College kids are notorious for putting on the “freshman 15,” and receiving care packages stocked with candy bars certainly doesn’t help. After realizing that a niche to supply healthy snacks to college students existed, Cincinnati-based Marissa Hu and Andy Fortson founded Co-Ed Supply, a subscription-based start-up that targets the collegiate crowd by providing them with “college essentials” ranging from food to toiletries.
“Our whole mission with starting this company was that everybody deserves a better care package,” CEO and co-founder Hu explains. Hu and Fortson were frustrated by the fact that the only existing care package subscription options were overpriced, cost a lot to ship and contained nothing but junk food. So Co-Ed Supply provides the opposite: They ship health-conscious goodies each month in what’s dubbed the “Big Orange Box,” and parents can subscribe to either a classic box ($20; 7-9 curated products) or a deluxe box ($35; 12-15 curated products). Each shipment is a surprise for the students and contains items such as skincare products, cassava chips, Kashi granola bars and fun goodies like StacheTATS (temporary mustache tattoos). The product focus leans toward smaller, up-and-coming boutique brands like Dang chips and Kind, but Co-Ed Supply is also partnered with P&G.
But do college kids really want to eat hummus chips instead of Lays potato chips?
“We asked a ton of college students and their parents and overwhelmingly college students said, ‘We actually want healthier stuff because we can’t get access to the stuff,’ ” Hu says. “What’s easy for them to find at the vending machine or at 7-Eleven or the school cafeteria is junk food. Just getting a box every month with a couple of healthy things is really good for them. Because they’re like, ‘I don’t usually get this but I know I need it.’ ”
The Co-Ed team tests all the products themselves and tries to get as much feedback from students as possible — what’s working, what’s not. They have college ambassadors, who write blog posts and give honest opinions, scattered throughout different universities. And Co-Ed has four full-time staffers and a couple of interns, who bring their own college experiences to the fold.
The care packages have a different theme each month.
February’s is “Treat Yourself” (or as Parks and Rec would call it, Treat Yo Self). And March’s theme will be “Spring into Action,” with products centered around spring break, volunteering and acquiring a summer internship. To give back to their customers, Co-Ed launched a sale with a half-priced, three-month subscription in February, the proceeds of which will go toward an organization called the Rise Above Foundation to deliver care packages to foster youths in college.
“Our idea is really creating this intelligent platform for brands to be able to market to college students more effectively,” Hu says.
Currently, they’re shipping to all 50 states; the Midwest is their biggest hub, mainly because a lot of the smaller schools don’t have access to healthy options. Co-Ed is constantly trying to infiltrate more markets, but some of the larger schools already have their own care package programs, which are generally unhealthy. Hu hopes parents and students will speak up and demand better options from these universities, which will allow Co-Ed to step in.
Neither Hu nor Fortson are Cincinnati natives. In fact, they actually founded the company in Philadelphia, while Hu was pursuing her MBA at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. The two relocated to Cincinnati last summer to enroll in The Brandery’s seed-stage start-up accelerator program. After going through the program and raising some funds, Co-Ed Supply officially rolled out its first boxes in September 2013 for back-to-school.
The start-up has taken over Hu’s life so much she probably won’t be heading back to Wharton any time soon. “As a start-up, it’s pretty much your life. Weekends, nights — it’s sort of all you think about,” Hu says. “Andy and I, we try and take breaks every once in a while. We’ll try and take a day off and not think about work, but it’s hard. You’re sort of attached to your laptop all the time. It’s hard work in a good way … we work hard because we enjoy it.”
This is Hu’s first start-up, but Fortson has worked at others and even started his own record label when he was in high school. Hu grew up in Northern California and worked corporate jobs for Disney and Goldman Sachs but discovered corporate life wasn’t for her.
“When I worked at a big company, I would have a tiny piece of the puzzle and so I could work on some huge projects but I would only really have an effect on a tiny slice of it,” she says. “Whereas now I get a much bigger impact.”
While at Wharton, Hu took classes geared toward start-ups and says even if she would’ve finished, she probably would’ve ended up in the same place.
“I think the thing is a lot of people have really good ideas and are just waiting for the right time and there really never is a right time,” Hu says. “You have to do it now, that’s the only way it’s ever going to get done. I think that was really effective for me because I started a start-up while I was going to school and incredibly busy but I just had to do it to see if it would really work.”
Hu’s parents, who still live on the West Coast, were very supportive of her leaving school to pursue Co-Ed. “They’ve been great,” Hu says. “I think it’s cool for them because it’s not the traditional trajectory that they would’ve expected me on but they’ve been excited to see what happens next.”
What’s next involves a mobile app, continuing to build partnerships with brands and college students, and Hu getting better at letting go and trusting her team with ideas.
“At the very beginning, it’s about building and getting in front of people and sort of hustling -— and it sort of always will be that — but I’m starting to learn more about managing and how to handle a team. That’s been really fun.” ©
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