By Sam Bojarski
Pierre Laguerre had big dreams when he arrived in the United States from Haiti at age 15. He has never stopped dreaming ‒ although his life has unfolded in a way he never could have imagined.
Laguerre, a Haitian-American, recently became the first Black man to raise the maximum $1.07 million on a regulation crowdfunding platform. His technology startup, called Fleeting ‒ a digital platform that connects commercial drivers with on-demand trucking jobs ‒ has already generated more than $1 million in revenue in just a year and a half. But the path Laguerre took from immigrant teenager, to founder of a fast-growing startup was one filled with setbacks, personal difficulty and career changes.
With the $1.07 million raised on Republic, Laguerre and his staff at Fleeting plan to develop their platform, expand to new markets and increase driver acquisition. More than 4,800 individuals have invested thus far, many of them truck drivers themselves.
The early stage investors can benefit years down the line, if the company issues an initial public offering (IPO) or gets acquired by a larger firm, Laguerre said.
“To now be able to make history, it really speaks as far as, when you believe in something and you have a passion for something, you should not let anyone get in the way of it. You should just go out there and achieve it,” said the 36-year-old Laguerre, who is based in Crown Heights. For the past four months, Laguerre has been in Atlanta, seeking out a new office location.
Fleeting gives trucking companies access to a broad pool of vetted, commercial drivers. These same companies, Laguerre said, were among the few that did not slow down operations when the pandemic hit in March.
“It just shows you no matter what pandemic or crisis or economic situation we’re going through trucking is going to be essential, because people are always going to need to eat, people are always going to need to drink, and people are always going to need certain things moved,” he said.
Laguerre never imagined getting into the industry to begin with, when he came to America. When he first arrived in Brooklyn in 1997, with his mother and three sisters, Laguerre dreamed of becoming a neurologist. Perhaps one day, he recalled thinking, he would attend Harvard University.
Laguerre’s early experiences in America would help transform his vision for the future. In the rough section of East Flatbush where he spent much of his teenage years, Laguerre witnessed gang activity, drugs and crime ‒ things he never thought would be part of his American experience.
“My entrepreneur mindset came in when I landed in Brooklyn, it was pretty much a rough neighborhood, it was bad. And I was like, ‘OK, once I come, I’ve got to adapt,’” Laguerre said.
Very few, if any, Haitian families lived on their block growing up, recalled Laguerre, who adapted quickly to the new language and was speaking English within three months.
Laguerre’s younger sister, Anasthasia Chery, said her brother was a good motivator ‒ always looking out for her and pushing her to achieve more, particularly in school.
Looking back on her brother’s accomplishments, Chery noted how he went against the traditional career expectations many parents have.
“Growing up with a Haitian background, it’s like, oftentimes all you hear is ‘be a nurse’ or do this and do that,” said Chery, who lives in Brooklyn.
“So for me, it’s kind of inspirational that he went out there and did exactly what he enjoyed doing,” she added.
After high school, Laguerre briefly studied electrical engineering at New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn. But he would soon drop out to become, of all things, a truck driver.
The job afforded Laguerre the opportunity to escape the community where he grew up and see America in all its diversity. “While being a truck driver, my real entrepreneur journey started,” Laguerre added.
He went on to make more than $90,000 per year, driving for companies like XPO Logistics and Performance Food Group. He soon purchased his own truck and became an independent operator, which afforded him the ability to move to suburban New Jersey.
But in 2014, Laguerre was injured in a car accident that prevented him from working.
“I lost my truck, I lost everything, and I found myself back in the same community where I left,” he said.
Before long, however, he had solicited the help of a friend to start a window-cleaning company. This endeavor netted $62,000 in three months, which funded Laguerre’s second foray into trucking. This time, he started a staffing agency, Mac Transport Staffing, in 2015. In another year and half, he started JP&L Transportation, which managed the operations of more than two-dozen trucks.
“The reason I started a staffing agency is because I realized trucking companies are always looking for great qualified drivers, and drivers are always looking for a company that can provide some level of flexibility (and) treat them like a human being, as opposed to being treated like a commodity,” Laguerre said.
While his two companies generated millions in revenue, Laguerre managed them largely by himself. And his world would come crashing down again in May of 2018, when Laguerre was the victim of a violent carjacking, that sent him to Kings County Hospital for several days, with more than 60 stitches in his head.
At the time, the youngest of his three children, Julian, who was born with Down syndrome the previous November, was also in the hospital, undergoing the second surgery of his brand-new life.
While incapacitated, Laguerre dealt with the anguish of his businesses falling apart. But his son, who was fighting for his life across the street in SUNY Downstate, gave him strength.
“If this kid can really sit here and fight for his life, not really knowing what he’s fighting for, not really knowing what type of world he’s welcoming himself into … I said ‘well, who the hell am I to quit?’” Laguerre recalled thinking.
Paul Munguia, current chief operating officer and co-founder of Fleeting, first crossed paths with Laguerre months before the carjacking incident. Munguia had already co-founded his own company, called Upright, which helps build early-stage startups.
Laguerre and Munguia met at a panel in New York City, which covered the various aspects of launching a startup.
“Pierre was in the audience and just kept answering every question we threw out there,” Munguia said.
The two were able to exchange ideas, based on their respective areas of expertise, in trucking and technology startups.
“He seemed very curious and confident, but really willing to listen. He knew what he knew, and he knew that he didn’t know other things. And so we kind of meshed at that intersection,” Munguia added.
After his stay in the hospital, Laguerre briefly became a client of Munguia’s, after resolving to build a sustainable technology company, with a strong team.
In early 2019, soon after helping Laguerre get accepted into an accelerator program run by Quake Capital, Munguia started transitioning into a full-time role with Fleeting. The Brooklyn-based company now has eight full-time employees and has netted more than $1.3 million in revenue since its inception in early 2019. The more than $1 million raised through crowdfunding will further boost the company’s growth.
Early stage investors include Quake Capital and the Supreme Fund, run by the rapper Chamillionaire, among others.
“When he says we’re going to be a billion-dollar company he’s not saying that to make people feel excited or like we should feel any better than any other company out there. He’s saying that because he’s already decided we will be that. And so without having that belief way out there in the future, I don’t think we have the bridge to actually get there,” Munguia said, of Laguerre’s leadership abilities.
Launching a raise on the crowdfunding platform Republic in February 2020 allowed smaller-scale investors, including truckers, to buy a stake in Fleeting. The Republic platform is one of several crowdfunding companies that allow investors worldwide to invest as little as $10 in the growth of early-stage startups.
An alternative to raising money from venture capital, regulation crowdfunding became legal in 2016. But companies can only raise a maximum of $1.07 million per year, under federal regulations.
With few large-scale investors seeking to spend money amid the coronavirus pandemic, Munguia said Fleeting started treating Republic as its primary fundraising vehicle in April. The extra promotional push helped get the company to the $1.07 million cap.
According to Laguerre, there is now a waiting list to invest, and if the authorities do not raise the cap to $5 million, Fleeting will do another raise next year.
“Too often, entrepreneurs that look like me kind of like just don’t have access to capital … so crowdfunding is actually making that easy for other founders of different backgrounds,” said Laguerre, who recommends regulation crowdfunding to other entrepreneurs of color.
At just 36 years old, Laguerre appears to have a long, bright career ahead of him. But his resiliency might be the secret to his success thus far, which has come in the face of many obstacles.
“What I always admire about my brother is that he doesn’t stay down for too long. It’s like, ‘OK this didn’t work, how can I improve it? How can I be better, how can I take it to the next level?’ So with him, it’s like, he’s willing to try new things. And I think that’s really what helped him succeed,” said Chery, his sister.