Like most college students, Shira Abramowitz and Christian D’Andrea became familiar with the rite of moving in and moving out of campus housing, purchasing the same stuff along with other new students that recent graduates were busily throwing out. As entrepreneurs, they saw potential to launch a service that would reduce waste and save money, creating a more sustainable cycle of ownership.
Campus Swaps now offers a free pickup service to outgoing graduates, summer storage of ditched goods, and fall sales of reduced-cost items to college and university newcomers. Their new social enterprise has kept founders Abramowitz and D’Andrea busy forming partnerships, experiencing startup growth pains, and celebrating the early success of their business model. The duo managed to put down the packing tape long enough to school KillerStartups on their venture.
How long have you been involved with the internet? What were your first steps? What was your first computer? How old were you when you first got one the world wide web?
Shira Abramowitz: I think my first internet exploration began in junior high, using the internet for research projects and instant messaging with friends.
Christian D’Andrea: I can’t remember the first time I used the internet. I must have been around 10 years old. I used it for school projects and chatting with friends as well as playing games.
Can you describe how Campus Swaps came into being?
SA: Campus Swaps began as an idea I came up with during my final year at McGill University, after having spent three years witnessing the tremendous amount of waste on my campus and realizing that there could be a solution. I brought the idea to my good friend Christian D’Andrea and he said, “Let’s do it.” Simple as that. By the following month we were doing our first spring collection through a free pickup service offered to all graduating students.
When do your best ideas come to you? In bed in the morning? After working for 16 hours? While out jogging?
SA: Most of my ideas come to me when we have these creative brainstorming/mapping sessions. We get out huge pieces of paper and draw out everything we’re thinking, without any strict structure. It really helps to map it all out on paper, and allows us to think creatively based on the knowledge we already have.
CD: Honestly, my best ideas come to me when I don’t want them too: when I go to bed. I’ll be laying there for an hour, my mind racing, as I attempt and fail at falling asleep at a decent time.
We want to know about where you spend your day! What’s on your desk right now?
SA: My day is spent differently wherever I go, as I have been traveling for the past few months and will continue to do so for the next year. My desk is usually a table at a café, near an outlet, with a mug of hot black tea, my laptop, cell phone, journal and pigma micron pens.
CD: Today my desk is unusually clear, probably because I haven’t been working at it for a week. There are often papers scattered around the edges of my desk–business cards peppering various sheets and my favorite Brita filter at my side. Although, I have to say, Shira’s description is what I like and where I prefer to do my work.
Who or what inspires YOU? Role models? Quotes? Fictional Characters? Snack food?
SA: My most inspirational role model by far is my mother, who this past year survived breast cancer and is by far the strongest woman I know. She understands that everything is passing, that life is delicate, and that it is to be enjoyed.
Over the years she has taught me some of my most valuable entrepreneurial lessons:
- Take action. If you are worried about something, DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. There’s never any use in worrying for the sake of worrying.
- Be resourceful. Most of us undervalue the resources we have in our lives, and when faced with life’s challenges, the solutions are often right in our backyard.
- Never stop living life. You can spend your entire life working and working towards some end goal, but if you don’t love the journey then there really is no point. This has become of paramount importance in building Campus Swaps, and we constantly remind each other that “if it’s not fun, it doesn’t count.” It’s all about attitude.
What have been some of the biggest challenges your startup has dealt with so far?
Like many startups, we’ve faced some difficulty with funding and legal development, but I think by far our biggest challenge has been knowing when to ask for help. We often like to think we can do everything ourselves, and so far have been blessed with the help of some incredible friends and mentors who came in just when we needed them. As we grow in the future, we are being more intentional about asking for the right support in advance.
How do you handle frustration? When/how was the last time you dealt with frustration?
SA: Difficult question, I think that’s something that I’m still learning personally. Probably the best part of having a business partnership is that we use each other for support, and it definitely helps keep us sane during the most frustrating moments. We tend to handle frustration by calming each other down (or really Christian calming me down when I get really worked up about things!) and then going back to the drawing board, reframing the challenge as an opportunity for a pivot point and then planning action.
CD: Frustration is a tough thing to deal with, no matter the reason. I find that reframing my perspective–taking a step back from the problem–does a wonderful job of helping me more appropriately judge the severity of the problem and whether I need to be as agitated by it. Removing this stress gives me the patience I need to approach the issue in a more effective manner.
Can you share what got your latest “WOW” moment was?
Probably when we finished collecting our inventory this past spring (2012), sorted through all of it, categorized it and boxed it up. The transformation from a huge overwhelming pile of stuff to organized boxes and bags in a corner of a basement was insane. 7,000 lbs of transformation, definitely a “wow” moment.
Although my favorite “wow” moment was actually back at our first sale, when we broke even in three hours. Counting the revenue and realizing that we’d done it, that we’d created a new system that could stand on its own two feet with a financially sustainable model was huge.
What do you find most rewarding about Campus Swaps work?
On a macro scale, we both feel strongly about the need to reduce waste on campuses and create self-sustaining college communities; however, we both feel the most pride during our fall sales expositions, when parents and students approach us to tell us how grateful they are for our affordable products. There’s no reason students should have to pay so much for the “college lifestyle,” when they are already far in debt just from tuition. We love being able to create a system that makes college and university living more sustainable and affordable at the same time.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs struggling to get their business off the ground?
Our best advice comes twofold: 1) Start now. You will never know as much as you need to know, never be as “ready” as you think you should be. Start anyway, start now. 2) Find good mentors. Find someone who’s invested in your project, who can be your sounding board, and who will push you to grow.
Do you consider yourself a successful entrepreneur right now? If not, what’s it gonna take to make you feel successful?
We think it would take a few more years of a proven and sustainable model for Campus Swaps (with adoption on 20 campuses) for us to feel like “successful entrepreneurs” in title. However, do we feel that what we have done so far has been successful? One hundred percent. With all of the ups and downs of starting a company, we have learned more than we possibly could have imagined, and demonstrated a clear solution to a problem at campuses across North America. Whatever happens from here on out, we will always feel the success from getting our first business off the ground and creating our own curriculum of lessons in life.
Web App or site you couldn’t live without and why:
Definitely the gmail apps Rapportive & Boomerang. Also google docs in general, everything in excel, prezi…oh and Loosecubes! It’s a way to work at awesome shared workspaces for free all over the U.S., definitely the best option for traveling entrepreneurs! (And much cheaper & friendlier than cafes!)
How do you picture your company in 5 years?
In five years we will be on at least 35 campuses, with fully developed collaborative programs with our current partners, and new avenues for growth and personal development for all of our Campus Managers.
Where can our readers get a hold of you? Facebook? Twitter? Google+? Personal blog?
Anything else we should know about what makes you and your company so special?
We’re working with some amazing partners and supporters to create a movement for conscious consumption on campuses across North America, and we’re recruiting new Campus Managers this year to be a part of it all! We’d love to hear comments, ideas, feedback, or interest in the Campus Manager positions via cswaps [at] gmail.com.