The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FreightWaves or its affiliates.
Long before the COVID-19-induced economic collapse we’re currently facing, FreightTech was the hottest thing in venture capital. Remember that just three to four months ago, venture capitalists (VCs) were talking about how there was more money than deals and they couldn’t find enough great ideas to fund. Fast-forward to our current state, and we’re seeing the next wave of unicorns die on the vine as venture markets tighten and public exits feel nearly impossible.
Today’s commentary is about an unassuming entrepreneur from the middle of the country who isn’t letting his location be the nail in the coffin of his Silicon Valley dreams. Taylor Monks of Lincoln, Nebraska was your typical broke college senior in the spring of 2018 before setting off on a two-year mission that has landed him at the helm of one of FreightTech’s hottest startups, BasicBlock.
“Like most kids in college, I was broke at the time. I was always having to ask my parents for money – except my dad lives in the U.K., so I wasn’t able to get money transferred from him instantly like many of my classmates. Instead, we started using Bitcoin to transfer money because it was instant and free,” said Monks. The couple of years the Monks’ used Bitcoin to move funds coincided with the growth of the technology – the Great Bitcoin Rally of 2017 and 2018 was on.
“One day in the summer of 2017 my dad messaged me and asked if I’d checked my Bitcoin wallet recently. I hadn’t because I was earning some money at that time so when I opened my wallet, I was shocked to see thousands of U.S. dollars just sitting there. I was blown away.”
Taylor was immediately enthralled and began scouring the internet to learn everything he could about blockchain, the underlying technology behind cryptocurrency, so he could better understand the substantial growth in his net worth. “At Thanksgiving 2017 I was home celebrating with some family members in rural Nebraska and everyone around the table was talking about Bitcoin. I thought to myself, ‘Holy shit, this is bigger than anyone realizes.’ And I started right away thinking about how to build a business in the blockchain world.”
Monks spent nearly all of his free time during his junior and senior years at Nebraska Wesleyan University learning about blockchain and engaging in the local and global blockchain communities. “The more I learned, the more people I met. Each new learning was a breakthrough for me and made the future look clearer. I knew one day, all payments would become automated. And at that time, I probably thought it was ALL going to happen through blockchain,” Monks admitted as he laughed.
During his senior year, all Monks could think about was blockchain and FinTech and how many opportunities existed for startups to thrive in the world. Monks went on to say, “In Nebraska, we have corn and trucks. Interstate 80 connects San Francisco to New York and runs right through the middle of the state. In fact more miles [of I-80] run through Nebraska than any other state. I knew I could leverage technology in the supply chain – be it road transport or agriculture. I started spending time with truckers and farmers. It was obvious that cash flow is the single largest determining factor of a trucking company’s success or failure. Speeding up payment was the perfect problem to solve with technology and that became my life’s mission from that day on.”
After a few internships and side hustle projects with startups in the space like Transferwise, Pipedrive, ScoutSheet and Skype in Estonia and Nebraska, Taylor began looking for a co-founder and researching the process to begin building a tech startup company in Lincoln.
“I just started googling things and watching videos on YouTube to see what I could learn about building a startup. We’re not in Silicon Valley and it felt like that was a whole different world. I’d always admired entrepreneurs and tech leaders but never really thought about becoming one. To me, the problem was just too big not to be solved and I couldn’t see anyone around me paying attention to the problem or working on a solution. I just always knew the problem needed to be solved and if no one else was going to do it, why not me?” Taylor said as he grinned.
As Taylor’s research progressed, so did his knowledge of the trucking ecosystem. Taylor cold-called fleet owners and hung out at truck stops along Interstate 80, asking rudimentary questions until he knew enough to be dangerous. With a base layer of knowledge and some intuition, Taylor was ready to start offering solutions to trucking companies to automate their workflow with a vision to speed up the entire payment process. He began calling Nebraska- based trucking companies early in 2019. One of the first trucking companies Taylor targeted was W.N. Morehouse Truck Line, Inc. in Omaha. “He just wouldn’t stop calling,” said Curt Morehouse, Office Manager of W.N. Morehouse. “When he first called in, I didn’t take his call. I get a lot of sales calls and blew him off. After the third or fourth call, I finally picked up and listened. Taylor had done some homework but had a lot to learn. He said he wanted to come in and learn my business because he thought he could bring technology that could help. I said ‘Come on in,’ and he did.”
Morehouse tells the story that Taylor and his co-founder showed up, took notes, listened and came back to Curt starry-eyed. “They said they could help.They had a lot of ideas but they were passionate they could get documents back into our TMS [transportation management system] better and faster than the expensive app we were using. I was all ears and told them to come back when they had it mapped out. They were back in a few days and went to work building the solution. By the time they came back with the app, they had some more customers already. They were off and running.”
Morehouse and his team invested in the relationship with BasicBlock and gave their feedback on app design, process and ideal workflows, allowing Monks and the team to refine their app over time until it was better and easier to use than the largest providers in the space.
“What people didn’t know was I was taking part in clinical trials and taking experimental drugs at the time to make money to live. Sometimes I was feeling the side-effects of a particular drug from a trial I was in but I had to power through and get the work done so we could continue pursuing our mission,” said Monks.
With a few happy customers and an exciting new product to offer, Taylor hit the road to explore funding options around Nebraska and the Midwest. “Honestly, there wasn’t a lot. I was fortunate to meet Invest Nebraska that helped me secure a little bit of grant money and then I had to hustle. I found out about Launch, an accelerator run by Jason Calacanis. I applied and we got in. I think it helped that I was from Nebraska; Jason was looking for teams in tech outside of the [Silicon] Valley and I think that helped us out.”
After successfully completing LAUNCH, Monks was awarded a small investment from the accelerators syndicate and BasicBlock was on its way. “With the grant money from Invest Nebraska and the check from Jason, we rebuilt our tech team and our product within a few months,” Monks recounted. The product was better than ever and our customers were telling their friends. We started growing faster than we expected so I had to spin up sales while Brett and Corey spun up development and customer success. It has been so crazy – but so fun!”
BasicBlock has continued to rack up new customers and introduce new products over the past nine months and just last week announced it had successfully closed a $1.5 Million Seed Round led by Emergent Ventures with participation from Invest Nebraska, LAUNCH FUND, Rise of The Rest Revolution Seed Fund and SaaS Ventures. Immediately after the round closed, I spoke with Monks and he said, “This is absolutely wild. We went from college kids to venture-backed in a couple of years and we did it in Nebraska. Things like this haven’t happened here in the past, and I think that will change. There were many times I felt like I had to take the company to California or New York if we were going to get people to take us seriously. Hopefully, our success helps others get funded. That idea motivates me.”
With money in the bank and recent enterprise partnerships announced, BasicBlock appears to be on the fast track to FreightTech stardom. The COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed the team down; in fact, it appears to be fueling growth as fleets seek to reduce physical contact for drivers, while drivers are finally demanding a more digital experience.