By Anna Pettus
Michael Weisman '98, founder of Campus Labs, may have found his success in the world of modern technology, but his business strategies classically rely on hard work and determination. The Harpur College alumnus returned to campus last semester and spoke to more than 60 students on how he went from an anthropology major to a successful entrepreneur.
Campus Labs is now one of the leading forms of data comprehension for higher education and student learning. However, Weisman said he wasn't always on the straight path to success. Graduating with no job offers, he was driven to pursue non-traditional career paths.
"At the time I thought it was a tragedy, but in retrospect it wasn't," he said. "It was an opportunity."
After entering the graduate program at University of Buffalo, "everything just happened very quickly. Sometimes you just put yourself into a position where the stars align and there's an opportunity for success."
With the encouragement of his friend (and eventual co-founder of Campus Labs) Eric Reich, Weisman attended an entrepreneurship lecture. There he witnessed several local entrepreneurs share their stories and lessons learned.
More than providing advice, the experience broadened his perspective of what is achievable, he said.
"I don't want to say I knew then what I wanted to do, but it was a wonderful exposure to what was possible," he added. "Sometimes we find ourselves on a path that we think is the only path, when there are a lot of different ways that we can get to the end result."
The then-recent burst of successful startups in the tech industry allowed Reich and Weisman to put their newfound opportunistic way of thinking to the test.
"A lot of people were becoming big success stories overnight," Weisman said. "We started talking about what makes those people any different from you and I, and the reality is nothing. Other than the fact that they made the conscious decision to start a business." It was then that they chose to make the same decision as well.
Serendipitously, the University of Buffalo sponsored a competition for students to submit a business plan that same year. Although there was no plan for them to submit, Weisman and Reich quickly set to work on formulating one based off of their experiences in the professional world.
"Eric had spent the previous summer in an internship with MTV in their research and planning department," Weisman said. "He saw first-hand that paper data collection was taking upwards of six months to turn around and put to use into the programming. So we saw disruptive technology to be an opportunity to change the way that information was being used." Furthermore, Reich's position as student representative to the campus board of trustees gave them insight into how important it was to collect data on student opinion.
Eventually, their ideas formed a plan that others could support, and they won the Panasci Entrepreneurial Award. Although everything seemed to have been lining up smoothly for their success, Weisman said that it wasn't luck that won them the competition.
"It took a lot of time and a lot of effort," he said. "We made sure to check in with different professors and teachers about how we should frame this, what do we need to consider when drafting this section of the plan. We would go into the accounting office and ask them their thoughts about developing different kinds of tables."
Their work ethic and willingness to incorporate the ideas of those around them assisted them through the first struggling years of their business. Weisman recalled their willingness to listen and learn as the reason they survived not only their own ignorance in the business world but also the crash of the dot-com bubble.
"We studied what happened to the companies that were flying high, and overnight they imploded," he said. "We were really fortunate to learn a lot of lessons. It was a result of all these efforts that we learned how we wanted to run our business. Which was really bare bones."
Bare bones is certainly a way to describe their beginnings. For a year they worked out of an office on the second floor of a theater, before the company started breaking even.
"We didn't take salaries," Weisman said. "I lived at home for a year and just did what I had to do, what I needed to do to get by." While this period of sacrifice discouraged some members of their team, Weisman was willing to make the sacrifice: "It was fun and exhilarating to do the work, and to build the business and to employ the people. That was, for me, more gratifying than the salary."
Belief in what you're doing is, to Weisman, the most important part of a business.
"When you go to seek out investors, sure they're looking for a strong concept," he said. "But what I'll tell you is that what's more important than any business plan or any idea is you. You demonstrating that you are a capable person and that you can overcome whatever challenge is thrown your way. And that is far more important in you." Success is not determined by how many failures you can avoid, but how you handle the ones you can't, he added: "Failure is not a bad thing. Failure is part of the learning process. There are all kinds of trials and tribulations you deal with, but it's the people that get through that who are able to enjoy the benefits."
While Campus Labs was recently purchased by Higher One in a merger that resulted in a $40 million profit for Campus Labs, Weisman does not see his role as an entrepreneur diminished. Rather, he views himself as having an opportunity to share his story to students and hopefully inspire them in the way he was once inspired.
"It's fun to come back here and figure out, how can I give back?" he said. "How can I contribute and how can I give people like yourself even the inkling of confidence that you can do this? And you know what, you can. You just have to decide that you're going to."
As the talk came to a close, Weisman left the students with the advice to view the unknown of post-graduation as a possibility.
"Get your degree," he said. "Figure it out from there. Because, you've got the whole world waiting for you."
Last Updated: 3/8/13