Welcome podcast episode #27 of The Mobile Alabama business podcast with Grant Zarzour. My name is Marcus Neto. I own Blue Fish Design Studio. We're a digital marketing and web design company located downtown on Dauphin Street. I'm the host of Mobile Alabama Business podcast where we talk to local entrepreneurs and business owners about their business and how they got started. I'd like to thank you for spending time with us today.
In today's episode I sit down with Grant Zarzour from the Fuse Project. Fuse Project is a local non-profit dedicated to projects benefiting children in our area. In this episode you'll hear Grant talk about the results they're seeing in the programs they have been invested in. You'll also hear why Grant who is currently in residency at USA decided to start a nonprofit. You'll hear him talk about the awesome dragon boat races they hold Five River Delta every year. Fuse Project really believes in go big or go home. So let's dive right in with Grant Zarzour.
Today I am sitting down with Grant Zarzour. Grant is the founder of Fuse Project. Welcome to the podcast Grant.
Grant: I'm excited to be here. I appreciate the invitation. It's exciting.
Marcus: Yeah. I have to say I am actually very much looking forward to this because I am very excited about the stories that you've told me over the last couple of months as we've kind of gotten to know each other at different settings. I do want to touch on those but to start out for those that may not be familiar with the Fuse Project, how would you describe it to them?
Grant: Well you know We started in 2012 as a group of eight young professionals that were looking for a way to give back to the community and specifically for kids. There are some great non-profits that exists but we decided, why don't we make our own? How hard would that be? We look into all the details and find out it's not terribly difficult to start a 501C3.
Our mantra is, We want to make a difference in a child's life with an immediate local impact project. There are a lot of 501C3s that maybe need to kickstart or have projects that they wish someone would come fund because they feel like the impact could be transformational but for whatever reason don't have access to the money. The Fuse Project seeks out those 501C3s or group of individuals that go, "Man if we only had money for this it would be great for kids in Mobile and Baldwin County.
Marcus: I know you well enough so tell people a little bit about you. I mean so you did you grow up in this area?
Grant: I did Born and raised in Mobile.
Marcus: So you went to school in the area? Where did you go to undergrad and I know you're going to tell us about your current status and all that other stuff.
Grant: Yeah so I went to St Paul's high school in mobile. Then went to the University of Georgia which we used to have a football team but we were actually declared dead on Saturday against Alabama. Oh I shouldn't use dates on
Marcus: It's all good. This will air in the future so those of you that are listening it may not have been this past weekend
Grant: Georgia will probably have lost every weekend so it probably works for anytime. Went to Georgia and then was lucky enough to get accepted into medical school in South Alabama and actually deferred my acceptance for a year. I called and said, "Thanks so much for accepting me but I want to take a year off and travel around the world", And shockingly they said, "Yeah, okay we'll let you do it". I said, "Really, you'll let me do it?" I got one of those big maps that you get and you put on your wall and just started almost throwing darts at places that I really wanted to go. Stayed with people in their homes for two and three days all over the world through a fantastic organization called Servas that I read a two sentence blurb about in a travel book it really made the experience. So many of asked, "How did you pull that off, the trip around the world or are starting a nonprofit?" The trip around the world I bought the plane tickets that's it. You just go. You just pull the trigger and go.
The same thing happen with out nonprofit. My wife and I actually founded Fuse Project in 2012. She is from Atlanta originally, we met at Georgia and is now down here in Mobile working here. We're a team very much so in the continued success the Fuse Project. We have a great board with eight other people and we actually have a full time employee now, an executive director. The sky's the limit for the future of Fuse Project.
Marcus: Right. So having given us your back story, for somebody that has as much as you have going on, for you to have that philanthropic side where does that come from? What's the mindset of somebody that says, "Well I don't want to just give" because it's really easy to just write a check sometimes, right. I don't want to just give. I actually want to start a 501C3. I want to start a nonprofit. I want to organize events that are going to generate revenue that we're going to be able to apply. We're going to go out and seek the people that need those funds and then we're going to actually keep up with them and make sure that the funds are making an impact. I think you're crazy but-
Grant: I appreciate that, I really do. A big insult would be to call me normal or ordinary. I think the answer your question is a lot of us lack perspective. I was recently in an interview for a fellowship after I finished my residency I will do a fellowship. They said to me, "Grant describe to me a challenge that you've overcome in your life", And I look down for twenty seconds or so longer than you're supposed to look down and not respond.
I finally looked up and said, "You know I've been lucky enough to travel to six continents and forty something countries and many of them third world countries and see real challenges. I can't trivialize anything that's ever happened to me and compare it to a real challenge. I've never had a challenge in my life, I'm one of the most blessed people you've ever met." And there are a lot of people like that in our community. I honestly think that when you get the perspective of, 'my goodness ... How lucky am I, how blessed am I.' If the good Lord given you some abilities and talents maybe the to rally people behind a cause it's your job to use them. So for whatever reason I was given maybe a few talents in order to round people up and fake it till you make it with our nonprofit which we've done a lot of now. If there was some competition on who had the most musical ability or creative they're drawing I'd be last. So I don't have everything I really don't but for some reason this is just my jam.
Marcus: No I just think it's really cool man. I really do so hats off to you because the next question that I have for you to kind of foreshadow is tell us about some of the impact that Fuse Project has had. I just think knowing what some of those stories are, I just think it's phenomenal that you've stepped out because I think Mobile is a better place for what you and your wife have done in Fuse Project. I'm really excited about getting involved.
Grant: Well I appreciate that very much. Our net revenue I think this year and again in 2012 our net revenue was probably fifteen thousand dollars. In this year 2015 we'll be two hundred fifty thousand or somewhere around there. In 2016 the goal be to three fifty to four hundred by 2020 it's got to be a million dollars a year. Someone thought I was misquoted in saying that they thought I meant a million dollars total by 2020 but no our goal is a million dollars a year by 2020. All ten board members have full time jobs and we have one full time employee that we just hired a few months ago. We're going to hire more people in the future. Things are going really well and we've got some big plans and but the biggest takeaway is all these projects in these kids are right there ready to receive help. The projects in the communities ready to support them, they just need someone to take the reins and luckily we've got a great group.
Marcus: Well I think it was Seth [Golden 00:08:40] who said, "If you don't set big hairy audacious goals for yourself" and I could be attributing that to the wrong person but "If you don't set those big hairy audacious goals for yourself then you'll never even come close to it". The higher the goal you set, even if you don't make the million and I'm not saying that you won't but even if you didn't make the million by 2020 and you did three quarters of a million-
Marcus: I mean-
Grant: Exactly we're all doing something.
Marcus: You're doing something phenomenal.
Grant: I saw the other day that was interesting to me is how many days you have in your life but if you're lucky you have twenty eight thousand days.
Grant: Just think about that I mean we're thirty's already, how many days already gone?
Grant: How many days are left? Then my line of work people's days get numbered very quickly, a car accident or some horrible accident. So each day you really need to at the end of the day put your head on the pillow going nothing more I could've accomplished. I spent some great time with my family, did a good job at work furthering my career and help give back to the community I live in. Maybe a little less on things that aren't focusing toward those three things.
Marcus: Well before we move on to a little bit more about you specifically, why don't you tell us like a story or two about some of the impact that Fuse has had in this area.
Grant: We have a great project that we're currently doing right now, a middle school project in Mobile County. There are twenty one middle schools and it's modeled after a program that Denton Middle School started in 2012. They acknowledge that they had a bad violence issue in their middle schools. Twenty five percent of middle schoolers at Denton Middle School were had been suspended at one point or another during the year. One in four, I mean that's-
Marcus: That's crazy numbers-
Grant: I can't fathom.
Marcus: Especially a middle school because I mean you expect some level of that in a high school were you know-
Grant: Right, if you lose these kids a middle school, they have no future. They have no legal way to make money the rest of their life and these are the kids that will chop away at the quality of life of your community.
Well what they found after starting this after school project where they took twenty kids and said you can't come to school anymore until 3:30. From 3:30 to 7:30 you're going to come to a computer lab and one teacher's going to teach you. This poor teacher who volunteers to teach these twenty quote unquote "problem children". You take away the environment of all the other children and allow them to focus on their studies. You can imagine if your kid learning your multiplication tables in the five and you don't get the five. Well tomorrow is the sixes and then it's the sevens and so now you're going to sit in the back of the class, you're disinterested. You're going to cut up with the person next to you and try to take them down with you because you don't understand what's going on in the front of the classroom. So it's a vicious cycle.
Well this after school class what they found was these kids aren't bad kids. They aren't problem kids. They're kids who learn a different way. They need a little extra time in some areas and they're faster in other areas that we didn't know. So they have a computer based learning system and long story short at the end of the year, nineteen of the twenty kids graduated to go the next grade on the same standards as the regular kids and they go back in the way of classroom. The suspicion rate went from twenty five percent two months later after the program started just two months it was four percent.
Marcus: Four percent.
Grant: I mean unbelievable exponential results. One of the kids in the class who were one of these kids because violence on campus and causing fights, became a cheerleader at the school the next year. We copied that because they didn't have the funding to continue it, much less bring it to any of the other school middle schools in Mobile County. Like I said there're twenty one. So we brought it to Scarborough last year and twenty three kids were helped and twenty three kids graduated to go the next grade. You talk to a girl named Jasmine that her average was in the thirty's, averages in the thirty's and you say ... And she was fifteen in seventh grade. It was like her last chance that she didn't pass they were going to have to like tell or she can't do school anymore because she was way too old.
Marcus: Aged out.
Grant: So her averages in this class went to the seventy's. No, she's not making straight A's but now she can see a path where she can graduate high school and have a future her life. You talk to her and she's the sweetest girl in the whole world. She said they were just too many distractions at school and she got frustrated. Now with this program she has a whole new lease on life. So we brought that program again this year to [Pillingsville 00:13:20] school, another middle school all in DIP. We live near the water down here Dolphin Island Park is the school where the schools located we're currently at. If you go into middle school which is probably a mile from the water, maybe two, if you go in there and you ask them how many of you have ever seen Mobile Bay? Let's say it's two miles from the door of the middle school. How many of you have seen by a show of hands, half of the hands will not go up.
Marcus: And that says blows my mind. When you told us that story I just couldn't fathom. As a middle schooler to live two miles from some of the most beautiful water-
Grant: Yeah and their whole life is within a half mile of the school, the convenience store, and their house, that's it. These kids are in our community and we need to step up to help them. It's not rocket science. It really isn't. Fuse Project is excited to be doing it.
Marcus: I think it's phenomenal. I'm excited about your goals for raising revenue because I think you all are approaching it in a smart way. You mentioned as part of the event that I was at that you only want to invest and projects where you have a tangible measurable result at the end of it. You're looking for places where you can actually fund pretty much the whole kit and caboodle.
Grant: Right. We just want to make sure we're putting our money in a good position where it can actually be measured. That your dollar that was donated to Fuse Projects did this. We don't love projects where it's we need a million dollars and we want Fuse Project to give twenty five grand. We can't measure what are twenty five grand did there but if we take twenty five granted and get it to the middle school and do that after school project we're totally responsible for it. So it's just another way of being transparent to our donors so that they know my hard earned dollar went somewhere valuable.
Marcus: Yeah. No I think it's phenomenal. Is there an area of Fuse Project that you're putting a lot of effort into?
Grant: I think our biggest need right now is organizational structure. I mentioned we have an executive director now is doing a fantastic job. Adrian Golden who we got from the private sector. She really brings with her for-profit goals and a for-profit mentality of this has to be done, X's and O's, things are written down, lists are crossed off and things don't fall through the cracks. Not that nonprofits don't have that too. It just is when you're in a for-profit environment the results matter. We're trying to really mimic that kind of mentality. She's doing a great job. The biggest thing we have now is the iron is so hot for Fuse Project. We have so many great things happening that we probably need another person. We just hired her August 1st. I think getting organized to make sure this can become a well oiled machine that can run without me being present or Bree being present and kind of take on its own I guess be its own being or revolve. That's the best thing for the health of Fuse Projects.
Once we get everything organized then we'll be able to get to those goals. We're also working on this major co-working space that is going to try to bring sixty different members of diverse group of nonprofits under one roof and be a co-working slash incubator space. Downtown Mobile we're partnered with the city of Mobile with the Jake [Peavy 00:17:03] foundation to help make that a reality. It's very exciting that won't just be a kids project that will be for any nonprofit that helps anyone to come under that roof and pay below market rent. Be in a fantastic space that we're completely redesigning and having constructed. It's a blank space right now that's going to be very well centrally located.
We're going to help all non-profits get to the next level and it's not more smiles and happy times and handshakes. It's increase in ten percent enough revenue in the first twelve months for every nonprofit that's there. We're going to do that by having bi-monthly executive director meetings where you say what's working for you, what's not working for you'll, let's share some ideas and help everyone else figure out some things. There's all sorts of examples of nonprofits who have a events in October. October is a beautiful months down here. Thursday nights is the night to have your non-profit event whether three or four or five each Thursday. They're all competing with each other and what if they came together, five nonprofits and said, "We're going to have a big event on October whatever that Thursday night And we're going to leverage-
Marcus: Blow it out.
Grant: Blow it out, we're going to leverage all of our networks to come to this one event and we're going to leverage what you do well in your nonprofit and what you do well yours and we're going to bring our best practices together. Instead of struggling to get the overhead covered and then your executive director barely makes enough money to pay the rent and is always looking for a new job. Then they find that new job so now the nonprofit has to hire someone else to pay them peanuts again and oh by the way the executive director the just left didn't write anything down because he or she didn't have any time to write anything down.
Grant: So it's a vicious spinning of the wheel in mud type thing for nonprofits. We need to get it to where they can earn more money so they can pay there's executive directors more money so that they'll stay there for more than fifteen minutes and write something down. And get tangible results for all of their causes. While Fuse Project is focused on kids projects this popped up as an opportunity we jumped at it to be able to maybe take the lead in creating this co-working space. We already have I think seventy five percent of the spot spoken for and we haven't even really ... We get city council approval fully tomorrow.
Marcus: Okay I was going to say I know you had a meeting last week I believe were that was kind of being reviewed so right sure if you've heard anything yet or not.
Grant: Usually anything new they want to think about it for a week.
Marcus: It's a no brainer.
Grant: Well it is. It really is. We're investing large six figure sum-
Grant: Into the building and with that comes some risk for Fuse Project but again let's go. Let's throw it on the table and see how it goes. Let's go down a big ball of fire or let's go you know you got those big goals like you're talking about but with as much support as we have it is very unlikely that it's not it's going to do anything less than the amazingly successful.
Marcus: I think that's really cool. If you were talking to somebody and I know that you're in the nonprofit world but I still view you as an entrepreneur so if you were talking to someone that wanted to be an entrepreneur what's the one bit of wisdom that you and impart to them?
Grant: That's a good question. I do consider myself an entrepreneur. I have some other side jobs and gig that have been entrepreneurial. I started to Go Kickball League in Mobile which has a thousand players in Baldwin county. It's a very much a ... I'm the market operator for the area but I've got a few other projects are working on too. It's one of those I think I just don't sleep and have a five month old too.
I think the biggest thing I would tell budding entrepreneur is to research what you're about to do way more than you think you need too. I think to many people jump in to what they think is the next big thing without really knowing about it. If you think you've spent enough time researching double it. Turn over stones you didn't think of. Contact other people who have done it or done something similar in another part of the country or the world. If you don't get the amazingly positive feedback, this isn't the right thing for you to do in your twenty's or thirty's in riskier financial status the rest of your life. You need to have with your limited amount of extra income to start this entrepreneurial thing, it's needs to be a home run.
After you've done all that research then you need to find ten people that don't know each other that you trust to be smart and will give you objective feedback and need to pitch on the idea. You need to say I'm here because I value your opinion and I need you to help me understand this is a good idea or not. They can't be and I use this analogy like when you go to the restaurant and the food's horrible and it's the first time you've been there and then the manager comes up and says how is the food? What do you say? You look him in the eye and say, "It was great". You don't want to cause a confrontation. You're not coming back to the restaurant ever again but wouldn't it be way more helpful to that restaurant if you said, "You know what this steak really was overcooked and you said I couldn't substitute sweet potato fries for french fries. Why on earth would you say", ... That happened recently. My point is-
Marcus: There's a little story there.
Grant: Yeah there is. There is, the customer should ... Anyway But I just feel like entrepreneurs will rush into a decision and go I got to do it, I gotta go I gotta go. No. Step back and make a major effort into researching because this is a big deal whatever you're about to do. It's going to take up at least a lot of your time which is precious.
Marcus: What are some other resources that you found helpful and specific many people will mention my books that they found extremely hopeful that maybe they brought in the last six months. Or I would even open it up to if they're outside organizations that have been helpful with giving you information or helped educate you or whatever.
Grant: A couple things that I think about there. So there's a great book that I read called Endurance by Ernest Shackleton who was a early nineteen hundreds explorer wanted to be the first to traverse Antarctica. My seventh continent is Africa. I have not been Africa but I was lucky enough to go to Antarctica a few years ago.
Grant: And read his book about the trials and tribulations they have. It's a quick read. It's on Amazon and it's not expensive, Endurance by Ernest Shackleton. You will never complain about anything that happens to you again after reading that book. They kept meticulous diaries of every day that they went to. They were stranded in the ice and trying to get seals to live and they're in twenty one foot boats trying to traverse Drake's Passage which is the roughest water in the world, which is between the tip of South America and Antarctica. I can attest that it's very rough And it Like we had a twenty five foot sea gale when storm all that kind of stuff all the way down there. So Endurance is a book that I would read.
A TED talk I would watch is Dan Polodo who's a really neat nonprofit mind who will extrapolate that whole concept of acting like a for-profit. So find that TED talk on Dan Polodo and read Endurance. The other thing when you're young or really at any age people are flattered when you ask for their advice. I all the time will invite people to watch or get a drink or let me come at a time to your office when convenient to fix your brain on X Y or Z.
Marcus: That's the whole reason why we start of this podcast kind of. I enjoy that aspect of ... I just asked you a simple question and now I'm going to have to scribble down the notes to go out and buy the book and listen to the TED talk.
Grant: Bring a legal pad, bring a pen and shut up and listen. Let them tell you what their suggestions are. People who've gone down roads you hope to go down have so much knowledge they can share with you on what not to do because they've done it and learned the hard way. You can skip five years ahead by just listening to other people. Go ask an old person to lunch who wishes to God somebody would talk to him and ask him about business or anything. You're going to learn something amazing. I feel like everybody this day and age thinks I'll figure it out on my own, I'll Google it. It's not all on Google. It really isn't. It really is worthwhile to find some smart people and ask him to lunch. You'd be amazed they're all sorts of examples of cold calling or cold Emailing CEO's of businesses. They'll read it and they'll respond. Guess what if they don't respond E-mail him again and again and again and they'll go this guy is persistent.
Marcus: He gets it.
Grant: He gets it. I'll drink a beer with him after work and I'll give him fifteen minutes. That's always only asked for fifteen minutes and you're going to take an hour but ask for fifteen minutes in the email. Don't say can I have two hours of your after ... No, ask for fifteen minutes and then make him cancel a few things because he's too in on the meeting and loves talking about whatever your topic.
Marcus: Yeah. That is true. I think most people that are in this and by in this I mean most people that are business owners or entrepreneurs, if they see something in somebody if they see that they have the tenacity or if they have the real desire to learn, they're willing to invest that time. That thirty or forty five minutes but the fifteen minutes barometer is just to make sure that there's a connection there and if there's no connection after fifteen minutes-
Marcus: You say a few kind words and you exit. If you know if it's somebody that you've got a real connection with then you're going to continue on and-
Grant: That can be a mentor for the rest of your life that will open doors never you never thought possible.
Marcus: Yeah, you never know. So what do you like to do in your free time? Do you have any hobbies? Free time, ha!
Grant: Yeah I used to play golf. Now I play golf four times a year but really I'm not upset about it. My golf game is about the same it will always be. I have a five month old now so a lot of free time is switched there. I will tell you first you're like oh gosh the child, all my extracurricular stuff ... Man it's great. Having a kid is really awesome. Your perspectives change but you're not upset about it. You really aren't. It just puts life in better perspective. He's kind of turned in a lot of that but I will say that my wife and I really still do get a sitter and go out to dinner or go out to an event all the time. We'll strap Wyatt on the front of us like Carlos in hang over and go on out on the town. We're not going to let that kind of thing just change where we stay inside all the time.
Grant: So anyway that we can help the community or get involved it's a really fun Way for us but occasionally I'll get on that golf course again.
Marcus: There you go. So give us an idea what an average day looks like for you. Now I recognize that maybe a little bit difficult with swing shifts and stuff like that at the hospital. Is there anything that you kind of like if you were given a set schedule where you get to wake up at this time every day and so on and so forth, I mean what would that look like? You get out the have a cup of coffee? Do you read a book? Do you go work out? Do you ... I mean what is that-
Grant: Well my dream scenario would be I'd wake up at five and have three hours of quiet time to get all sorts of stuff done. Reading, working on whatever project that I ... I'm a big believer in not checking email until nine or ten or eleven in the morning. Use those hours early when e-mails aren't flowing in and people are not expecting a response to really get some major stuff going. For me my brain works best in the morning. So that would be for Kickstart on researching that next entrepreneurial item I wanted to do or reading a book or whatever. Then afternoons is when I always try to schedule meetings or get togethers or that sit down with that business leader or someone has a perspective that I'm hoping to get.
Like you said my current day now is I'm at the hospital at 5:45 in the morning and operate until the mid to late afternoon sometimes later. Then come home and spend the family time and then do some studying. Then some Fuse Project work and then go to bed and wake up the next day and do it all over again. I think it's far as ... The biggest takeaway for anyone is find when your brain works best for certain things. As far as remembering or learning that needs to be protected time. Whether that's morning midday or afternoon and late at night, you need to find a way to turn the phone off and utilize when your brain is most perceptive.
Marcus: You know that's really a smart point because I have found over the years that that afternoon section is what works best for me especially if I'm coding. Which I don't do a whole lot of anymore but if I have any projects I try and do those projects from say one to four and that's usually when my brain functions best. So it's really good.
Marcus: So tell us where people can find more information about Fuse Project if they want to and we didn't mention the Dragon Boat Races but you all are known for this crazy idea of having Dragon Boat Races Down at Five Rivers. Is that coming up soon?
Grant: June 11th we've got to date. June 11th 2016. It's always the second Saturday after Memorial Day. The first Saturday you're still at the beach. The second Saturday you go and well we just went to the beach we're staying in town this weekend what's there to do, Oh there's a Dragon Boat Race. In June down here there's not as much going on. It's like this spring time where festivals are plentiful. Dragon Boat is our biggest event right now but we have plans for the future to make it where we have multiple events that are on that level. Our mantra is if it's not Wow! it's not worth doing. That's a Tom Peters quote which is another great book. Tom Peters is a really good role model for a lot of us out there.
Yeah the Dragon Boat Race we just researched nonprofit or really any type of event that raised a lot of money. We didn't invent Dragon Boat we saw other people doing it and copied it and on our first year without any full time employees we raised one hundred grand. Then last year we had full time employee for like six or eight weeks we raised one hundred fifty. Now this year We already have a title sponsor for next June which we've never had before. We're going to raise two hundred twenty five thousand dollars next year and that'll max out around three thirty or so in the next few years. We already have fifteen boats signed up for next year. We're currently eighty nine months out right now. Last year we had fifteen boats when we were two months out. So we're seven months ahead of where we've been in the past.
So that's really exciting but we don't Fuse Project to be able to be described in a sentence. It needs to be a paragraph or a couple paragraphs. Dragon Boat's going to be a part of that but it's certainly not going to be the only part. If anybody wants to learn more about Dragon Boat or how to get involved with us, FuseProject.org, F-U-S-E Project.org has our information there. We actually have a great website but we're redoing it and making a new and to make it even better because that's your first impression for a lot of people learning about you and it needs to be Wow! Wow is a word we use all the time. So we're very committed to it.
Marcus: Very cool. Well I want to thank you again for coming on the podcast. To wrap up any final thoughts or comments you'd like to share? Anything we didn't cover?
Grant: First I'm just excited to be on here. I think that for anyone listening for the entrepreneurial aspect maybe of things, I can't stress enough the willingness or the just I guess taking the initiative to go after your dream. Whether it be to travel the world or start your own company. Be willing to fall flat on your face. Read biographies on the most successful people in the world and find out that all of them fell on their face at some point and thought all was lost-
Marcus: And sometimes multiple times.
Grant: And sometimes multiple multiple times. So don't be afraid to go after it but only after you've done all that research.
Marcus: Awesome. Well I appreciate your willingness to sit with me and share your journey as an entrepreneur. It's been really great talking to you.
Grant: Excellent. Thanks for having me.