Design thinking

How a Houston entrepreneur is bringing design to startups — and making the world a better place

Jez Babarczy, along with his company, NUU Group, is changing the world — one pixel at a time. Courtesy of NUU Group

Six years ago, Jez Babarczy and Gabriel Gurrola launched a startup in Babarczy's living room in Katy. The goal was to launch a company that was based in Houston, but known around the world for doing top-notch creative work.

"I saw a gap in the market," Babarczy says. "Houston [was] not known for world-renowned creatives. Companies tend to gravitate toward other cities, like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Atlanta. I think we have amazing talent in Houston, and I saw an opportunity and a need for an agency doing [work] in a creative field."

Fast-forward six years, and NUU Group has worked on tech and branding projects with Fortune 500 companies, such as Bechtel and Cemex, as well as the Houston Texans, FIFA, Civic Nation, and a slew of startups. Its mission is simple: to provide design and creative services to companies seeking to do good in their industries or communities. NUU Group works with companies in all industries, and is planning to grow its footprint by opening more offices in the U.S. and around the globe.

The company, which employs 40 people, has its main headquarters office in Houston and opened an office in Querataro, Mexico last year. NUU Group's Querataro office, which has 20 employees, works to capitalize on Mexico City's thriving business sector.

NUU Group is led by Babarczy, Gurrola, and Kevin Daughtry. Babarczy spoke with InnovationMap about what led him to start NUU Group, as well as what's on-tap for his company — and Houston's broader startup community as a whole.

InnovationMap: What differentiates NUU Group from the competition?

Jez Babarczy: I think NUU Group offers something unique and different. We have a global mission and mantra that we remind ourselves of daily, and it fuels the work we do. Our mission is to explore new things that inspire us, and the clients we work with, and how we approach the work.

If we're truly going to have an impact within culture, within our industry, and within the lives of our clients, I think we need to look at our potential for doing good. That's something we've really embraced. It's part of NUU's existence to give back to empower others. It's easy to say you're a good-person organization, but it's different to advocate for others in a consistent manner.

IM: What core services does NUU Group provide?

JB: More than anything, we're designers first. The agency started as being very design-centric, but it's expanded beyond that. We're not just design-first, but focus on human-centric design and creating experiences that really resonate with the end user.

IM: What brought NUU Group to Mexico?

JB: So, Mexico was an attempt to explore new things, along with some business opportunities that were there for us. The stars aligned when we were looking at a second office location, and there were several options on the table. Querataro is a city around two-and-a-half hours from Mexico City, which is definitely a hub for things going on around the world. It's a great place and, given the business opportunities there, it made a lot of sense.

IM: What's you client portfolio look like? What industries have the most need for NUU Group's services?

JB: We're pretty industry agnostic in terms of clientele. There's definitely an ability to gravitate toward Houston's primary industries — energy and health care — but, we purposefully to work with clients across industries. A lot of the time, we bring in someone who's a little on the outside or on the fringe to look at a problem from a unique perspective. That that's where we shine. We also work with global nonprofits, startups and companies that we believe are doing some awesome stuff.

IM: What are the pros and cons of being based in Houston?

JB: The pros are that Houston is a great city, and it's a great city for business. We have a lot of big companies here, and attitude of, 'Let's get stuff done, let's collaborate and let's work together.' I think that permeates Houston's culture, which is great for doing business. Some of the cons, I think, are battling the stereotype that Houston isn't creative, that Houston is just an oil and gas city, or that Houston is flat and hot and humid. There's a little bit of an uphill battle in terms of recruiting. We've seen that people see Houston as a place to go if you have to go, but not a place you'd necessarily want to go to. There's an opportunity to tell a better story for Houston.

IM: Over the past five years, how have you seen Houston's innovation community grow or change?

JB: Innovation has definitely become more of a popular buzzword to the point where it's slightly nauseating. Along with the boom in technology and the rate at which it advances, our position in the national and global marketplace has led to accelerating these different innovation hubs within companies and coworking spaces. I think there's still an opportunity for Houston to define what innovation really looks like, and to ask ourselves, 'How are we accelerating it? How are we empowering it? How are we really doing it, when the rubber meets the road?' It's definitely something that's evolving, and it's evolving in the right direction. …

There's this anxiety over being left behind, and this frantic sense of [needing] to do what others are doing. Just because one thing is working in California, doesn't mean that's exactly what needs to happen here. I hope Houston can be willing to be open to really move innovation forward for Houston and Houston companies.

IM: What's next for NUU Group?

JB: We started off very branding-focused, and focused on visual identity design. Last year, we made some pretty significant shifts and positioned the agency stronger on the strategy and technology side. So, we have a team of not only graphic designers and visual storytellers, but of strategists, software engineers, frontier technology thought leaders and experts. We're really bringing together design strategy and technology to solve for business challenges.

IM: Where do you see NUU Group expanding to next? Any target cities in mind?

JB: There's no target city right now that I can share. We'll probably open another office in the U.S., and we have sights set on a couple of places internationally. Those offices will probably open in the next three or five years.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.

For Cody Gremminger, this month is about remembrance. Courtesy of Cyber One Solutions

One day, Cody Gremminger sat down with his fiance, Brian Carrico, and decided going into business together was something they wanted to explore. They put their heads together, thought of a name — Cyber One Solutions — and created a management, service and IT support company that serves the greater Houston area with satellite offices in Austin, Dallas, Lufkin, Brenham, and Beaumont.

Cyber One Solutions has experienced massive growth in less than two years of being in business, and InnovationMap sat down to talk with Gremminger about Cyber One's next steps, what it's like working with your partner, and the importance of the support gained by the LGBTQ community.

InnovationMap: Your company is less than two years old, but you’ve had massive growth and success. What are some lessons that you’ve learned throughout that time?

Cody Gremminger: We're an IT company, so definitely making sure that we have a huge book of processes and everything like that. Organization is one of the most important things. Finding good people that treat your clients that way that you treat them. Whenever you start off with a company and it's just the two founders, you know how you want to treat all of your clients. But it is hard to find people to treat the clients the same way you want to treat them.

IM: What do the next steps of Cyber One Solutions look like?

CG: The next steps of the company at this point are to keep growing and keep taking care of our current clients, just like every company in their infancy age.

IM: Are you planning on growing your team or slate of services anytime soon?

CG: We are looking into both. We have a couple of our team members working on getting further certifications and further training into new aspects of IT. We're also working on growing our current client base past what we already have.

We have some clients that we work with every month because we have a contract with them, and we have some clients that kind of come and go. On a monthly basis, we probably work with about 25 to 30 clients and then as far as people who need a hard drive replaced or something like that, it adds about 10 to 15 extra clients a month.

IM: You and Brian own the business together. What are some of the pros and cons of being a couple and working together?

CG: There's a lot of pros. It's really good because you are both fully committed. We're normally on the same page; we're always on the same team. We're both here for Cyber One Solutions. It kind of helps that this is how we pay our bills too.

We're very actively involved and dedicated to it. Some of the cons could be that work never quits. Once you get home, what are you going to talk about? Well, we've been working together all day so we're going to talk about work.

I suspect that other couples talk about their different jobs, while we talk about things we worked on at the same company. It is a different dynamic. My parents actually own a company together and work together too, so it's not abnormal for me, I guess.

IM: As members of the Greater Houston LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce, you’re connected with a wide variety of entrepreneurs in the LGBTQ community. Why is having that support system so important?

CG: We're members of the LGBT Houston chamber, and we're also recently, as of March or April, we got our National LGBT Chamber certification. The Houston LGBT Chamber is one of our favorites. It's just a place where we feel like everybody is actually there for each other. They are there to meet new businesses and talk to everybody. It's super friendly, and it's a place where you can just be yourself. It's awesome. I love going to all of their events.

IM: What does pride month mean to you?

CG: Pride month to me is all about celebration, awareness, and remembrance. At Pride, everybody is there and we are all celebrating the fact that we are who we are, and we're all celebrating each other. Awareness kind of goes with celebration.

We start to see corporate logos change color. For example, I took a photo of the HP float at Pride because we are HP partners here at Cyber One, and I do a lot with HP computers. It was cool to see them have a float in the parade. A couple of our vendors that we use, their logos turned rainbow. It's just been really cool.

I would say that remembrance because at pride, they give you a second to stop and look back and see how far this community has come. We've had the Pulse nightclub shooting…we've had Stonewall, which was a theme of the Pride parade this year. It's just all of that wrapped together.

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Portions of this interview have been edited.