On any given morning you can find the Croozen team buzzing around The Cannon campus. Their sparkling demeanor and bags under their eyes tell the story of a hungry startup ready to take the ride-sharing world by storm. If you’ve ever been stuck solo on a long road trip, or riding Megabus or Greyhound when you couldn’t find a ride, these are your guys. In their own words, “Croozen is the long distance ride sharing app which brings riders and drivers together when traveling to the same or nearby destination.” Led by Chicago Booth alum Gordon Taylor, Croozen released their Apple iOS app this year and are emerging in numerous markets, collegiate and beyond. I sat down with Gordon to pick his brain about brother battles, being a black entrepreneur in tech, and the importance of being broke.
GT: It was a combination of three things. The last five years I haven’t had a car. I lived in Africa, Chicago, New York, Houston, and Austin, and in all those places you need a car.
EF: (except maybe NY)
GT: Right, but you need a car for longer distances. That was the first thing. The second thing is, I took a trip from Chicago to Houston – thought I was going to take a private equity offer. Rented a car, drove it down to Houston to move stuff back into my parents’ house. Terrible idea. 18 hours, falling asleep at the wheel, high rental car costs ($363.13 I remember it) and I had to drive it in a day because it was going to hop up to over $1000. I kept thinking “Man, this sucks,” and at the end of the day I realized this was a business idea.
The last thing was going to a Justin Bieber concert with my girlfriend from the Chicago loop to North Chicago (the burbs). We got a zip car. It would’ve been nice to share the cost of the zip car for the night – it was like $90 or something crazy. The Bieber album was great and the concert was awesome, but I knew we should be riding with someone to this concert. There should be an app or platform that suggests other people going there because I’m sure other people from that loop are going.
EF: And strangers aren’t THAT weird.
GT: Exactly. So that’s how we started. I went back to business school in Chicago and started on the idea literally the next Monday.
EF: How’d you get your brother Josh (Head of Growth and Retention) involved?
GT: He was kind of sold from the get go, but leaving a job in banking is not easy from a pay perspective. I think he just believed in what I was doing. I pitched it to him like this: you see that I have to ride with you every day (at the time my brother was commuting to Downtown Houston for his banking job and I was just going to coffee shops in Houston). I was like, man if you don’t see that I’m the target, think about how many people are like me. We started talking about the market. Of course there’s BlaBlaCar in Europe that’s almost a $2 billion company. Aside from the money I think it’s just the passion of owning a business which is something we’ve talked about as a family always wanting to do.
EF: What’s an obstacle you can remember reaching as a fledgling company and how did you overcome it? How did that improve Croozen as a group?
GT: Everyday is an obstacle, but the biggest was a point where I was coming to Josh, Justan (Head of Branding and Marketing) and Byron (Social Media Wizz) to say, “You guys need to quit your jobs. It’s time, we have an app, we’ve been rolling with this, you need to quit.” We’d already been going after it, but those guys were part time and I was full time. At that point I was feeling like we’re going to do this or not. It was a small obstacle but it was big then because truly it was a point where we needed the bodies and talent here to be able to push the mission.
The second obstacle, which is probably a little bigger, was being broke as a startup. It makes you creative. You have to be scrappy and creative. Some days I look at some of the other startups and say, “That’s a great idea. I wonder why they didn’t get a lot of funding.” We’re doing good work on that side now but I think we couldn’t get to a fine tuned process without having little money. If we would’ve had (let’s say) $100 million, we would’ve blown it all because we wouldn’t know the levers to push or the things to do to get there. Having a refined process, that’s the biggest obstacle we faced. Having little capital made us creative which has been nice.
EF: Which brother would win in a one-on-one death match?
GT: I think my brother because he’s relentless. I’m a little nicer than him…
EF: I can tell by how you answered the question!
GT: If it’s survival I can be straightforward too, but I think Josh gets the win. My dad says he’d rather be in a business meeting with me and in a war with my brother, so my brother would probably win.
EF: Where were you before The Cannon and what attracted you to this space?
GT: We were in Justan’s house. We lived in his house and worked out of his family room and the downstairs area. It was awesome because it’s what you see on Silicon Valley. We needed it because that’s all we could afford at the time.
I was initially attracted to The Cannon because of Lawson’s vision for Houston. Houston has a long way to go in becoming a tech hub, but it needs trailblazers that are young, hungry, and understand the need now, as opposed to current players that don’t really understand what’s going on in the market. I envision a place where Houston can become a hub for tech and innovation and not just oil and gas, healthcare, and real estate development.
The second thing that attracted me were the connections made and the synergies here. Once we get into the big space it’ll be even more amazing because you’ll have even more startups wanting to come and be a part of this new development. That’s the value that we’ve seen thus far: being able to connect with other startups. I look at The Cannon as the great connectors.
EF: You’re a black man in tech. That’s a minority to the nth degree. Could you speak on that and how you feel you’re exploring that space in Houston?
GT: I pitched in front of an investment group, I won’t name them, but I never felt so much like a black man than that day. That was a moment for me. Earlier you asked about an obstacle, well that was a personal obstacle for me. I have a great education from the University of Chicago, I’d like to say top 2, and not being able to be heard or get funding that you believe you deserve (even though I don’t think people deserve anything), it’s disheartening. At the same time you see some peer organizations getting funding and think, “Wow, they haven’t developed anything.” But to break that, you need trailblazers.
A guy named Marcus Davis, who started the breakfast club, recently told me, “Hey, it takes that one.” For me, it’s about being a trailblazer. I have a younger brother and sister and I used to always tell them, I want you to be better than what I am. That’s the way my parents taught us. I want to do great things for Croozen because, again, it’s service for other people.
If there’s a guy or a girl who wants to be a great tech entrepreneur, you can count maybe on two fingers the tech companies that are black and have been successful. I want to do that for that. There are other reasons, but being a minority, being a black man, is something that is very important to me. It’s kind of my why. I always ask myself why I am doing this instead of private equity which would’ve been technically an easier path. That’s one of the reasons: service to under-served communities like black and Latina, that’s important. For me that’s a passion.
EF: You talked about having to be creative in a box. Do you think that’s been a part of it?
GT: I don’t like to play the race card, that’s not my thing, but I think there’s an element of that. I think it’s a blessing that God has given us to be creative and help us understand it’s not some red carpet path you’re going to have. I think that’s a path God has put us on to make it better for other people in the long term. There always has to be a trailblazer and I’m cool to lead that path. That’s not something that’s foreign to me now and I take it on.
EF: What’s next for Croozen? What’s coming in 2018?
GT: So much! I can’t let all our secrets out, but definitely deep penetration into our markets nationwide, into all the schools we’re already in, and solidifying those as our flagship schools. We would love to expand the company and we’re raising capital. There are a lot of things, but by the end of next year you’ll be hearing a lot of noise from our company because of the groundwork we’re laying now.
We’re excited about being a Houston startup which is something that’s true to my heart. I hope that people understand that Houston has a potential and people don’t really tap into that yet. I’m not sure why the support isn’t there, but we’re trying to help to grow that. People say Houston Strong because of the hurricane but it’s so much more than that. People that want to fund startups here in Houston should fund startups. If you’re not educated, get educated, because there are a lot of ideas and a lot of growth that can happen. We won’t always be an energy town, energy is changing, so people should get with the times.