And Here’s The Pitch
Thursday, May 30 2019 01:10pm
A recent graduate’s dynamic journey from the College of Business to entrepreneurial success.
By Brooke Preston
Are great business people born or made? For recent Ohio University graduate and Banzo Foods Founder and President of Business Development Taylor Crooks, BBA ‘18, it seems to be some of both.
Raised by entrepreneur parents, the Sandusky, Ohio native followed suit from a young age. As a high school student, Crooks started “a few” businesses, including subscription boxes, label brokering, and Wall of Me: Fathead-like custom vinyl decals personalized to feature anything from customers’ cars to sports portraits. Sometimes these early ventures made a little money. Other times, he explained, “I’d lose maybe a couple hundred, but always learn a lot.”
As high school drew to a close, Crooks began to do some soul searching; ultimately, he chose to put business aside to pursue his other career aspiration, the U.S. Military—a path that would unexpectedly soon lead him to the front door of the Ohio University College of Business. “I only applied to one college, Ohio University. I wanted to be in the military, and OHIO has the best Army ROTC program in the state and probably the region,” said Crooks. He began his Bobcat journey as a political science major.
As a freshman, Crooks’ internal struggle between the military and business world intensified, until he ultimately decided his biggest personal potential lay in the business sector as a civilian; soon, he transferred into the College of Business’s finance program.
Crooks explained that OHIO’s unique Integrated Business Cluster engaged and inspired him to work in and out of the classroom like never before. “It changed my perspective, because you’re creating a company, consulting, learning about an industry, and working with professors like Paul Benedict. It changed my life.”
Paul Benedict, BA ‘96, Associate Director, Center for Entrepreneurship, first met Crooks as a student in the management portion of the cluster two years ago. He remembered, “Right away, it was clear that Taylor was smart and motivated. He asked good questions and was persistent, both important qualities in entrepreneurs.”
As graduation neared, Crooks’s girlfriend Sarah--a business food science student at Ohio State University--became involved with a product development team, pitching a new food product at an academic forum. After receiving promising early feedback, she and Crooks decided to partner on it, with her as developer and him overseeing business development in a new venture called Banzo Foods. After some early bumps in the road (including parting ways with a third business partner), the pair began early development of a new food product. Crooks sought out Paul Benedict for advice.
“I kind of viewed Paul as a mentor. He had a VC background. I would bounce ideas off him and ask him for advice. He said, ‘I think you should go for it [split off from the initial idea to create this new product], Ohio University has a pitch program coming up, you should do it.’ Within a week, we had a prototype ready for that pitch competition.”
The product, an allergy-free nut-butter alternative made with chickpeas, was dubbed Beannut Butter. (Crooks acknowledged that the brand name proved less clear when spoken, as the word “nut” confused some customers--a recent rebrand to Yippea was undertaken to address this.)
Athens-based serial entrepreneur Ben Lachman, BSCS ’05, was a judge at that competition, and explained how pitch expos generally work. “Pitch competitions serve to hone business ideas and allow the best ideas to bubble to the top. At last spring’s competition there were ideas that ranged from machine learning for cancer treatments, to outdoor recreation, to Banzo’s bean butter. Judges score ideas on multiple dimensions including their likelihood and ability to go to market.” Those who win or place also typically win money, which can range from a few hundred to many thousands of dollars to help seed their business.
Like many start-ups, Banzo Foods learned by trial and error, iterating and developing the concept on an accelerated schedule in order to participate in the Ohio University Student Expo. Laughed Crooks, “I didn’t know where to source anything or what anything was called. We purchased other products, emptied, washed and sanitized them, and applied our own printed labels. It was an awful pitch, it did not look or taste good, our business strategy was very flawed. But they saw we were serious and passionate, and eager and willing to learn more. ” Crooks’ efforts paid off with a second place finish, in addition to much needed encouragement, feedback and networking.
Bolstered by that success, the pair continued to refine the product’s formulation and production and began selling it at Columbus’s North Market Farmers Market in June 2018, just after Crooks graduated and accepted a day job as a financial analyst (which he has since left to focus on this business’s growth full-time, temporarily moving back in with his family to save on living expenses).
Demand immediately surpassed supply. Crooks sub-leased a commercial kitchen after-hours, running production batches after long work days that often stretched throughout the night as they attempted to streamline relatively clunky formulations and processes. He remembered, “The first time we did production it took us 14 hours; we almost missed set up at the farmer’s market. We averaged just under two jars an hour. It was bad.”
The company soon fine-tuned its production process and is now focused on selling at the farmer’s market and scaling to the next level (the product can be found in Weiland’s Market in Clintonville; open purchase orders from a dozen stores will be filled as soon as scaling tasks are complete). The pair also continues to participate in student pitch competitions nationwide, winning two more regional competitions and placing well in two national/international competitions, including a Top 4 finish at the Baylor Business Plan Competition and a coveted finalist spot at a Princeton-sponsored competition. As a non-student, however, Crooks is now restricted to aiding in preparation only.
Said Crooks, “My biggest regret is not doing this earlier in college, which is the best place to start a business. I did not realize the amount of resources the college provides through professors, pitch competitions and entrepreneurial centers. You have resources, mentors, free time, and people who want to work with you just because you’re a student. Now we have all these competitions, and I’m not eligible, I can’t pitch, I can help make it, but can’t do anything.”
“My advice to anyone who’s trying to become an entrepreneur is ‘don’t sit around and wait.’ Have confidence and start now. Don’t be afraid of failure. You just learn as you go.” He noted that Ohio University does offer several clubs and even a seed fund just for student-run businesses, but encourages current students to go further and establish a club for start-ups.
Lachman agreed. “I think it’s important that students from all over the university have this kind of space for multidisciplinary projects to grow out of the creativity found in all the different departments and colleges.” For instance, OHIO’s CoLab (formerly called C-Suite) serves as a student hub, connecting them with creative, innovative and entrepreneurial ideas, spaces, people and resources.
Benedict added that Ohio University’s College of Business mimics entrepreneurship’s learn-by-doing nature, “In all of our classes, students get to roll their sleeves up and try things. Even when an idea might not pan out, there’s tremendous value in learning from those setbacks. Whether in entrepreneurship or established businesses, victory goes to those who can tolerate (or even embrace) ambiguity, think critically, communicate effectively, and persevere. [Crooks’] product isn’t the most technologically sophisticated thing ever made, but he identified a real problem for people and set out to solve it. Every time he gets in front of customers and they try it, they buy. It’s delicious. On top of that, Taylor’s just a good guy – the kind of person who’s easy to root for. I’ve got a ton of respect for Taylor and consider him a friend.” He noted that in addition to Crooks, a number of other recent COB grads are experiencing exciting entrepreneurial success. “There are too many to name them all, but a couple at Apple and Axios come to mind. Another is leading projects at a major supplier to Space X.”
As for Crooks, what began as a more financially-motivated project has deepened into something far more meaningful for both him and his customers. “At the first farmer’s market we met people and parents with actual food allergies because their kids couldn’t have nuts, and realized the impact we had. Just hearing them talk about the struggle these people have, they became our ‘why’,” he noted.
“The people you meet far outweigh the money.”