Business & Real Estate

Los Altos siblings sell first startup

Los Altos siblings Riley and Stephen Soward are proof that you’re never too young to start – or sell – your first company.

A few weeks ago, the brothers, ages 22 and 23, respectively, sold their marketing research firm, Campus Insights, to Harvard Student Agencies, Harvard University’s student-run company.

Campus Insights is a remote marketing research firm dedicated to helping companies understand millennials’ and Gen Z-ers’ thoughts on their products.

Campus Insights
Claudio Quintana / Special to the Town Crier
Brothers Riley, left, and Stephen Soward developed the idea for Campus Insights after a focus group experience Riley had. The siblings, who are from Los Altos, recently sold their startup to Harvard Student Agencies. Both will stay on as advisers.

“You’re chatting with someone three times your age, and you’re in a room in front of a one-way mirror,” Riley said of traditional marketing research interviews. “You’re expected as an 18-year-old to act completely natural and share your thoughts. … (It’s) not an ideal way to get truly accurate feedback from a young person.”

That’s where the idea for Campus Insights came from. Soon after, the brothers purchased cameras on Craigslist and started running around their college campuses conducting interviews on products with their fellow students.

Eventually, the Soward siblings expanded their business to a team of six students across multiple campuses and were delivering feedback for companies such as Airbnb, Chegg and GoFundMe. They conducted interviews around the country, and sometimes even around the world via video chat.

But the road to startup success wasn’t always easy. The pair had to balance their college coursework and battle assumptions about their age and ability.

Stephen said the balancing act led to many late nights strategizing while studying for midterms.

“It’s certainly a lot to juggle,” he said. “But I think for us, starting Campus Insights (helped us) to expand and get more out of our education at our respective universities.”

Overcoming age discrimination

The brothers agreed that running a business as college students helped them expand their horizons and develop relationships with professors and student organizations, enabling them to develop their business knowledge. In addition, many of the company’s initial clients resulted from those relationships.

Riley and Stephen faced an uphill battle with some clients when it came to their age.

“I think the idea of paying college students thousands of dollars to go do something rather than paying them $10 an hour as an intern, to some companies is just a tough thing to get past mentally,” Riley said.

To navigate the roadblock, Stephen said they would often offer a free sample interview to company officials skeptical of their abilities as college students. But for every skeptic, dozens more lined up for the Sowards’ services, trusting in their process and mission.

“We really use being students to our advantage, and we built our business around that,” Riley said. “Campus Insights at its core revolves around this idea that a student can get candid feedback from another student and do a better job conducting research on students than a professional researcher at a company.”

As for what’s next for Campus Insights, Riley and Stephen will serve as advisers, but Harvard Student Agencies will be running the show. And what about the brothers’ own career paths? Stephen is back in Silicon Valley working in the tech industry, and Riley has his eyes set on the possibility of yet another startup.

In the end, the brothers are glad they survived the startup journey together.

“(It’s) been a great experience to further our relationship together as brothers,” Stephen said. “It’s given me a little more of a late-night excuse to give him a phone call … and not just be a brother, but be a business partner as well.”

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