In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Byron Alley, division manager of CR-Edge. The son of a second-generation entrepreneur, Byron is passionate about business ownership and founded the full-service transportation company The Hog Ride while attending the University of Arkansas.
Listen as Byron shares what he learned from past business ventures, the virtual tools that CR-Edge uses to bring job sites to their clients, and his insights on the future of technology in the construction business.
0:00:04.5 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality, and what those values mean in business, education and your life today. I have with me today, Byron Alley. He went to his undergraduate program here from 2014 to 2018, and while he was here, I got to know him because he started a business and I was really interested in what he was doing. I'll talk about that in a little bit. He's currently in a MBA program, but even while you were in high school, you started working at Hilton Garden Inn while you were in high school.
0:00:49.0 Byron Alley: I did. I actually started on a piece of land that was a non-constructed building, and I was kind of like a superintendent/project manager assistant, kinda like the third guy on the construction site. So, I worked there on a construction site, and then once it was open and operating, that's when I saw the opportunity of like, "Okay, let me kinda work on my sales skills, let me go be a server in a restaurant," and then from there, I bounced around divisions there. I was in maintenance. Housekeeping was an interesting challenge. I challenge anyone to try to do housekeeping at a hotel.
0:01:21.8 Byron Alley: And then I ended up at front desk, and at front desk is when I learned, it's like, "Okay, I'm pretty decent at at least engaging people that don't really wanna be engaged in, so how can I sharpen this skill?"
0:01:34.4 Matt Waller: Well, you know, I was just really impressed that you worked there for two years, well, over two years while you were in high school. I don't normally start there in a conversation like this, but you learned a lot about managing projects and managing people...
0:01:49.9 Byron Alley: A lot.
0:01:51.2 Matt Waller: In those experiences.
0:01:53.8 Byron Alley: Definitely.
0:01:53.9 Matt Waller: One of the things that really was intriguing to me about you, not long after you moved here. Well, you live in Dallas, you're from Dallas.
0:02:02.0 Byron Alley: From Arlington, born and raised.
0:02:04.9 Matt Waller: And you came to school here in Fayetteville and you saw that there was a problem and an opportunity.
0:02:10.4 Byron Alley: I did. I did my orientation day. You're alluding to the Hog Rally, I assume?
0:02:14.3 Matt Waller: Yeah.
0:02:14.5 Byron Alley: I got a speeding ticket on my way home from orientation in June or July, like, I wasn't even senior yet, I just got my ID, you know, you're just excited. I get pulled over and of course, my dad's very hard core, I guess, is the best G rated way I can say this. Of course, he was already kinda griping on, like, you're gonna pay for this ticket, so on and so forth. But I noticed when I was sitting on the side in the road in Atoka, Oklahoma every single car that was passing me had Texas license plates, and half the cars had sorority letters or Razorback stickers and I'm sitting there waiting with this sheriff to give me a predictable $200, $300 ticket. I'm like, dang, as much I love to help a municipal court out like Atoka County at the same time, all these students are making the same drive. And of course, when you're freshman orientation, it feels like they almost shove it down your throat.
0:03:01.6 Byron Alley: You know, we're 40% from Texas, we're... 45% of you guys are from Dallas area. And all the people I just met in my orientation, Richardson, Coppell, Allen, Plano, Arlington, Fort Worth, so I was seeing that everybody was from this Metroplex, but we're all 300 miles north, and if flying was that easy, everyone would have been doing it. So, that's where the original idea kinda got placed of like, "Okay, how can I solve this problem, 'cause it's clearly... There's a problem here?"
0:03:27.5 Matt Waller: So in 2016, Byron formed the Hog Ride, and this was his solution to the problem, and he ran that while he was a student here. So tell us about the Hog Ride and how it worked.
0:03:45.9 Byron Alley: The Hog Ride was, for lack of a better explanation, it was the Uber for long distance transportation. The premise of my business model was, I would get a fully-loaded, fully functional 56 Charter bus, and these buses are the buses you would use for like a high school band trip, it's a charter bus with the screens, you know, luggage goes underneath. I would get that bus and I would rent it out for a high volume weekend, say, if it was like Thanksgiving or Fall Break, the A&M weekend in Arlington. And so, the Hog Ride was basically in the same way Uber is. Uber is a brand, 'cause you know, a yellow taxi cab is a yellow taxi cab every day, that's what it is. But if someone gets in their Camry and turns on the Uber app, now it's an Uber. So I was like, "Well, okay, it can be the Hog Ride just for this trip." I already know the demands here, but how do I match that demands with the supply I'm trying to form up?
0:04:36.3 Byron Alley: So, basically, I would kinda rent out one of those charter buses like I was a Sunday school leader, someone who was organizing it, and then I would turn around and basically do all the metrics and know what my break-even cost would be at so many sales at X, so my calls at Y. I believe the first year we only went to Dallas and back, but from then is when we started seeing... It almost started selling itself in a way, and that's when we started expanding to Austin, expanding to Houston, and that's where a lot of the parents were really, really giddy for it, because at this point their kids not driving nine or 10 hours. Or they're not having to fly two flights or something, now it's like, okay, they'll get here, it might take 10 hours for the kid to get here, but the good news is, of course, since it was a charter bus, you had Wi-Fi, you had... It was a lounge, basically, people were chilling. So, I originally made it because I knew that those flights from XNA... First of all, you didn't have transportation to go up to XNA, so that's a 30-40 minute car ride.
0:05:29.1 Byron Alley: And then, you needed about $300 to $500 depending on how much you procrastinate for the ticket, to then fly home. Freshman year, sophomore year, I wasn't allowed to have a car on campus. That was my parents rule. So, I had friends that could get me to and from Arlington that were from Allen or whatever the case might be, but I knew like, I was... I created the service, 'cause I knew it would help kids like me, but at the same time, I knew that there were people that would take advantage of it, who might have had the financial support, they were like, "You know what, this bus is easier," and then I knew that there were some students to where this being the cost effective scenario was like a ticket for them to get home. And it was crazy as, a lot of people use the Hog Ride not to get to Dallas, but they use it as like the shuttle to get to an international airport.
0:06:07.8 Byron Alley: So I had a lot of kids from Brazil or Bolivia who instead of flying to Dallas, then flying out, they're like, "Oh, we must have a ride, it's way cheaper, we'll do homework on this and then we'll get on our seven, eight hour flight back home." So, it definitely created a lot of opportunities for a lot of people, and not just me the person who put it together, it was... I kinda some days replay the amount of "Thank Yous" I got from parents to my face in school lots, and it definitely is a very rewarding feeling to say the least, 'cause it definitely is bigger than me, which was my goal.
0:06:36.3 Matt Waller: Did people get to know one another on these trips?
0:06:39.6 Byron Alley: Oddly, yes, and the funny part is, from my point of view, I didn't think it would be as much as they did, but I think behind our marketing efforts, the biggest marketer we had were of course were the students, because same thing like a Uber, I wouldn't have trusted Uber if some random guy in a Uber polo handed me some discount brochure outside of my class like, what is this? But if a friend was like, "Oh no, I've rented an Uber," we should call one, then your incentive is a little different than being "sold" on it. So I knew at that point that if I take care of the people that trusted me with this, they will take care of me in the long run, which is telling other... Whether it's creating a conversation at Brough about it, or you know how students just... Whether you guys are working out the Hyper and you mention how you're getting home or something.
0:07:24.9 Byron Alley: So the students surprisingly not only kinda befriended themselves, I saw some seniors that recognized each other from B Law, and they're like, Oh, you're in my B Low class, can you come back here and help me with whatever B Law had going on, it's always not a easy class. But I've seen students kind of recognize each other and then even some girls be like, "Oh, no," there was a group of four girls that rode every bus together, and I recognized them at that point. So, it was... Then the cool thing is at the parking ride, instead of all four parents coming, like, one of the moms would pick 'em up and they would all crash at one girl's house, and then the parents would come. So, it was the perfect kinda play for them. So yeah, it created relationships, it created opportunities, I'm sure some people got some studying done and it definitely did more than what I thought it would.
0:08:05.5 Matt Waller: How about pricing? How did you come up with the price?
0:08:08.8 Byron Alley: Pricing at first, it wasn't as surface as you would think. I knew I had to obviously be cheaper than an XNA flight, but I knew that I couldn't just sit here in gauge every... You know, I'm not selling $1000 tickets, that's ridiculous. I know we did a pricing analysis at some point with my co-founder, Derek Sam, and that he was honestly more of the financial piece for it when we were in that staging of things, but I know that we originally started it at $150 for a round trip, I think. And that was a good price if I already had the trust the loyalty built up, but to really get people on the hook, I took it down a $125 round trip, and then that's what really started incentivizing people to start booking it to Dallas, and I'd never raised it above that, 'cause at that point, the break-evens made sense, I started kinda getting better partnerships with my carrier companies, which I knew eventually that would come to fruition. And so, it was honestly... I hate to say it now thinking about it, it was kind of like a blind dart on the board, but at the same time, when you're a junior in college trying to make a company, what isn't a dart on the board to some extent.
0:09:14.4 Byron Alley: And then of course, with Houston and Austin, it was $250 round trip. The real margins were the kids who were going to Houston and Austin, because at that point the bus is already moving, the kids are already on the bus, so it was really... The real margins were the kids who were going to Houston and Austin. Because at that point, the bussing, as I said, it was already moving, so their double ticket price is what was really making those buses break even premierly in the booking game, and that's where we started seeing decent profit in year two, is when things really started becoming... It wasn't feeling like a complete bootstrap operation, we're actually... Things were in the green.
0:09:49.7 Matt Waller: Well, what an experience though. I mean, starting out in high school, working in a hotel, and then starting your own business and running it for three years while you're in school, that's a pretty remarkable accomplishment. But now one of the things you're doing... One of the many things is, you're working for a larger company, you've created a new division of a company...
0:10:15.2 Byron Alley: I have.
0:10:15.4 Matt Waller: In Dallas called CR-EDGE, it's created and branded as a separate entity of Con-Real, but would you talk a little bit about that?
0:10:24.9 Byron Alley: Definitely. So Con-Real is a general contracting construction firm based out of Arlington, and it's more than just a construction company, it has a real estate division that's a little appraisal heavy on the commercial side. There's a program management division that focuses on staff augmentation for some universities. And of course, there's a construction division. Innovation and technologies we know, especially in this day and age, it's... We're in virtual reality now. Our phones are listening to us, Alexis are a norm, things are definitely technology heavy. And so, if you look at any construction company right now, if their bread and butter is 70% construction, eventually technology is gonna start creeping up on the heels of being the bread and butter of construction companies, 'cause I feel like in every industry it really is, whether it's automotive or rail road, whatever the case may be.
0:11:12.9 Byron Alley: And so, I graduated from the University of Arkansas, I took a job with BNSF and it moved me to Houston. I was in BNSF about two years as an account manager, and then once I applied, and got accepted into a grad program at the U of H is when I left BNSF and thankfully, I could work at a hybrid schedule with Con-Real, it's where I could be in school and balance being a project engineer. And so, when I was originally brought onboard, I was a Project Engineer on a site, which basically is like, you're quality assurance guy, you're just making sure all the submittals are good, your purchase orders are fine, especially the punch out when things started to get finish here, you're that guy type of thing. You're kind of like, what I was on the Hilton, I was the third guy, I wasn't the superintendent, I wasn't the project manager, but I was the guy that was just making sure everything's kinda coming together.
0:12:02.4 Byron Alley: So I started on and finished a job that finished for about six months, and after there was an opportunity to be a part of this technology division. There wasn't much guidance for this division, there really wasn't a vision. The executives knew that this division, eventually would be something, so someone needs to kinda drive it. And so, I was placing this division as an assistant, and there was a girl who was in charge for a while, and when she left, I kinda naturally just started spearheading certain opportunities and duties, and eventually I was like, Okay, well, if I'm gonna do this, I'm gonna do it, I'm gonna brand it, I'm gonna really take ownership of this. And they were just kinda like, Okay, let's see. And so, Con-Real is of course at the helm, it is the construction company, but I... Thinking about branding, and I guess, I kinda took a page out of my Hog Ride book as far as... Branding really makes a brand come together as far as how it rings.
0:12:56.5 Byron Alley: So the branding was CR-EDGE, which I saw a big way to use a pun in it, 'cause that when you hear it in a room, it's like, 'See Our Edge,' and that's kinda the vision I wanted to have in it was, I know that not only can technology make a construction site work more effectively internally, it also can reduce the need for communication externally to shareholders, stakeholders, whatever the case may be, whether it's a public job and it's a county commissioner who needs to be up-to-date, or a university job and the director of procurement, or the senior level wants to be up-to-date, whether it's visualizations or things of that nature. And so, in this division, we had BIM technology. BIM is Building Information Modeling, it's so on a pre-con phase, it's kind of like an infrared scan rendering of a building, so that way before walls go up, you know where the plumbing is gonna go, where the water is gonna go. So that way it reduces your amount of clash detections.
0:13:52.1 Byron Alley: And so, BIM basically helps the architect design the building. That way, once dirt's turned over, it really decreases the level of errors that could happen. That's what was already in the division, and we were doing that internally for our jobs, but I was like, "Wait a minute, there's a lot of other jobs where some companies might not have the person for that. So how do we outside sell that and not just be so in-house with it, because there's construction everywhere?" I was on campus, I saw VCC signs, Navajo signs, there is everywhere, but maybe VCC might not have a BIM person. They might need one contractually, just for one part of the fraternity house or something. And so, seeing the need for that and knowing that, "Okay, there's all these technologies coming around, how do I make it easier?" I took that and started kind of replaying the construction sites I've been working in all my life, and was like, "Okay, there's always these OAC meetings, which are like, owner, architect meetings, where it's like, once a week and no one really wants to be in it, because it's almost like a forced meeting."
0:14:50.7 Byron Alley: But what I get out of these meetings is the owners come and walk the site, and you have people coming in suits and putting on hard hats, and they're sweating, and they're like, "Man, this is a lot," especially in Texas. And so, I found a software company that we partnered with, that creates virtual tours, kinda like a Matterport, where you can tour the inside of a building. But instead of just doing a one and done thing from a marketing standpoint for their marketing team, it's like, "Why doesn't someone walk this building once a week?" And then you send that link out, and then the guy who had to drive across town and put a hard hat on, now he doesn't have to do that. Now he can open up his laptop at 3:00 AM and walk the site himself, and then he doesn't... I'm not saying he doesn't have to attend the meeting, but now the meeting isn't, "What's happened in the last week?" It's now, "What's about to happen?" 'Cause we're already walking in here on the same page.
0:15:36.8 Byron Alley: We don't have to walk the site, and I show you something and then we try to figure out a solution. We've talked about it, we've seen it on the links. So, I implemented that towards the end of last year, internally, and got it up and running, and the first project... One of the first projects, not the first project, but one of the first projects that this was successful was Mullens. Con-Real renovated the third and fourth floors for Mullens. We used a virtual tour platform and with that, we were able to walk through and show the design team, the architects, as well as stakeholders and shareholders for the board at the university, on a weekly basis, the updates that were happening. So even though Mullens is the center of campus and they'll probably stop either anyway, now if they wanted to see something that could be on their mind at 2:00 AM, they didn't have to change the day around, they can physically click on beacons and walk it. And it's a very, very intuitive platform that we've implemented.
0:16:25.6 Byron Alley: So, that's one of the services for CR-EDGE. And then as well as that, we also do droning, which a lot of other companies do. With drones, you can make really, really good time lapse photos, really, really good aerial shots, especially big large scale projects. Long story short, it's coming together. CR-EDGE is... I have a tagline that I'm revamping, but it was like, "Bringing the job site to you," so instead of having to put on boots and put on a hard hat and walk a site, you can actually see the site on your computer. And to me, you'll see more of the site on your computer than what you see out there, because at least to me, seeing OAC meetings. If you know a problem exists in a corner and you're with the guys or girls who could tell you that's a problem and kinda slap your hand for it, would you really show them that corner that transparent? Probably not.
0:17:11.1 Byron Alley: But when I'm brought on to a site, neutrally, my job is to walk the site inch to inch, so if there's a problem, that's between you and your boss. And that might come across as, "Oh, I don't want that," but at the same time, in construction... I mean, if you have a problem, that could be a three-week problem, that could be a three-months problem, you could be sitting for half a building there just 'cause the water meter was messed up. So, at least it shows everybody's cards, and I think, growing up in a construction realm, at this point, what's the downside of that?
0:17:38.4 Matt Waller: How are you building out the business development side of this business?
0:17:46.6 Byron Alley: So, the business development side of this business, it's... So, okay. With Hog Ride, my mindset was fail forward and fail fast, kinda like, move fast, break things. I knew with anything you do, failing's inevitable, but it's like, how can you at least not intentionally fail, but if you do fail, you can at least say, "Okay, I knew that was coming." So, with Hog Ride, I feel like my business dev, I was throwing a lot of darts at boards and I was just kinda figuring out. This one's a little more structured, with this one, I sat down, I created a full business plan, a marketing plan, a monetization plan, a structure of how the different contractors that I have under me, expectations, roles and responsibilities. And so, that was a good starting point, just to make sure my pencil's as sharp as I need it to be, maneuvering through the industry. But as far as business development, it's kinda like, "The only constant is change."
0:18:35.6 Byron Alley: And so, the only thing that I know... I know that CR-EDGE is not the only entity/company that has the same premise or vision that I have. But I do know that there are also in this world where... Especially construction right now, there's so much weird technology stuff happening, where there's 3D printings. There's like a company in Austin, there's a CNN article, The 3D Printing Houses. It makes you wonder, "How much are they really gonna... " 'Cause I know that there's a labor drought, so it's just kinda like, "Man, this is not helping none at all." But from a business development standpoint, it's definitely been more structured than Hog Ride, and it definitely has a way better clear vision. Execution always is a different story, [chuckle] but at least with those two things, you know you're going in a direction that you wanted to go.
0:19:23.8 Matt Waller: Are there any ways that you want to take this technology further?
0:19:29.7 Byron Alley: Definitely, and I think that's where it kinda gets a little hairy. I think people are already kind of steering away from getting a trade skill, or at least their mentality is going more towards coding academies than like a trade school, but I think COVID really accelerated that now. And as far as where it's going, I definitely think I'm starting to hit the peaks of... I'm maximizing the efficiency of as much as I can for a human, but I feel like even humans we're kind of at a ceiling. We're not robots, we get tired, we have to sleep. So, I feel like technology now is at the heels of humans to where it's like, how do we make this better without just straight up replacing the human? And I think we're very close to that. I mean, I don't wanna see it, especially in the construction, I think it takes people to build buildings, especially for quality assurance.
0:20:18.9 Byron Alley: Where it's going, I definitely think there's gonna be less people on machines for sure on construction site scene. I think eventually those big cranes you see in the sky or even the small Bobcat, I think those eventually will be, if they aren't already, drone-driven or just programmed and stuff, but it's going into a direction just like every industry to where humans are slowly getting replaced. I went to Walmart and there's more self-check out lines than actual aisles now. I mean, it's faster, so as the consumer, you don't mind but, for the person who had a job, you're just kinda like, well... You're seeing it in other places. They're maximizing efficiency by reduce... 'Cause I think not a human's in the way but, self-checkout's way faster than standing in the line.
0:21:00.1 Matt Waller: Byron, there's a number of students in the Walton College who are entrepreneurial as well, and they... When they hear your story, they wanna do something similar. What advice do you have for them?
0:21:13.0 Byron Alley: My first immediate thought is, you don't know what you don't know, and that's something that rang in my head. When I was starting, at one point with Hog Ride, I was chalking sidewalks in front of Harman at 2:00 AM, 'cause I was like, well, lots of kids stand here, lots of kids stand at Maple and Garland, that's free marketing. I didn't know I couldn't do that until I did it type of thing. And so, I would say, "You don't know what you don't know, move fast and break things," and that's basically... You can sit... I could have easily sat for a week saying, how can I market this, how can market this? Or I could have just do it and if it wasn't the best, at least I did something, so.
0:21:47.0 Matt Waller: Learn from experimentation.
0:21:49.4 Byron Alley: Right. Inaction is an action type of thing, if you're choosing not to do it. So, doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will. If you have self-doubt or you're doubting yourself, it doesn't have much chance to go, but if you really surround yourself with people that are like minded like you, or even not, if you just have this idea and you really, really, really can see a value added not only to you but other people that represent you or their communities or cultures, whatever the case may be, you're only doing yourself a disservice by not at least trying. At the end of the day, not everyone's gonna be a Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, but you're not gonna get anywhere by just thinking and not doing.
0:22:24.2 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be EPIC Podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcast. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching BeEPIC Podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now be epic.