On a brisk Sunday afternoon in Chapel Hill, most UNC students are doing homework, relaxing, or even nursing a hangover after a Saturday night out. Baaqir Yusuf and the rest of 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 and Underground Printing on Franklin Street, one might on first glance miss the small entrance labeled “JimKitchen.org.” The wooden doorway is so small that it’s not surprising that the official address of the building is 1/2 133 E. Franklin St. Although unassuming from the outside, inside there is a flurry of activity.
Silence. Foot tapping. Fingers locked behind heads, leaning back in chairs, staring into space.
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, sit poised, finishing the post-production for a new television show exploring craft beverages called Sip’d.
Yusuf could scarcely imagine he would be where he is now three years ago when he walked through the Pit in the middle of Carolina’s 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 these skills, but with his own photos?
Then came his first major investment: a $400 Nikon D3400.
“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.
Keeping his vow, he spent numerous weeknights photographing Raleigh until the early hours of the morning with his childhood friend and future co-founder, Daniel Pan. The early years of their friendship remain especially poignant for Pan in light of their relationship now.
“He was always top 3––not much to say in third grade––but top 3 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 where his future lay. Until then, Yusuf had told his parents he would be a doctor, a point in which they took pride.
“My mom always wanted to be a doctor, but she couldn’t for various reasons,” he explains. “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 the enjoyment he got from meeting new people.
Exploring their options, Baaqir, Daniel and Michael Thomas––one of Baaqir’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. Family has always been a crucial value in his life, and one of his biggest fears is his parents’ disappointment.
The next best thing to being a doctor, Yusuf thought, would be investment banking or consulting. His studies in these areas, too, proved unsatisfying.
Despite his academic frustrations, the three friends had slowly tried to build a portfolio, working with small clients. But even this had slowed by the end of his first semester 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 Justin Fouts, who shared his passion for people and also 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 with his friend, Tristan Gardner, called Flare Studios agreed to meet. In a Davis Library study room, Yusuf, Gardner and Fouts video chatted Thomas and Pan, proposing a joint venture under the brand moniker of Triad. They all agreed to try the idea when they returned from winter break.
“Baaqir was the only person that knew more than three of us,” Fouts said. “We blindly went into business together, and it turned out to be one of the luckiest things we ever did.”
Gardner, agreeing with Fouts, laughs, “We always call Baaqir the ‘king of Triad,’ because he brought everybody together. He’s all about connecting us.”
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 Kenan-Flagler Business School, Gardner secured the group their 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, non-profits, and large franchises. After producing $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 the uniqueness of his situation from his peers. While others are networking and applying to corporate 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.
“Triad has re-taught me that anything is possible if you put in the effort and anyone can do anything with the right focus,” Yusuf reflects. “I’m just an average person that worked his butt off with the right four people who also worked their asses off for the past two and a half years.”