Robert Cruess of Zeronox: “Everything starts at home”

Everything starts at home, then on to your community, and then on to the world. If you try and reverse that order then you will quickly become overwhelmed and despair. If you want to make the world a better place start by being a good father, mother, wife, husband, boss, or employee. The ripple effect […]

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Everything starts at home, then on to your community, and then on to the world. If you try and reverse that order then you will quickly become overwhelmed and despair. If you want to make the world a better place start by being a good father, mother, wife, husband, boss, or employee. The ripple effect will exponentially grow the good.

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robert Cruess.

Robert Cruess is an original Founder and the President of ZeroNox. Mr. Cruess is an entrepreneur and businessman, having obtained a business degree from the Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2009, and also holds a real estate license and mortgage license. Mr. Cruess’ experience and expertise include starting and running several businesses, sales, product development, real estate, loans, youth outreach, and community growth. Mr. Cruess’ business contributions include patents for products he has designed, starting multiple local businesses, and doing multi-million dollars in real estate transactions through his real estate investment companies: Rico Property Group, Invia Investments, and HCS Investments.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

I grew up in humble beginnings in a family of 9 in Spokane, WA. I was the 6th child of 7, 4 boys and 3 girls. My parents were strict and had to work multiple jobs and struggled financially during most of my childhood. Clothes were always hand-me-downs, Denny’s was considered a fancy restaurant, and vacation meant loading up the minivan with sleeping bags and staying with family in another state. As a kid I never realized we were poor. We were always provided for and my parents instilled virtues like discipline, hard work, faith, and self-worth that were instrumental in my development as an entrepreneur.

My first job was in the second grade doing a paper route. Our family had 4 paper routes and I would wake up around 2am in the morning half the week to help deliver papers. Competition was and still is very important to my family. We were always playing sports and board games. I was a good athlete and a good student. In High School I was first team all-league in Football, Valedictorian and Top Boy for Academics, and the Class Clown.

My family had moved to Porterville, CA when I was in the 5th grade, which is where I still live today and where I would meet my future wife. We did not start dating until I was a Senior in High School and She was a sophomore in Jr. College. We went off to Ohio at the same time to College and got married just before my Senior Year when I was 20 years old. After a few different jobs I began a career in real estate doing home loans which allowed us to finance my entrepreneurial ideas, which would eventually lead to me helping co-found ZeroNox. We also started a family and currently have 5 children ages 1–10.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

If I had to choose one it would be “The best version of yourself never let what you want now get in the way of what you want most”. Instant gratification is never as fulfilling as the struggle persevered.

My strategy in life and business is always the long game. I grew up not having much materially, so when I got older I never felt a great need for material possessions since I never had much anyway and so I was able to divert those finances one would normally spend on those things to my business ideas. It has allowed me to fuel my entrepreneurialism and creative ideas.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The book “Finding True Happiness” by Fulton Sheen. Two of the main ideas that really resonated with me were understanding that happiness is a choice, and that contentment isn’t found in how much we have but in our disposition to what we have.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

I was at my cousin’s house discussing how utility companies in CA could shut off our electricity at their discretion, for instance if there are high winds in the area, and this was disconcerting to us.

I remember when I was a kid, we lived through the notorious ice storm in Spokane, WA where it rained during the day and then froze that night which caused trees to start snapping like toothpicks, taking down power poles with them. Over half the City lost its power and it was freezing outside. It was the worst storm of that nature in the area in the past 100 years.

Our house was out of power and my entire family, at night, was in sleeping backs huddled together in the living room around the fire using candles as light. We had a huge tree in our backyard that had fallen and was sitting on our roof, luckily it had not broken through. Our electricity was cut off for almost a week. I have experienced firsthand the need for auxiliary power options in case of emergencies.

So, in talking with my cousin, that evening, we were discussing battery backup systems because he had just purchased a Tesla Powerwall. I had started ZeroNox about a year prior and we were putting Lithium batteries into forklifts.

This was the catalyst for me to come up with a better battery backup system that could also be mobile, and the IRON VAULT and MULE was the result of that.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

I tell people that I am going to run out of time before I run out of ideas, which might be true of many people.

What holds most people back in taking a good idea and translating it into something is risk-tolerance and courage.

Calculated risks are the lifeblood of innovation.

Those who are too afraid to fail will never give themselves the opportunity to succeed. Those with great ideas and abilities will be passed by someone with the courage to actually take the risk.

As John Wayne put it: “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway”.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

One of my first ideas, and really the genesis of my entrepreneurship, was when I was in college. I developed an idea for a system I called “Community Link”. It was a way to connect a nonprofit to a donor to a business. The idea was that a nonprofit would hand out cards the size of a credit card to its donors that could be scanned by local businesses and the local businesses would give 3% of the total sale of goods from the donor to the nonprofit. It was a win for everyone. I called it “Community Link” because it was a way for the community to effectively support one another. I shared the idea with one of my professors who was not very impressed, tried calling WalMart to see if they would be interested but got no real response. So, I figured it was a bad idea and moved on. That summer while I was back home in California, I was in line at SaveMart and right in front of me another shopper scanned a “S.H.A.R.E.S” card. I stopped them and asked what it was, and I learned it was the exact idea I had with “Community Link”, except someone who had brought it all the way to market.

Some people would be dejected by learning their idea had been successfully carried out by someone else, but jealousy is the tribute mediocrity gives to genius

. Seeing my idea a reality instilled in me the confidence I needed to create and develop more. If you have a good idea, see how far you can take it, and do not worry if someone has already done it.

If they have already done it then congratulate yourself because your idea has been validated and go work on your next idea.

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

I graduated college in 2009, which was one of the worst times to be out looking for a job.

At the time I wanted to do some sort of Sports Management, but no one was hiring. My wife and I moved back to California and we were both looking for jobs. One of my close friends, dad- Rob Taylor, was an exceptional mentor.

I remember telling him I was looking for a job in business and the advice he gave me was to go do door-to-door sales for a while.

He said that if I could do that then I would be able to do anything. I followed his advice and took a job in Sacramento selling marketing vouchers door to door. You had to get 100 “No’s” to get the 6 “Yes’s”.

Being able to take someone telling me “No” 100 times a day gave me thick skin and plenty of fortitude. I have been successful at sales ever since, and Rob was right. If you can be successful at door-to-door sales you can handle anything!

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed in stores? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

After coming up with the idea at my cousin’s house I came home and drew a rough sketch of the idea. I then went and shared it with my team at ZeroNox. Our design guy was able to turn it into something much more aesthetically pleasing and our engineer was able to design the internal electrical system in a way that would actually work outside a sketchpad.

There were multiple iterations we went through, and we brought in other people in our network and in the industry to get their opinions and suggestions. When we recognized the product design as ready for commercialization, we brought in a patent attorney.

Luckily, the other co-founder of ZeroNox happens to be a lawyer so he had a trustworthy associate to send it to. The patent attorney combed through our designs and requested additional explanations and diagrams to insure we were sending in the strongest case we could, while at the same time conducted a prior patent search to make sure we were not infringing on anything current.

Once he was satisfied, he sent off the patent application and we received our provisional patent.

The part of this process that I can not emphasize enough is bringing in a team to help you untangle.

Assess, and organize your idea. I am not an engineer, artist, or electrician. Those experts were needed to bring my idea all the way through. You are only as strong as your team, so make sure you surround yourself with strong people.

A great quarterback is worthless if he does not have a receiver to throw to or a lineman to block for him. Asking for referrals from people you trust is imperative.

Recognize what you are good at and what you need help with and go and find the support you need from people you trust.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The first rough sketch I made of the IRON VAULT Battery System had the auxiliary removable generator in the middle of the box. In my head that seemed cool from a design standpoint. Then, when I had our engineer look at it he laughed and told me I could not do it that way because it was totally impractical from an engineering design standpoint. The lesson here is that looks and practicality are two different talents and so make sure you have someone accountable on both ends.

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

All the stages are challenging and exciting. I do not have a “tipping point” to identify. The takeaway I would give regarding this process is that it is a process. Most things in life that are worthwhile take time, energy, and overcoming obstacles and this is no different.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

My personal experience is that someone telling you something versus you actually going through something is much less valuable. I am the type of person that has to learn from his own mistakes, but there is no better learning than doing and taking the risk. To answer your question, there is nothing I wish someone had told me before I invented the IRON VAULT and MULE because the process was a fluid one and I was talking with people throughout the process. It is like paying for school to learn how to start a business.

You could just start your own business and at the end of the day you are out the same amount of money but in one situation you have experience and the other you have some ideas.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Identify what you are not good at and use your network to find those that can help your idea where it is lacking. Running a good idea by good people is pivotal. When looking for people to get advice from, start with industry experts and end users.

Do not be afraid of criticism, but just because someone critiques your idea does not mean you have to change it in that way.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Since I have never used a consultant for any of my ideas, I cannot opine much on the option other than to reiterate the importance of testing your idea through good people. My experience has been finding those people through my own network, but if one cannot find the right people that way, then perhaps a consultant would be prudent.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

It certainly depends on the situation, especially how much capital is needed, but I would choose bootstrapping as long as you can.

In our case with ZeroNox we were able to bootstrap along very successfully until we hit an inflection point where we needed a large amount of capital.

Personally, I love that it is our friends, family, and community that financed us to this point, but it also comes alot more pressure. If you mess up with venture capital, you lose an investor. You mess up bootstrapping, you could lose a friend. That is why those who are bootstrapping tend to be much more conservative with the spending.

A lot of these decisions will come down to an individual’s risk tolerance.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Everything starts at home, then on to your community, and then on to the world. If you try and reverse that order then you will quickly become overwhelmed and despair. If you want to make the world a better place start by being a good father, mother, wife, husband, boss, or employee. The ripple effect will exponentially grow the good.

My focus has been my family and my community. I try to inspire others to be better and I try to be charitable even when others do not deserve it.

ZeroNox has given me a unique opportunity to make a huge difference in our community in Porterville, CA which the government has appropriately deemed “disadvantaged”. It’s more than creating jobs; it’s creating hope in a better future for the community, and it’s the same hope that I’m trying to pass on to my children.

Hope is a gift attached to the strong belief in an idea…and I have a very strong belief in this idea!

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I am currently working on an idea I call “The ZeroNox Solution”. The ZeroNox Solution would create a platform for stakeholders in the electrification movement to bring the idea efficiently and effectively to reality.

EV’s and Smart Microgrids go hand in hand because if you want electric vehicles to be prevalent then you better have some good microgrid solutions to support it; our current grid system certainly cannot. For those who want to continue to see electrification throughout the world grow on a mass scale it is going take multiple EV types, multiple technologies, multiple funding sources, and Multiple Buyers and Sellers of these things.

We have made ZeroNox a success through our expertise in “Strategic Partnerships”, which is essentially where we have stuck to our core competencies and recruited experts in complementary or parallel systems to partner with us. “The ZeroNox Solution” would incorporate this same idea; Bring these clean products to the platform, EV’s and Smart Microgrids, and allow stakeholders of the concept to come together and bring the idea to fruition. Some bring the technology, some bring the funding, some bring the buying, and some bring the supporting.

The problem is Herculean, and the solution is going to require both industry experts and demographic experts. Imagine thousands of self-contained microgrids supporting the hundreds of thousands of electric vehicles spanning country to country and continent to continent. Many of these countries do not even have consistent electricity right now. What an incredible opportunity we get to be a part of in bringing this high-performing, clean technology to those in need.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

  • Lebron James: One of my favorite athletes and I very much appreciate his business acumen and the importance he has always placed on giving back to the community who helped bring him up, which are similar feelings I share.
  • Mark Cuban: My kids and I enjoy watching Shark Tank and Mark is one of my favorites. I like the advice he gives to the contestants and I respect his professional success.
  • Nick Jonas: My kids like his music and so I think this would blow their minds.
  • Dwayne Johnson: We are basically doppelgangers, so it seems appropriate.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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