By Razeen Jivani
Rahim Fazal, an extraordinary individual, ranks #29 on the 30 under 30: America’s Coolest Young Entrepreneurs and was recognized as one of the Top 100 entrepreneurs in America under 30. Fazal is the chairman and co-founder of Involver, “the world’s largest social media marketing platform used by more than one million companies and many Fortune 500 brands”. His first company was created when he was 16 and was then sold for $1.5 million.
How does one get on these lists and do all these fabulous things one may ask? I know I want to be on these lists myself but I have a few hesitations: I’m too young (well…if he can do it at 16 I guess that argument doesn’t apply anymore) and the famous “if I thought of this, someone else must have too and is probably already doing it”. Fazal, who has roots in East Africa, willingly spilled the beans on what he did and how he got to be where he is; this influential, bold and innovative entrepreneur who has even received a personal letter from President Obama.
1. Where you from and what are are some influential aspect of your upbringing that contributed to your success?
My father is from Mombasa my mother is from Dar Es Salaam. They moved to England in the late 60s and eventually to Vancouver, Canada where they had my sister and I. I would describe my upbringing as being quintessentially “Canadian”: liberal, pluralistic (I grew up in the east-side of town with a lot of young new immigrant families), and family and community centered. Culturally, I was raised around a blend of Indian, East African, American and French influences. While these cultural influences shaped me as a young person, my biggest influence has been my family. Although my parents were unaware of my first venture, and were more academic than entrepreneurial, they were “amazing, encouraging, open and creative”. Infact, my mother and sister are both incredibly creative and express that through art and teaching.
2. Given that culture and family is out of our individual control, what actually made you take the leap: from the idea and conceptualization to the very real implementation of the project?
My entrepreneurial pursuits began in the summers between school. I had a variety of “mini businesses” like buying and selling hockey cards at the flea market, removing rubbish from people’s yards, fixing computers, and doing silent roles and background work for low-budget TV shows and movies. I got paid next to nothing, but I loved meeting different types of people and learning about new things. My first “real” job was at McDonalds when I was 16. Unfortunately, I didn’t last long. Within six weeks, I was fired. It was a tough experience but I pledged never to get fired again. The only way to do that, in my mind, was to be the boss, and start another project. Except this time, I wanted it to last longer than the summer meaning it would have to be something I could during the school year too. My best friend, Husein, and I came up with the idea to help other companies build and host their websites for free in exchange for letting us run advertising on them. After a year, we were up to 25,000 websites.
3. Weren’t you scared of failing or didn’t you ever think that your idea was not worthwhile or that someone was already doing it? How did you deal with problems and expanding the business simultaneously?
We never expected the idea would escalate as it did, evolving from a project that kept us busy to a real company that made money. This is one of the best parts of being young, “you don’t know what you don’t know”, so you can just experiment and learn, and if something doesn’t work, you try again. You have nothing to lose.
Competition is a sign of validation. It should never stop you – infact it should encourage you to continue pursuing whatever it is you’re trying to achieve. If there’s no competition, the idea might not be worthwhile. One analogy is thinking about how a student of art seeks out and recognizes patterns in the work of others, and uses them as inspiration for their own work. Similarly, an entrepreneur should seek out competition as an input into solving a problem and building a better business.
Starting a company can be challenging. If you wanted to, you could create a whole laundry list of things that could go wrong. My advice is to focus only the immediate problems first and worry about everything else as it comes.
4. What continues to inspire you? Would you also call this entrepreneurial ability one that was innate or developed and if developed, how does one do that?
Hah. That’s a hard question. To make it simple: I continue to be an entrepreneur because I have this undying need to be creative, and coming up with new ideas, operating companies, and being around other amazing entrepreneurs, gives me that outlet. Becoming a “great” entrepreneur is a combination of both innate and developed skills, I think. Creativity is a core pillar. As I mentioned, my family is pretty creative and my mum, dad and sister all have their own ways, and my expression is through business. That being said, creativity alone is not enough. There are lots of other skills that one might develop in order to be a “great” entrepreneur such as leadership, empathy, and discipline.
5. Do you have any final words of advice for us?
“Do things in parallel. Pursue your academic education *in addition to* getting your real-world education”. And be excellent in both. In my view, balancing school and business is hard, but if you can manage it, do it, and do it early. The earlier you expose yourself to different businesses, the better off you’ll be: most often, the best business ideas are found when interacting with customers and experiencing real problems firsthand.
And lastly, “travel”, because by traveling you will get out of your bubble and get exposure to all sorts of new people, problems and ideas.
Well, it’s definitely been a pleasure speaking with you, and thank you very much for doing thing. Hopefully we shall hear more about your work soon and good luck! Thank you again!
Looking forward! Speaking of traveling, hopefully you’ll see me in East Africa in the not too distant future.