Building Technology of the Future
Photography provided by Zoozler
Whenever companies discover “There’s not an app for that,” they can head for help at Zoozler.com.
The downtown Cincinnati-based firm specializes in creating complicated apps – and much more – for established companies as well as startups. Zoozler, a startup itself not so long ago, began as an offshoot German partnership in 2014 and became its own stand-alone business the next year. The company was broken into three business units: Zoozler Tech Lab, Zoozler Venture Network and Zoozler Marketing.
Business exploded. From mid-2016 to the middle of this year, the company’s revenue growth soared 1,000 percent, Zoozler founder and CEO Paul Powers says. The year before that, revenue was up 700 percent. “That was not as crazy as it sounds, but it’s still a lot of scale.”
Powers grew up on the west side of Cincinnati and decided “to do a little bit of adventuring.” At 16, he received a scholarship to finish high school in Switzerland, so he went to Zurich to attend Kantonschule Stadelhofen upper secondary school. “I was home-schooled, so I thought it would be neat to get out and do the opposite.”
Powers then studied law at the prestigious Heidelberg University, Germany’s oldest university, and passed the bar with more than twice the required points, he says. A top German law firm recruited Powers as its youngest employee, where he focused on international law. Independently, he was hired to assist in drafting international law for the European Union.
Although his heritage is mostly German and Swiss, Powers says he didn’t speak German before leaving for Europe. “I had to learn German very quickly.”
He started his first company while in high school in Switzerland – a tutoring enterprise. “It grew from me tutoring to other people tutoring, and I was managing the company, and it kind of went from there to corporate tutoring,” including some work there for Cincinnati’s Procter & Gamble, he says. He later added translation and software development, and merged everything into a company that developed a partnership with Lecturio GmbH, a large German online training and e-learning company.
Fast-forward to 2014. He returned to Cincinnati to expand the partnership’s business in the United States.
“Eventually, that German company’s investors decided to put their money into marketing in the European market vs. into new technology, because they were afraid of local competition. So, we decided to change our business model so that we weren’t reliant on them.” (Zoozler still does some business with
“We had about a one- or two-month runway,” says Powers, now 28. “So, the decision was: Do we close down the shop and wait, or do we keep going? We had to become revenue-positive in two months, and we did it, but it was really hard. It totally changed our company.”
Zoozler has grown to about 30 to 40 employees, depending on how they are counted, Powers says, because it has interns and partners. Most are in software development, in the Tech Lab unit, which not only builds apps, but also develops websites, web portals and real-time chat sessions, among other technology.
The company’s floor of space in a downtown building is much different from Powers’ first workspace when he returned to Cincinnati – “a little tiny office, like 12-by-12. We had to grow it from there. We eventually got to 5, 10 people, in 2015.”
About 90 percent of Zoozler’s business comes from referrals and networking, Powers says. The company’s clients include established companies that pay for development of apps upfront, plus it has startups in which Zoozler takes an investment or profit interest.
“We have about 500 applications (proposals) a week from startups from around the world,” he says. “We have two full-time people who all they do is review applications.”
Zoozler is extremely picky, too. On its website, Zoozler says its acceptance rate is about 3 percent. It will not take on a project unless it’s complicated – partly because of its philosophy on intellectual property rights.
“We give all the intellectual property rights to people we develop for,” Powers says. “They own everything completely and outright, and we do all the legal work to make sure that’s true and not just market hype.” Powers says they do all development work in-house, which means they can control those rights from each employee’s work.
Powers’ legal training takes over when he talks about those rights. He says companies that outsource work to other companies face complications with intellectual property rights. “And if they’re in another country, it’s even more complicated. The question is: Whose laws matter? Even companies who think that they’re giving you intellectual property rights, sometimes, they’re not. They don’t know it. They actually can’t. Sometimes, within your own company, the person who designed it has the rights. You have to have it all the way down, in every agreement – we have to specify that the rights go to the client, not the developer.”
Because Zoozler gives the rights to clients, it also wants to ensure that the apps and other work cannot be easily replicated. That’s why it requires that the work be complicated.
“We have to have a secret sauce, something that sets them apart,” Powers says. “Everything can be copied, in theory. But it should be something where, by the time someone else tries to copy it, (Zoozler clients) are much further ahead, and they have a market advantage.”
Zoozler even went through a complicated process to come up with its name.
“There’s no real meaning of it in English, and it’s not a German word or anything,” Powers says. “If you look at it, the interpretation is supposed to be that the two o’s in the middle of the name can either be seen as o-o or the infinity sign, as in our logo. They’re between the two z’s, which represent the end of the alphabet. And the ‘er’ at the end is the international way of ending a word to indicate ‘an agent of some type.’ So, the meaning of it is that in your short life span, you can decide to be either an agent of infinite change or an agent of no change. It’s our way of saying if you don’t innovate, you don’t really matter in the long run, and if you do innovate, then you’re going to affect future generations.”
They had a lot of marketing research behind it. “There were a lot of reasons to believe that it would be a very effective name – easy to remember, easy to pronounce, there’s a lot of two o’s in companies, like Facebook and Yahoo.”
Powers says the company worked on its name for about six months. “It was the longest name project ever. People think it came from nowhere – we had something like 4,000 name suggestions. We did marketing research, we did a psychological
report on what every color represents to people, how every letter, combination of letters and sounds affect people. A whole bunch of science behind it.”
Powers says another advantage of doing all work in-house is that the company can build a code library that can be adapted to various apps, whenever possible. That leads to less time in development and lower prices for apps, compared with the company’s competitors, he says.
The Venture Network unit of Zoozler also helps recruit clients. With 35,000 members, the network of investors provides startups with instant exposure to venture capital. Powers says that part of the company is a partnership operated by venture capital experts: “We have the tech piece, they have the finance piece.”
Powers’ serial entrepreneurship also extends to a 3D-model-analysis company, Physna, where he is CEO. Physna, which is short for physical DNA, analyzes three-dimensional objects using mathematics, physics and artificial intelligence instead of optics.
“It’s faster and more accurate,” Powers says. Cincinnati-based Physna collects 3D models from websites to use as a database and breaks down those 3D models into computer code, which can then be analyzed and compared with other models’ code.
Physna software is a teaching tool and also can help stop plagiarism on the academic side or intellectual-property-rights violations on the corporate side, Powers says. On the industrial side, it can provide pre- and postproduction quality control.
“We’re sort of like the Google of 3D models,” he says.
What’s next for Zoozler and Powers?
“We’re working on a lot of things that aren’t necessarily nailed down,” he says. “We’re working with a number of different cities to expand our presence beyond here. We’ve come really far with Charlotte, Nashville and Louisville. We’re talking to a couple of foreign governments to help bring an exchange program.”
Zoozler is located at 18 West Seventh Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202. For more information, call 513.746.1542 or visit zoozler.com.