Editor's note: Central Michigan University is involved in the entire state's success — after all, Michigan is our middle name. This is part of a
special report on people with CMU connections making a positive difference in Michigan's largest city, Detroit.
The rich drivers of fine cars pulling into the coffee shop for $5 lattes didn't escape Cason Thorsby's notice. The high school co-op employee wanted a taste of that.
But Cason wants something else, too: to make a difference.
Now — 13 years, two Central Michigan University degrees and at least four startup businesses later — the irrepressible entrepreneur is chasing both goals by staking his claim on Detroit, and there's no place he'd rather be.
"There's a feeling in the air of people trying to make something of themselves, and consequently of the city," he explains.
For Cason, it's perfect for building up
CASON Superinfused Beverages, his namesake line of health-focused natural soft drinks: low calories, no sugar, no caffeine.
"I want to be known as the guy who created this new category of beverage," he says, his sights on both international success and saving fellow Detroiters from sugar overload.
"I think people are really starting to become self-aware of what they put in their bodies," he says.
Hometown: Davison, Michigan
Occupation: Entrepreneur, founder of Cason Superinfused Beverages
CMU degrees: Bachelor of applied arts, entrepreneurship major, 2008; MBA, 2010
Noteworthy: First “businesses” were trading pencils and baseball cards in grade school
Along the way, Cason walks the talk about the city that drew him in from the suburbs where he'd located after earning his MBA (concentration in management consulting) from CMU in 2010.
"About three years ago, I came down here to the city and spent the day, and I was like, 'this is awesome.'" The small-town kid from Davison, near Flint, Michigan, couldn't resist the urban allure of tall buildings and short strolls to Starbucks. A sweet apartment near Comerica Park is icing on the cake.
"You know there are new things happening here," he says of his chosen city. "It's safe. It's clean."
And rough around the edges, he's quick to add.
"You gotta have grit and perseverance. People in Detroit embody that" — and he means both the city's longtime residents and its growing community of entrepreneurs who sense opportunity. It's not Chicago or New York City or Los Angeles, and that's the point.
"Rarely in your lifetime do you get an opportunity to ride the wave up," he says.
Learning and earning
Cason's been finding waves to ride since his childhood days of swapping baseball cards and mowing lawns for money.
"Even before that, I was trading pencils and stuff," he says. From the moment he looked at CMU, his dad's alma mater, the university appealed to his go-getter spirit.
"I found that at the time they were one of the only universities with a
degree in entrepreneurship," he says. The College of Business Administration's LaBelle Entrepreneurial Center turned out to be everything he'd hoped for.
"I loved the guys in the entrepreneurship program. They were just against the grain," he says of his instructors, whom he saw as nonconformists who broke down stereotypes of academia. "They were just doers."
Business got real for Cason when he hit up his dad for $7,500 to start a party tent and supply rental operation. Dad's deal was no-nonsense: I loan you the money, you pay me back, you pay for college. That summer he recouped his initial $7,500.
The repayment "was a hard check to write" to his dad, he says. Student loans paid for his next year of school.
But the next summer, profits tripled. Then doubled. Then doubled again. He sold the company for "a substantial amount" and moved on to other ventures. Like most entrepreneurs, he didn't always find success.
There was Dixie Dave's Wild Game Soup Co., a partnership for which he raised half a million dollars.
"I thought that was going to be my million-dollar idea," he says, but the Great Recession tanked the product plans.
There was Party Armor, an anti-hangover concoction that couldn't bounce back from a recall in Australia over a packaging problem.
"You gotta have grit and perseverance (to be an entrepreneur). People in Detroit embody that."
"The product worked really well when used responsibly," he says. "The problem is you were asking people to be responsible in their most irresponsible state."
Some people want a sure route to success — to "follow the yellow brick road," Cason says. "Entrepreneurship isn't like that." Still, he says signs are good for his beverage company.
He's distributing within Michigan, selling on Amazon and raising capital to enter other markets such as L.A. and Chicago.
"In the past two years, we're the first new beverage 7-Eleven is taking in," he notes.
The difference for Detroit
Cason has three people on the payroll in his Detroit office.
"As a very young business, my goal is to run a lean company while hiring more people and keeping jobs here in the city," he says. "Detroit is a talking point when you visit other larger cities. People like hearing about its comeback story, and it makes our brand unique for being a part of it."
In the midst of Detroit, CMU connections keep him focused: He meets regularly with fellow entrepreneurs from his college days who share his city focus.
"I even have an intern from CMU this summer helping me out," Cason says. "I just think birds of a feather flock together."
At the heart, he says, they are linked by a common frame of reference, a passion for starting companies and "making sure Detroit's a better city tomorrow than it is today."
Read more about alumni in Detroit:
Using change to invest in the future
Kyle Goodall cultivates eager young helpers as he works to “tear down the walls of injustice.”
Read his story
CMU grad leads bike-share effort
Public service has always been in Lisa Nuszkowski’s worldview. Now she’s putting Detroit’s public on wheels.
Read her story
In vested interest
As he works on million-dollar deals to benefit city residents, Aaron Seybert has two people in mind.
Read his story
Rebuilding with social capital
Community leader Marlowe Stoudamire focuses on Detroit’s future by looking back 50 years.
Read his story