“Take a deep breath and just try to enjoy it” — one thing I was not prepared for was how emotionally exhausting it is to run a startup. You live in a constant state of instability, uncertainty and self-doubt, and there’s this perpetual feeling that everything could come crashing down at any moment. If you’re smart, you use these negative feelings as fuel and motivation to push yourself that much harder.
As part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nick Freud, one of the Co-founders of CampusReel, an EdTech company that works with colleges and universities throughout the country and world to turbocharge their video strategy through authentic, student-generated video content. Nick was born and raised in NYC, and attended Colgate University, where he met business partner Rob Carroll. Since founding CampusReel in 2017, Nick and Rob have been named to Forbes 30 Under 30 in Education, and have been featured in the NYTimes, TechCrunch, and on Good Morning America.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
After graduating from Colgate University in 2015, I spent a year and a half living abroad — first as a mathematics teacher in Phuket, Thailand, then as bartender throughout Australia. Shortly after arriving back in the U.S. my business partner (fellow Colgate Grad, Rob Carroll) and I thought of a neat idea — VR college campus tours.
This was not a good business from a scalability perspective, but it did allow us to look closely at the college search process, where we noticed some fundamental deficiencies that inadvertently marginalized millions of college applicants each year. Identifying a real problem within the college search, selection and matriculation process globally, we began reverse engineering our VR campus tours solution and realized we could crowdsource authentic video content from real college students. From there we won Colgate University’s entrepreneurship contest — we both took the leap of faith, quit our jobs and began working on CampusReel full time.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Prior to CampusReel, virtually every college search tool in the market aimed to represent a college, campus and community through numbers, data and rankings. However, the college experience cannot be accurately represented through data, meaning that in-person campus visits had become a fundamental part of the college search process. Unfortunately, the need to travel the country exploring campuses of interest ended up even further marginalizing all those students and families who are already so marginalized throughout this process.
In order to combat the fundamental inequities in the college search process, CampusReel brings the authentic, on-campus experience into applicants’ living rooms through unscripted, student-led video tours. CampusReel currently hosts a library of over 15,000 student-generated videos from 320 college campuses throughout the country and world. We work with real college students to create a series of authentic, short-form, day-in-the-life style videos that give prospective students a comprehensive and personalized representation of the people and community that define the college experience.
On the other side of the equation, colleges and universities throughout the country and world have a difficult time engaging with prospective students in a digital ecosystem. Carefully crafted promotional videos and brochures just don’t do the trick with Gen Z, who requires honesty and authenticity in their information. Additionally, in 2020 during this global pandemic, colleges and universities are trying to figure out how to take all those student recruitment conversations that have historically happened in person, and adapt them to a more virtual college search landscape.
To that end, CampusReel now works directly with colleges and universities throughout the country and world to turbocharge their video presence through authentic, student-generated videos. Video content has become completely fundamental to colleges’ recruitment strategies, which is why CampusReel has emerged as one of the fastest growing EdTech platforms in the industry. We’ve partnered institutions of all shapes and sizes — from 2-year community colleges, to massive undergraduate state institutions, to some of the most prestigious MBA programs in the world — all of whom require authentic video content for their student recruitment efforts in this new digital-first landscape.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the first few months of working on CampusReel we were experimenting with sending out mass programmatic email blasts to high school college counselors throughout the country to gauge their interest in our offerings. The software that we were using programmatically pulls in the contacts first name, among other variables, to make the email seem more personalized.
To test out the automation, my business partner and I were sending test emails back and forth to each other to ensure everything was working, and — as long-time buddies do — we took the opportunity to mess around and have some fun while testing out the emails. Well, the software we were using ended up glitching and firing a whole email campaign before we were ready to send…so I accidentally sent an email to every college counselor in the state of Alabama with the greeting “Hey You Crazy Cat”.
From that experience I learned to never trust an automation, and more importantly to never mess around in a business context and save the jokes (however funny they may be) for my personal life.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
We’ve been truly fortunate to have a ton of amazing mentors in our corner who have been helping us navigate this process. However, one mentor in particular stands out as someone who has really gone above and beyond to guide us towards success.
Our main advisor, Andy Hirschberg, has been a family friend of mine since I was a kid at sleepaway camp with his sons, and has been someone I’ve always leaned on for advice and mentorship. When we came up with our seed idea for CampusReel he was the first person we came to for input. Along with my business partner and my parents, Andy gave us our first round of funding and has helped us tremendously through all of our subsequent fundraising efforts.
There’s no one thing I could point to for how Andy has impacted the business, because he has just done so much for us. We are on the phone with him virtually every day, and lean on him every time we have a big decision to make. Business can be a bit cut throat at times, and sometimes it feels like it’s just you against the world, so having someone in our corner who so genuinely wants us to succeed is something we wouldn’t trade for anything.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
I would say that typically disrupting an industry is positive when the new solution solves a real problem for people, and has the potential to be ‘not so positive’ if the solution is more of a value-add, or something that functions solely to increase efficiency. As an example, we’re so motivated by the work we do at CampusReel because our solution is not only increasing efficiency within an archaic and confusing process, but is also solving a real and fundamental problem for millions of students every year who lack the support and resources to travel to college campuses of interest.
As an example of a potentially ‘not so positive’ disruption, I’d say that automating away truck driving jobs through self-driving vehicles may do more harm than good. I love automation and efficiency as much as anyone, but just because we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should. To that end,I believe the world would be better off if American truck drivers’ jobs weren’t existentially threatened by self driving vehicles, no matter how efficient the new technology may be.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
“Running a startup is like jumping off a cliff and building the airplane on the way down” — as startup founders, especially in the early years, we found ourselves living in a constant state of uncertainty and instability. We’ve always tried to be as prepared as humanly possible for each new phase of execution, and typically pride ourselves on our ability to attack and analyze a problem from all angles before making a decision. However, there are times and inflection points when running a startup that require immediate action, decision-making and commitment. You can prepare and prepare and prepare, but ultimately (if you’re lucky) there’s going to be a day when you have to take a leap of faith and just perform. Especially during some of the hyper-growth phases of our business, it’s very much felt like we just had to look at each other, take a deep breath, and jump off the cliff — all the while trusting that we’d be able to build the airplane on the way down. It’s scary and intimidating — yes; but there’s no feeling of satisfaction quite like the one of building your airplane and learning how to fly.
“Don’t raise money until you know how you’re going to spend it” — I very strongly believe that a real misstep that startup founders make is looking at fundraising as the goal or milestone. Time and time again we were given advice to raise as much money as possible as soon as we could so that we could “sprint and blow this thing out”. There’s this expectation, largely perpetuated by Venture Capital, that startups should aim for a hyper-growth trajectory from day one, and pour as much lighter fluid on their business as possible to maintain that growth. This leads many startup founders to raise way too much money before they’ve really figured out their business, which puts them in a scenario where they need to artificially increase their growth to live up to certain unrealistic expectations. What ever happened to creating a fundamentally sound business that can grow organically from within? We’ve taken a relatively unconventional approach to fundraising, and have only raised small rounds when we knew exactly what we were going to do with the funds. We’re now at a point where we’re able to grow the business organically from our own profits, and I genuinely believe this mindset has been one of, if not the biggest key to our success.
“Take a deep breath and just try to enjoy it” — one thing I was not prepared for was how emotionally exhausting it is to run a startup. You live in a constant state of instability, uncertainty and self-doubt, and there’s this perpetual feeling that everything could come crashing down at any moment. If you’re smart, you use these negative feelings as fuel and motivation to push yourself that much harder. But operating in this state of chaos day after day for multiple years takes a real toll. About a year ago I was venting to one of our advisors about how overwhelmed I was feeling, how much we needed to do, and my concerns about our ability to execute. I presented him with a laundry list full of things I felt we needed to accomplish, my ideas for how to execute, and areas where we could theoretically fall short. There was something about my panic that was amusing to him, and after letting me rant and rave about all these different ideas, he looked me in the eyes and just said “take a deep breath and just try to enjoy it.” Something about the way he said that instantly brought me back to reality. It made me think “oh yeah…this is supposed to be fun!”. I had gotten so obsessed with all the different ways this could go wrong that I forgot that running a startup was all I’ve ever wanted to do, and any feeling of stress or pressure should be welcomed because it means we’re doing something worthwhile. It was a really simple piece of advice but it changed a lot for me.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Our goal is to power video in every corner of the Higher Ed ecosystem globally. We want to work with every institution type — traditional 4-year colleges and universities, community colleges, graduate schools, masters programs, residency programs, etc. — in every market in the country and world. In doing so, we hope to be able to serve every single student on the planet interested in furthering their education. Our ultimate goal is to eliminate all the fundamental inequities that have plagued the college search, selection and matriculation process, so that every student has fair and equal access, regardless of any financial or geographical limitations.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
After I graduated from college I decided to work as a math teacher in Phuket Thailand for eight months, all in the interest of gaining some real world experiences to serve my entrepreneurial aspirations down the road. While in Thailand I spent all my free time consuming information from successful entrepreneurs and business people to try to figure out what I needed to do to turn myself into the type of person that could excel as an entrepreneur. I was listening to a GaryVee talk where, as he does, he was going on an impassioned rant about what it takes to be successful in business. Within the rant he said one line that really resonated with me: “If you want to be an anomaly you have to live like an anomaly.”
I wanted to be an anomaly…I always had. I always had this image of myself as a uber-successful, once in a generation type entrepreneur; but at that point in my life had absolutely no idea how I would be able to get there. At the time I figured if I could consume as much information as possible from successful business people, at some point I’ll just think of my magic, billion dollar idea and it will be off to the races. When I heard GaryVee talk about what it takes to be an anomaly I realized that if I was serious about becoming a successful entrepreneur I needed to bet my entire life on it. I needed to make decisions and live in a way that separated me from my peers, and needed to take actions that only an anomaly would take. I sat there thinking, what is the craziest thing I could do with my life? What would an anomaly do?
That day I booked a one-way ticket to Australia, with no plan whatsoever, and not knowing a single person on the continent. I ended up spending 8 months living in Australia and had the single most incredible, transformative and eye-opening experience of my life. I learned so much about who I am as a person, and still carry that energy with me today. After my time in Australia, I returned back to the states with no plan at all, but an abundance of energy behind me. 10 days later my now business partner and I thought of our seed idea for CampusReel, and have been working on it every day since.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.” — Brad Meltzer
This line pops into my head pretty much every day. At multiple times throughout the day I’ll have to urge to be rude, short, or impatient with people I come into contact with in both business and life. My default tendency is to be rude, and then justify my actions to myself in a very self-serving and indignant way… “How could he possibly have made this error?! Doesn’t he know how important this is to me?”; “I have no use for this person. I wish she would stop talking…I don’t have time to deal with this.”; “Could you PLEASE walk a little faster?! Don’t you know I have somewhere to be??”
These days, when I have the presence of mind to catch myself, I always try to deal with people from a place of empathy and compassion, rather than criticism. I try to see things from their point of view, and understand that they might be dealing with something really difficult that I know nothing about. “Maybe he made the error because he’s sleep deprived from staying up all night with his new born child.” ; “Maybe this person really needs me to be warm to her right now even though I don’t have any use for her services. Maybe a small act of kindness will bring some much needed brightness to her day.” ; “It doesn’t actually matter if I show up 12 seconds later than I ordinarily would, I’ll let these people enjoy their walk.”
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement I would inspire is to completely eradicate large scale factory farming operations from our country. Factory farming is a detriment to our moral, environmental, and physical health, and is truly one of the grossest institutions we condone in this country. Outside of the environmental impact and how morally irredeemable it is to torture animals at scale to support our country’s meat consumption, the final product is nutritionally barren, low-grade meat that is largely to blame for America’s health problems. Animals must be treated with respect and dignity, and as a country we need to find a way to scale up responsible and sustainable farming operations. The technology is there, especially with these new carbon-negative farming practices, but I believe it will take a group of motivated entrepreneurs to figure out how to scale the solution!
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!