(Watertown, CT) Today I am talking with Brandon DuFour of SHRPR, fka Next Street, a tech platform for in-person learning driven by personal improvement and curiosity. He also invented the verb “decal-ing”… This is part of an ongoing series of rambling interviews loosely with Founders in the Vaux portfolio structured as five questions. Don’t miss Lilly B. from Fashion Snoops and Tom O’Reilly of Aptaris.
Question #1; The Entrepreneur’s DNA
Miles: So Brandon, I’m really interested in how you grew up as a kid in your formative years, and what DNA you had in your family or in your neighborhood that contributed to you wanting to be an entrepreneur.
Brandon: So it’s in my blood and in my DNA on both sides of my family. So on my father’s side, my dad’s dad in the 50s was a mechanic and he ran a shop. In those days, student transportation was that the local mechanic got a bus, and as part of his revenue stream, he would go around and pick up the kids in his neighborhood. And my grandfather was one of the early ones that kind of organized all of those mechanics and said, “I’m gonna be the one contractor and I’ll pay you guys to do this.” And so my father and his family have been in the school bus business for almost 60 years, and have grown multiple student transportation companies successfully.
So I watched that as a kid. I mean, I can remember my dad started his own school bus company in 1989. I was 6 years old, and he didn’t have any money. So it was … you know, true entrepreneurial fashion, you figure it out. At 6, I remember standing on a bucket detailing buses in August because he had to get ’em ready to go for the school year and he couldn’t pay anybody to do it. Still I’m the Fastest decaler this side of the Mississippi. I could decal a bus with the best of them. So that was … I started working at the age of 6, and I learned quickly that effort and hard work and hustle maximizes your output and it also creates freedom. And I think I knew at a pretty early age that I didn’t want to work for anybody.
On the other side, my mom’s side, my mom’s dad was one of the original people to install vinyl siding and he was a contractor and went around door-to-door selling vinyl siding in Connecticut. And he was an adventurer and a creative guy, and he developed foam insulation that differentiated him from the other siding providers, ’cause he can also make the house warmer and more energy efficient. And that turned into a pretty large foam manufacturing company. My uncle now runs, whats become an fully automated process to create this foam insulation that’s sold around the world, and they own the patents to it and all the intellectual property around it. And so was just always as a kid surrounded by it.
And then I think the last biggest piece was my education at Gunnery School in Washington, Connecticut because it was … It wasn’t a typical high school environment. It was them that recognizing pretty quickly that 14-year-old me was not gonna be successfully sitting in a normal classroom environment. I couldn’t sit still, I couldn’t be quiet. I always had to be moving. I liked meeting other people and helping other people. And so they, somehow as a community, recognized that in me early, and put me into a path in the system that allowed me to kind of really sharpen those entrepreneurial skills and work with other people and find the kids that were good at math, and realize that they were going to be my accountants. And find the kids that were good at writing, and realize that they were gonna be my marketers, and be able to kind of connect all of those dots.
And so that’s the foundation I think of me realizing what it means to be an entrepreneur, to be a business person, to be a leader and have an idea, have a vision, communicate it clearly, and then surround yourself with a team of people that can carry that out.
Question #2 When Opportunity Lands in your Front Seat
Miles; Well said. Great answer. The second question is when you got the call to start Next Street, why did you get the call, what were the circumstances, why did you decide to jump into action then?
Brandon: So the largest driving school in Connecticut was called the Academy of Driving, and in September of 2008, they were basically charged for fraud. There were just some fraudulent activities going on, and so they were in a position that they were going to have to sell their driving school as part of the deal that they were making. And so I followed it closely in the newspaper because I went to that driving school as a kid, and I just found it interesting that this was happening.
And didn’t really think of it in terms of a business opportunity, but in February of 09, six months later, we got a call from an accountant or a lawyer that was somehow involved in the business and the criminal charges, and they called my father and I because my father’s in the school bus business. I’d just moved back to Connecticut after college and was helping him out. And they basically said, “Look, this driving school is gonna have to close their doors. We have no one to take it on, so we don’t know where all this demand is gonna go. And we have no recourse to give kids that are already in the system refunds. There’s a lot of parallels between teaching school bus drivers and teaching kids how to drive. Do you have any interest in taking this on?”
And so my dad and I kind of looked at it and said, “You know, it’s a business opportunity.” We weren’t really passionate about driver’s ed as a product, but we thought that we could figure it out. And so we made an offer and said they’re either gonna take it or they’re not. We don’t need to be in the driver’s ed business. So, there was no real emotional attachment to it. I think it was a pretty good entrepreneurial lesson or business lesson. It was these are the numbers that work for us, if that works for you, let’s do it. And if it doesn’t, no problem, good luck. And they accepted the offer. So they had to stop participating in all driver’s education activities forever one week after they accepted our offer. So we had one week to do due diligence and learn everything we could about this 40-year-old business before we took it over and could no longer speak to the previous owners, which is an interesting place to be in.
My father said, “I’ll finance it for you if you want to run it, and run and operate it.” And so it was figure it out as you go. And we went in with a very simple philosophy: do right by your customers, do right by your employees, and the rest will kind of figure itself out. And so it took a couple years but learned very quickly about building a culture, about surrounding yourself with talented people. And coming up on 10 years later, we’ve grown from a million dollars in revenue to, it looks like next year we’ll do above eight. So somewhere, we’ve messed up everything you can possibly mess up along the way, learned from all of those mistakes, and have now grown a business that’s successful and continuing to grow.
Question #3; Warning, Curves Ahead
Miles: Question number three tells us about the call you made when you concluded that in 10 years, the landscape for driving is going to be verrrry different.
Brandon: So it was probably two and a half years ago. We work with a lot of high schools around Connecticut. I was at Brien McMahon High School in Norwalk, Connecticut, and I walked out of a meeting at 4:00 pm with the athletic director and the high school principal to talk about driver’s ed. At 4:00 pm, there were a couple of cars parked outside of Brien McMahon High School. And I said, “What’s this?” And he said, “Oh, all of our sports practices let out at 4:00 pm and the kids all take Ubers home. Their parents send an Uber to pick ’em up and then, you know, that’s how they get back home.”
And that was kind of a light bulb moment for me, that everything we’d been reading about, ride sharing and autonomous cars and kind of the future, was no longer the future. It’s happening now. It’s the present. And so it was at that moment that I realized, okay, I’m in a position that I could become Blockbuster, where the thing that I sell is no longer the thing. And so I need to look 10 years out and go, “What is this company look like 10 years from now? Like how do I make my income, what’s the pivot gonna be?” And so it was … it’s been a good year plus of exploring that and figuring out okay, we teach driver’s ed. That’s our basest of products, but at the end of the day, we’re really good at teaching things, right? We have a firm understanding of taking a skill that we have, and giving that skill to a group of 20 to 25 other people.
And so I broadened my vision to more than just driving or teaching driving, but to education in general. And started to look at the education landscape, and started to realize that it’s antiquated. There’s a lot of people trying to find solutions, but really felt that online education and continue to feel that online education is not the solution. I took a couple of online classes and just found a lot of frustration in not being able to raise my hand and ask a question and engage classmates in discussions and the things that I loved so much about my own education wasn’t there for online. So it was this -can we take what we do with kids and driving, and do that in other educational landscapes? So we can teach whatever else there is…
At the same time, I was really studying platforms. Like how did Uber become so successful so quickly? How did Airbnb become successful so quickly? And the vision really started to come together of we’re not a driving school. We’re an education company, and the future of business is going to be driven by technology. So can we be an education technology company that is a platform that is just connecting teachers and students? So we’re creating a place for teachers and students to come together, and that’s … The Next Street today as a driving school, is successful and it will be successful tomorrow and I think a year from now and two years from now, it will continue to be successful. Five years from now, 10 years from now? There’s a question mark next to that, and so we’re preparing to make that pivot.
Question #4: SHRPR, hey That’s Curious
Miles: So why does the word curiosity come, play so heavily into learning and education in the future?
Brandon: So I think the days of going to school for 12 years, go to college for 4 years, find a job and have that job for 35 or 40 years, build your 401K or your pension, retire, move to Florida, have some grandkids and eventually die … are gone. I just don’t think that that’s the way the world is going to work anymore, and we’re seeing it already with millennials and I guess Gen Z as they’re calling it, where people are changing careers five times, seven times, 12 times. They do something but then something else makes them curious, and they go in a different direction.
And so I think the curiosity is going to drive the way that people work, the way that people communicate with each other, the tribes that people join. It’s no longer gonna be one thing for your entire life. It’s going to be okay, I’m gonna do what I’m passionate about. I’m going to do something that makes me feel fulfilled every day, and I recognize that that’s gonna change over time and as it changes, I’m going to need to get new skills. I’m going to need to learn new things in order to be successful in whatever my new passion is. So I firmly believe that curiosity is going to fuel the way that people live and work.
Question #5; Enabling a new pride in advancement
Miles: Is there a new pride in exploring new things and having a few different careers, rather than the “shame” of not having the same job and the same career and the same advancement path for a lifetime?
Brandon: I think so. I work closely with 16-year-old kids in my driver’s ed world, and I talk to a lot of parents. And I find a lot of parents that are kind of fueling that in their own kids, that are now maybe late 40’s, early 50’s, and looking at their own career path and realizing, man, I missed all of these opportunities to go in a different direction and I don’t want the same for my children. So I think that the generation ahead of us is really preparing the generation that’s coming for that and saying, “Look, there’s so much information available to you now. Go get that information and use it and really do something that makes you feel good,” instead of … you know, punching your time card at 9:00 and punching it again at 5:00 and being happy when your paycheck shows up on Friday. It’s really gonna be more about finding happiness.
I think here’s why I’m so excited about the way, is that it has the ability to be transformative for a huge population of people. And I look at the education system that we’ve known forever. You go for 12 years, you go to college for 4. If you can’t afford college, you have to take out loans. You graduate with a massive amount of debt. You spend your adult life trying to pay that debt off. You leave college may be no more ready, no more job ready than when you entered. And that, I feel like there’s just this underbelly right now of people going, “This doesn’t make any sense anymore.” But there’s no alternative for them, and I think with the way, we can create that alternative. We can give people a place, a safe place, to go and be curious and explore.
To go on adventures and find things that they’re passionate about and then learn about those things and learn about themselves in the process, and build a real community and tribe of people that are curious learners that want to find the best version of themselves through education. If we can do that successfully, we’re gonna change the entire world. And that’s a tall order, but that’s my vision for this company, that we’re not doing some little hobby thing. We’re going to change the way the world thinks about learning and education. And that’s not gonna happen overnight.
That’s probably not gonna happen in a short period of time, but the legacy that I want to leave is that we saw this problem and we tackled it head on and hopefully we solve it.
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