By Jonny Cook
On a brisk Sunday afternoon in Chapel Hill, most UNC-Chapel Hill students are doing homework, studying or even nursing a hangover after a Saturday night out. Baaqir Yusuf and the rest of his team at Triad Studios––a creative media production agency started by five college students––have been in their Franklin Street office for hours.
Tucked away between Julian’s clothing store and Underground Printing on Franklin Street, you might on first glance miss the small entrance labeled “JimKitchen.org.” The wooden entrance is so small that it’s not surprising the official address of the building is 1/2 133 E. Franklin St. Although difficult to see from the outside, a flurry of activity is happening inside.
Yusuf reads from his computer, “At Honors Carolina, you get your education from the world around you––”
“Wait, wasn’t there a line about the Board of Advisors?” Tristan Gardner, one of the other founders, interjects. “Let’s put something like that in there, ‘your personal board of advisors for the real world.’ ‘Between the faculty staff and…industry mentors? Industry leaders?’”
“‘Industry mentors’ is good,” Yusuf responds.
Gardner repeats: “You’ll have a personal board of advisors for the real world.”
Yusuf’s eyes light up. “Yeah, I like that. I like that. ‘Between faculty, staff and industry mentors, you’ll have a personal board of advisors for the real world.’”
In one room of the office, Yusuf and Gardner are bouncing ideas off one another for a script accompanying a flagship video production for Honors Carolina. In an adjacent room, two of the other founders, Daniel Pan and Justin Fouts, are doing the post-production work for a new television show called Sip’d, which explores craft beverages.
Yusuf could scarcely imagine he would be where he is now three years ago when he walked through the Pit in the middle of the UNC-CH campus and saw the Adobe Creative Cloud tent. He picked up a frisbee and gym bag, thinking little of it.
“I got back to my dorm and thought, hold on, this is kind of cool,” Yusuf said. “I’ve always wanted to learn Photoshop.”
After racing through a 20-hour Photoshop fundamentals tutorial, he began tinkering with Photoshop. It was great, but something was missing; he was using others’ photos. What if he could use the same skills he was gaining, but with his own photos?
Then came his first major investment: a $400 Nikon D3400 camera.
“My mom was like, ‘I don’t know, do you think you’re gonna use it? I don’t think you’re going to use it.’ And I said, “I’m going to prove you wrong,” Yusuf remembers.
From friendship to entrepreneurship
Weeknights spent in Raleigh until the early hours of the morning with his childhood friend and future co-founder, Pan, sparked Yusuf’s passion. The early years of their friendship remain especially sentimental for Pan in light of their relationship now.
“He was always top three––not much to say in third grade––but top three smartest kids in our grade, but that never really mattered that much to me,” Pan said. “He was always a people person. When we were 8 years old, it was his house where we were going to play basketball, or he’d be out and gather the troops so we could play soccer in someone’s backyard.”
The Raleigh nights these old friends spent together began to sow seeds of doubt in Yusuf’s mind about his future. Until then, Yusuf had told his parents he would be a doctor, a plan which they took pride in.
“My mom always wanted to be a doctor, but she couldn’t for various reasons,” Yusuf said. “She was like, ‘yeah, my son’s going to be a doctor, it’s going to be awesome.’”
After completing a research internship in which he shadowed a radiation oncologist in Greenville following his freshman year, he realized medicine didn’t offer the lifestyle or path he desired. Above all, Yusuf desired the freedom and ability to cultivate his affinity for interacting with others.
Exploring their options, Yusuf, Pan and Michael Thomas––one of Yusuf’s friends from Panther Creek High School––started a brand inspired by their favorite travel videographers whose work they wanted to emulate. They called it Triad Studios.
The path to Triad wasn’t entirely straight or easy, however. Revealing to his parents that he would not be a doctor proved to be a very difficult decision for Yusuf. Family has always been a crucial value in Yusuf’s life, and one of his biggest fears is disappointing his parents.
The next best thing to being a doctor, Yusuf thought, would be investment banking or consulting. His studies in these areas, too, proved unsatisfying.
Yusuf began to wonder what his future would hold.
Despite his academic frustrations, Yusuf and his friends slowly tried to build a portfolio, working with small clients. But even this had slowed by the end of the first semester of their sophomore year.
They needed something else. Yusuf had worked for a startup part-time his first year––The Campus Cause––which sold discount key tags for businesses on Franklin Street. There, he met Fouts, who shared his passion for people and had interests in finance and sales.
At the end of the fall semester, Yusuf reached out to Fouts. Fouts, who had started a small brand called Flare Studios with his friend Gardner, agreed to meet. In a Davis Library study room, Yusuf, Gardner and Fouts video chatted with Thomas and Pan, proposing a joint venture under the brand name of Triad. They all agreed to try the idea when they returned from winter break.
“We always call Baaqir the ‘king of Triad,’ because he brought everybody together,” Gardner said. “He’s all about connecting us.”
Fouts agrees with Gardner.
“We blindly went into business together, and it turned out to be one of the luckiest things we ever did,” Fouts said.
A successful work in progress
For six months, the five of them crowded around a single laptop in Gardner’s Carolina Square apartment, taking on any project they could get their hands on.
After speaking with professor Jim Kitchen in the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, Gardner secured the group an office, which provided the breakthrough and space needed to explore their creativity.
Now, two years later, business is flourishing. Triad has worked with over 60 clients in various industries, including university institutions, nonprofits and large franchises. After earning $82,000 in business in their first year and $270,000 in their second year, they’re poised to double last year’s revenue.
As a second semester senior, Yusuf recognizes that his situation is unique from his peers. While others are networking and applying to jobs, he is focused each day on chasing his vision. Even though the social pressure stemming from such a circumstance is unavoidable, he remains resolute.
The hard work has paid off for Yusuf and has provided him knowledge he can take into his future work.
Yusuf said: “Triad has re-taught me that anything is possible if you put in the effort and anyone can do anything with the right focus.”
Edited by Elisabeth Beauchamp and Suzanne Blake.