How to Sell a Big Idea

Thousands of Texans travel between Dallas and Houston. It is a ten-hour round-trip drive on the massively gridlocked I-45. This highway hosts outdated bridges and service stations. It is in dire need of repair, redesign, and rebuilding. And even with this restoration, the highway would continue to engender traffic. The Texas Bullet Train is an opportunity to revitalize the community within and between these two great metropolises.

This project started with a small group of people who shared a vision. We helped them visualize that vision by creating a name and visual identity that would support their fundraising and communication efforts. Now, Texas Central Partners is dedicated to making this idea a reality.

The Big Idea

Katie Kaufman was the Vice President of Texas Central Partners at the time of our engagement with the organization. She and a small group of decision-makers were integral during the branding process. And she was a part of this project from the very beginning.

In 2008, Katie and a group of investors partnered with Central Japan Railways to bring their transformational technology to the Unites States. Central Japan Railways owns and operates the tokaido-shinkansen, or bullet train, connecting Tokyo and Osaka. It is the most profitable and safest standard for high-speed rail in the world. They have been operating for 60 years and they have never had a derailment. “They have an impeccable record,” Katie says.

“We looked at over 90 corridors where it could be possible to deploy a high-speed train, where it would showcase the technology, and where it would be a profitable position,” Katie says. “We had no biases going into it.” They landed on the Houston/Dallas corridor. It was the perfect place for this technology.

These huge cities are 240 miles apart, which is “absolutely the sweet spot,” as Katie puts it. The land between the cities is flat and rural, and both cities are experiencing astronomical growth. Once that assessment was completed and this area was chosen, “We spent the next 8 years…trying to turn that vision into organizing $15 billion of mostly private capital to get the project built.”

Branding a Big Idea

In 2010, their group was operating under the name Lonestar Rail. After realizing a conflict with the pre-existing Lonestar Rail District, they needed a new name. Their new branding needed to strike a delicate balance. “On the one hand, we are a startup. On the other hand we are a $15 billion infrastructure process. We are a fresh, state-of-the-art technology. But we are also a safe investment, like a freight train,” Katie says.

Seth Moulton, now a congressman representing Massachusetts, drove the decision-making during this process. Making that decision was not easy. “It wasn’t until after we launched [the identity], that it really took on all those things and struck that balance,” Katie notes.

Raising over $15 billion is as hard as it sounds. $75 million was raised from Texas-based individuals and families to take the project into the development phase. All fundraising decisions were driven by an entrepreneurial spirit that guided both the TCR team and their donors.

“Those basic building blocks for our project will allow us to go to the institutional investors and organize the larger, long-term debt and equity,” Katie adds.

When asked about the impact of TCP’s branding on fundraising, Katie replies, “It’s instantly recognizable.” She continues, “When we put our documents in front of [investors] I always felt confident…Even our business cards are beautiful.” A sophisticated, solid visual identity was especially important for TCR given the track record of high-speed rail projects in America so far. “There have been several high-speed rail projects in this country that have a lot of hype and no delivery.” In Texas in particular, there were two failed projects in the 1990s.

“We needed to be memorable. A solid company.”

Throughout the process, communicating with the Texas community was vital. Holly Reed came onto the team in December 2015 as the Managing Director of External Affairs after 25 years of experience at AT&T. She oversees public policy, government affairs, outreach, and communication. When asked about her main challenges at TCR, Holly says, “A project like the Texas bullet train is a big idea. And one of our challenges is to bring that to life so that people who are not familiar with a high-speed train…can understand why this is such a great opportunity for Texas.”

Connecting with a Big Idea

In the past few years, their team has been referring to the project as the Texas Bullet Train. This terminology clarifies exactly what is being proposed and keeps that technology local. Texas residents are direct beneficiaries of this work. “It’s their train – we’re just building it,” Holly says.

Building a roster of supporting organizations, associations, and cities that “enthusiastically support the project” is one of the great victories of Holly’s work. Connecting Texas’s support with broader interest is also important. “It is a project on the international stage, of national importance, and uniquely Texan.”

“In building this project, I know that we will save lives, put a lot of people to work, drive the economy, and transform how people think about traveling between Houston and Dallas.”

Their brand identity is a big part of that community-building. And the TCP team has taken ownership of the work in many ways.

Building the Future

Where does the project stand now? “We are building the train every single day,” Holly says. There are 200-300 people working on the project, designing interiors, doing environmental work, working with landowners. They expect a draft environmental permit later this year, which will clarify the route alignment and initiate construction and operations timelines.

One thing is clear: Big ideas like the Texas Bullet Train are worth the hard work it takes to see them in motion.