReel
Website URL: https://www.campusreel.org/
Founders: Nick Freud & Rob Carroll
Business Location: Brooklyn, NY
Year Started: 2017
Number of Employees/Contractors/Freelancers: 30

Tell us about yourself and CampusReel.

After graduating from Colgate University in 2015 I decided to live abroad for a year and a half, spending 8 months as a math teacher in Phuket, Thailand, and another 8 months bartending my way through Australia. 

After returning back to New York at the beginning of 2017, my then-friend and current business partner, Rob Carroll and I thought of the seed idea for CampusReel – virtual reality college campus tours.

This seed idea proved to not be a viable business opportunity, but it did allow us to look closely at the college search process, and we quickly noticed some fundamental problems that were putting millions of college seekers at a disadvantage each year.

We pivoted away from virtual reality into the crowdsourced video space and set out to build a novel college research platform that leveraged authentic student-generated video content as the main vehicle to communicate information about a campus and community.

Fast forward to 2024 and we currently have over 170 institutional partners throughout the world and have emerged as one of the fastest-growing EdTech companies in the space.

Our solution focuses on helping our partners scale their authentic student-generated video library and using our proprietary technology to get those videos in front of prospective applicants at scale.  We work with all types of educational institutions – from small community colleges all the way up to brand-name medical schools, and everythings in between.

CampusReel Website

How does CampusReel make money?

We have a few distinct revenue sources, with the main one being B2B partnerships with educational institutions throughout the world.  We have a suite of proprietary “Video Recruitment” technology, which our partners leverage across their digital recruitment funnels.

What was your inspiration for starting the business?

When we began looking at the college search process in 2017, we quickly realized that there were fundamental inefficiencies that were putting millions of students at a disadvantage each year – specifically international students and underrepresented domestic students. 

The core problem was that if a student wanted to get a deep understanding of the community and vibe on a given college campus, they would need to travel to visit the campus in person.  This meant that millions of students without the necessary resources or support to travel the country ended up at a real disadvantage while trying to make the most consequential decision of their young lives. 

Our goal was to create a fun, engaging, and community-driven resource to help these students get a deeper understanding of what their potential “home-away-from-home” was all about.

How and when did you launch CampusReel?

We incorporated the business at the beginning of 2017 and used the first few months to conduct market research and begin building out a very barebones MVP.  In the summer of 2017, we won Colgate University’s Entrepreneurship Contest and were awarded $13,000 in seed funding and access to an incubator program.  We both quit our jobs and began working on CampusReel full-time.

How much money did you invest to start CampusReel?

Our first seed funding was a grant from Colgate University’s Entrepreneurship program, which allowed us to begin building out our product and gain user feedback.  Based on our initial traction we were able to raise $40,000 in a small family and friends round, which allowed us to get a viable MVP into the market.

How did you find your first few clients or customers?

We had a pretty unique experience with our first few clients.  In the beginning of 2020, we were a pre-revenue business and were still trying to figure out the best way to monetize our product.  When the pandemic hit, colleges and universities throughout the world suddenly had a profound articulated need for more video content, specifically student-generated videos. 

At the time (and still today, actually) we were the only company that had figured out how to scale student video content.  Based on our experience we ended up having a handful of universities reach out to us asking if we’d be able to help them scale their video library. 

We didn’t necessarily have the systems set up at the time, but we hit the ground running and learned alongside our partners throughout the pandemic, and have since built out an incredibly robust end-to-end video generation engine purpose-built for Higher Ed.

Tell us about your first year in business.

Our first year of business felt very much like a classic early-stage startup story.  My business partner and I were committed to building a truly novel product within a longstanding industry, but at the time we didn’t have a sense of how we were going to generate revenue. 

We spent well over a year migrating throughout the country, crashing with various family members for as long as they would have us while we tried to build out our vision.  We were working day and night out of coffee shops and cheap co-working spaces until we were able to generate enough traction to get a real office setup.

In our first year of business we had three main objectives:

  1. Learn as much as possible about business and early-stage startups (we were first-time, 24-year-old entrepreneurs)
  2. Learn as much about the education industry as possible
  3. Build a minimum viable product based on real user feedback 

Speaking to the first two objectives, we spent a lot of time on the phone with entrepreneurs and successful working professionals, as well as administrators within the education industry, college searchers, and their parents. We also conducted focus groups with real high school students, parents, and college counselors to understand what problems they faced while trying to navigate this transition.

For the third objective – build a minimum viable product based on user feedback – we found a way to create a half-baked ambassador program, through which we were able to source a series of “Day in the Life” style videos from real college students.

We built a very barebones website to host these videos and leveraged paid marketing channels to bring on a handful of early adopter users. We found that users were spending an insane amount of time watching these videos, and the feedback we were getting in focus groups was super positive.  By the end of the year, we had a fairly clear understanding of what we needed to build to be successful.

What strategies did you use to grow the business?

On a product level, we leveraged a nationwide ambassador program to source authentic, user-generated video content at scale. 

To grow our user base, we formulated and executed a robust Search Engine Optimization strategy to organically get our product in front of students and parents throughout the world. 

On a business level (once we began generating revenue) we built out an internal sales enterprise engine to get our suite of products in front of colleges and universities throughout the world, which has allowed us to scale to 170+ institutional partners in under four years.

Tell us about your team.

In total, we have roughly 30 people working full-time on CampusReel.  We’re big proponents of tapping into the high-quality international contractor workforce; therefore, a meaningful percentage of our team are technically contractors, but they’ve been working full-time for us for years. 

Our company is completely remote, and we have employees in 7 different states throughout America, and 6 countries globally.

What are your future plans for the business?

We feel strongly that we have the most novel and impactful product set in the industry.  In the past two years, CampusReel has emerged as one of the fastest-growing EdTech companies in the world. Our goal moving forward is to establish CampusReel as one of the most impactful Educational Enterprises globally. 

We have a deep product-market fit within the industry, and our value proposition seems to be really hitting a nerve with educational institutions throughout the world.  While we’re always innovating, at this point we have a very clear sense of what we need to be delivering for our clients, so our main focus now is dialing in our systems and scaling our user base.  

How did you make the transition from side hustle to full-time?

Prior to CampusReel, I was working as a bartender in midtown Manhattan, and my business partner was working at a consulting firm.  We spent all of our free time structuring our business and building out our minimum viable product. 

After a few months of iterating, we applied for and won Colgate University’s Entrepreneurship Contest and were awarded $13,000 in seed funding and access to a summer-long incubator program.  This program allowed us to quit our jobs and go all in on CampusReel, and we’ve been working full-time on it ever since.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned growing the business?

I think the two most important lessons I’ve learned, and they kind of go hand-in-hand, is that your goal should be to raise as little money as you possibly can while getting your business off the ground, and that your goal should be to create a cash-efficient and lean organization, not to grow at all costs. 

Most early-stage startups look at fundraising as a goal to strive for, whereas we see it as a bit of a necessary evil.  

When a company raises a big Seed/Series A round, the expectation is that they’re going to use that money to grow the business at an exponential rate.  My personal belief is that this is a pretty untenable proposition for most early-to-mid-stage startups, which means that many of these businesses achieve this level of growth through cash injections instead of strong business fundamentals.

It takes a really long time to deeply understand your industry, buyers, and value proposition and often growing too quickly can do way more harm than good.  To this end, the leaner your organization can be, the more you can extend your fundraising runways, and if you can find a way to become profitable, then you can get to a point where you never need to raise money again. 

I get a ton of satisfaction from the fact that CampusReel is a stable and profitable business that is achieving growth through strong business fundamentals and a compelling product set, not through cash injections.

What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome?

The biggest challenge we had to overcome was rapidly transitioning from a B2C to a B2B business at the beginning of the pandemic.  Before March 2020, CampusReel was pre-revenue and our main focus was building out and monetizing our consumer-facing platform. 

When the pandemic hit, we suddenly had all these educational institutions reaching out to us asking if we’d be able to help them create authentic video content.  Without having any real systems to support the initiative, we ended up partnering up with colleges and universities and learning on the fly how to deliver this type of video content within any given institution we partner with. 

It was a steep learning curve and required a series of very rapid iterations, but eventually, we were able to find deep product market fit and have built robust systems to deliver on our value proposition

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

My advice, or warning, is that the most challenging part of running a startup is being able to deal with the emotional turbulence, less so than it is anything technical or mechanical about getting a business off the ground. 

Starting a business is certainly complicated, but in a lot of ways it’s not that dissimilar to a really involved school project or other types of jobs in corporate America. On a day-to-day basis, you’re still just sitting at a desk and executing on a to-do list.

In my experience by far the hardest part of getting a startup off the ground has been to stay motivated and maintain a positive attitude in the face of overwhelming odds and extreme degree of uncertainty.  It can be a very lonely and isolating experience, and the feeling that I had was one of flying through chaos without having any real sense of if we were going in the right direction.

With that being said, if you can navigate that emotional turbulence successfully, you come out the other side with a profound sense of confidence and personal satisfaction. Especially as a younger founder, the maturing process that this experience has afforded me is something would never trade. I feel as though this has been the single biggest growth opportunity I could ever ask for.

What is your favorite quote?

I believe starting a company is like jumping off a cliff and assembling a plane on the way down —  your willingness to jump is your most valuable asset as an entrepreneur.

Reid Hoffman

What are some of your favorite books, blogs, podcasts, or YouTube channels?

Favorite Books:

Favorite Podcasts:

Founder Reports is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.