Podcast Transcript – Series TWO, Episode 39
RogeR Roman, Afriblocks July 2021
[00:00:00] Roger Roman: [00:00:00] Come from a loving of family, big family education was very important.
[00:00:08] Fast forward. We have lunch. He gave me a job.
[00:00:10] I had a hard hat and everything. I didn’t do any like real work, but I was there.
[00:00:15] Things started to take off, but I had a reason not to go to law school.
[00:00:18] So I wasn’t all in right away. And when he first told me the idea, because I didn’t necessarily see the vision.
[00:00:23] Remember that thing I told you about, he was like, I started a WhatsApp group and it grew from, you know, about 10 people to like 600 people.
[00:00:30] It was a mixture of, you know, people believing in me, people believing in my skillset.
[00:00:34] One of the biggest problems with black people across the globe in terms of accelerating our advancement in society is that we think too small.
[00:00:42] And our thesis is that the globe is going to turn to Africa to fill those jobs.
[00:00:46] But the people of Africa, their resilience. It’s hard for black founders, man, just to be real, like it’s tough.
[00:00:51] Have, ultimately, a belief in yourself. Don’t let anything get you down. There’s always another opportunity around the corner.
[00:00:58] Dan: [00:00:58] What’s up Unfound Nation, Dan [00:01:00] Kihanya here. Thanks so much for checking out. Another episode of Founders Unfound. That was Roger Roman co-founder of AfriBlocks, the global Pan-African freelance marketplace and collaboration platform. Roger hails from Chicago and in his neighborhood. The Roman name is well-known. He was preordained to be a lawyer. But Roger took a different path: business. He leveraged his degree from Howard University to immerse in industries as varied as politics, construction, and eventually marketing. Roger has been spotlighted in the New York Times, Black Enterprise and Venture Beat, but it was when co-founder Tongai Choto came calling that Roger saw the chance to take on a massive opportunity.
[00:01:39] The emergence of Africa in the global tech marketplace, the continent has over 450 million. Gen Z and young millennials, all eager, ambitious and technical. Fertile ground for a startup like AfriBlocks. So listening. Roger has a great story.
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[00:02:29] Now on with the episode, stay safe and hope you enjoy.
[00:02:42] Hello and welcome to Founders. Unfound, spotlighting, the best startups you don’t know yet. We bring you stories of exceptional founders from underrepresented and underestimated backgrounds. This is the latest episode in our continuing series on founders of African descent. I’m your host, Dan Kihanya, let’s get on it.
[00:02:59] Today, [00:03:00] we have Roger Roman co-founder of AfriBlocks, the global pan- African freelance marketplace and collaboration platform. They are building the resource for devs designers and virtual assistants. Welcome to the show. Roger, we’re super excited to have you on. Thanks for making the time.
[00:03:15] Roger Roman: [00:03:15] Hi, Dan. Thanks for having me excited to be here. Excited to talk about AfriBlocks and joining the pod.
[00:03:20] Dan: [00:03:20] All right. Awesome. To start us off. Why don’t you just tell us exactly what is AfriBlocks?
[00:03:24] Roger Roman: [00:03:24] Yeah. So AfriBlocks is at pan African freelance marketplace, right? What does that mean? So basically it’s a marketplace that allows anyone across the globe to hire African talent for freelance jobs in particular software development, mobile app design. Graphic design, UI, UX, design, virtual assistance, copywriting video, and audio editing, so on and so forth. So we actually created a platform that allowed these talents and African freelancers to be able to connect with people across the globe, because prior to that, it was really hard for them to do.
[00:03:53] Dan: [00:03:53] Great. And I love it. Uh, you know, we got to meet each other in Techstars, so I’ve been following for a while, but before we get more [00:04:00] into the company, let’s hear a little bit about Roger. Where did you grow up? Where you’re from?
[00:04:04] Roger Roman: [00:04:04] I can talk about myself all day. I’ll try to keep it brief. So originally from Chicago, born and raised on the west side of Chicago.
[00:04:12] Come from a loving of family, big family, you know, education was very important. Went on to Howard university in Washington, DC really enjoy my time there probably too much. So spent some time there. And interestingly, I’ve had a very unorthodox route into tech. My first job after undergrad was actually working with a local real estate developer.
[00:04:33] Dan: [00:04:33] Okay, hold on, hold on there. I got to hear more about this big family. So like when you say big family, how big is a big family?
[00:04:40] Roger Roman: [00:04:40] So immediately it’s just my brother-in-law, but my dad’s had nine sisters and two brothers and my mom had six brothers and sisters. So a lot of cousins and we grew up very tight knit as a pocket on the west side of Chicago.
[00:04:55] If you ask about the Romans, I’m pretty sure. Well, anyone you run into a Noah Roman, or one of, you [00:05:00] know, somebody from the family. So yeah. Grew up with a lot of brother cousins or sister cousins, and it was fun. It was a great experience. Great entrepreneurs. There are some entrepreneurs. We do have some small business owners and we do have some people in tech, not even tech entrepreneurs, but actually my older cousin, Kimberly.
[00:05:18] She was the person who. The first person I knew who did anything tech while she was an it consultant. She went to school for that. She actually passed away recently, but she was my motivation to jump into tech. Yeah. She, she really helped me, you know, see someone who looked like me from where I was from actually knew about computers.
[00:05:35] I wasn’t considered a nerd. You know what I mean? Like she was pretty cool. Uh, yeah, we got some tech, we got some business owner, you know, I come from a family of hustlers. So, you know, even people who had a full-time job, everybody had a side hustle was something that, you know, they were doing to make money on the side.
[00:05:51] So that entrepreneurial spirit was always there.
[00:05:54] Dan: [00:05:54] Do you remember when you were growing up, thinking about with others family and probably. Well, the family that big, [00:06:00] it’s going to run the spectrum of like having a neighborhood where you’d have people who are doctors and lawyers. And do you remember thinking about from your own perspective, what kind of interests you or what you thought you might want to do?
[00:06:10] Roger Roman: [00:06:10] I was tapped to be a lawyer very early on. That was the path that my family had sent me on. They’re like, Hey, you’re smart. You love to talk. We can’t set you up. You’re going to be a lawyer. I like that was it. I didn’t, I didn’t have any choice. So when I went to Howard, I majored in English because I wanted to improve my writing.
[00:06:28] So I can go to law school and I spent years studying the L sat and all those things. But eventually, you know, I realized that that wasn’t the career for me. I had a bunch of internships in college and I wasn’t feeling it. You know, I was looking for something else and I found entrepreneurship to kind of be the route for me.
[00:06:43] Yeah, I was tapped. I was tapped to be a lawyer even to this day. Like if there’s a lull or if I’m, you know, between projects or something before I started after blocks and below, my mom would say, are you thinking about law school still? You know, you can always go back and go to law school. So, yeah, [00:07:00] I mean, I’m almost 40 years old, man.
[00:07:02] I’m still getting pushed to law school.
[00:07:04] Dan: [00:07:04] That’s funny law school is really interesting because I think the law is one of these things. It sounds, I won’t say romantic, but the notion of doing law and being a lawyer, I think ends up being much more attractive than what the reality ends up being. So people either, you know, along the journey or once they get into it, you know, it’s like, this is not necessarily what I, what I signed up for.
[00:07:30] So you come out of Howard, what did you major in at Howard?
[00:07:33] Roger Roman: [00:07:33] Um, so I was actually an English and African-American studies dual major.
[00:07:42] Originally, I was going to study political science, but I decided to do English because I wanted to improve my writing. And African-American studies was my minor, but after sophomore year I had audited and taking so many African-American studies classes just because they were interested, right? Like here I am.
[00:07:57] This kid from Chicago, I went to a majority white high school, [00:08:00] even though I’m from a black neighborhood. And from the hood per se, I went to a majority white high school. Then I go to this black college and I take these African-American studies classes. Like, they were just interesting, man. I, I would go when I wasn’t registered for the class and I would just sit and take notes.
[00:08:14] My friends would make fun of me cause they’re like, why are you going to a class that you’re not in? But you know, it was just, it was just fun to learn about myself and learn about, you know, my people and how we able to the world. So yeah, English and African-American studies. I was a dual man. English.
[00:08:26] Wasn’t so fun. I’ll admit that. But the skills that I learned being an English major, I use to this day, so I can’t be too mad about it
[00:08:33] Dan: [00:08:33] What was the challenge with it is it’s a subject matter or,
[00:08:37] Roger Roman: [00:08:37] you know, it’s writing and it’s very subjective, right? Professors, every professor has a different style of writing that they do.
[00:08:44] You couldn’t do generalist work, right? Like I couldn’t just kind of set a style of writing each professor. I had to actually hone into their style and it took me a while to learn that. So needless to say, my African-American studies grades were a lot better than my English grades on the transcript, but I [00:09:00] got through it.
[00:09:00] I got, I finally made it through and learn how to write different styles and it’s worked out.
[00:09:05] Dan: [00:09:05] That’s great. I mean, that’s, you know, I was an engineer as an undergrad and I do not practice engineering anymore, but there, there was some foundational aspects of problem solving and how to think about things technically that I’m grateful for having gone through the gauntlet of an engineering school.
[00:09:23] So you come out of Howard. What was attracting you about the professional world? What did you think you wanted to do coming out of there?
[00:09:29] Roger Roman: [00:09:29] Honestly, I had no idea. The situation. I had taken the L set, but I’d taken it kind of late. So I knew I was going to have to take a year off before, you know, I applied to law school and I did really well, but I just wasn’t feeling it.
[00:09:41] And I got lucky when I was in undergrad. I did a lot of like community organizing and, you know, helping out in local campaigns and things like that. So I had quite a decent network. And just so happened after graduation, I’m walking back to my apartment with my family behind me. I got my cap and gown. I see one of the guys that I [00:10:00] worked with on one of the campaigns who was actually a developer.
[00:10:03] He was just starting a commercial development firm and he asked, what, what was I doing? And I’m like, Ugh, I think I’m going back to Chicago in a week, a couple of weeks ago. And he’s like, well, let’s have lunch next week, you know? And maybe I can help you get an opportunity. Fast forward. We have lunch. He gave me a job.
[00:10:19] Um, I was basically a gopher at this farm, you know, it was really, it was cool. You know, worked there for awhile, picking up coffee or running errands or things like that. Then I finally begged these guys. They actually want a project to build a school in Washington, DC. And I begged them to put me on the project because I was just tired of sitting around the office and grab a coffee.
[00:10:39] And they did. They made me an assistant project manager on this project and three months out of college as an English African-American studies major I’m on site organizing a bull raise and organizing build, and hiring subcontractors and things like that. So it was a good time. I definitely learned. Did you have your own hard hat?
[00:10:58] I had a hard hat and [00:11:00] everything, man. I mean, I was, you know, I, I didn’t do any like real work, but you know, I was there. I was there. I saw the guys eating their lunch at 10:00 AM when, when everyone else was at office. Yeah. I got a real good taste where, you know, I was working in a trailer, so it was cool, man.
[00:11:14] It was definitely some learning curve. And I was trying to learn the business as we went, you know, there’s a lot to it, but you know, it was a great experience. Definitely. I use some of those lessons to this day.
[00:11:25] Dan: [00:11:25] Nice. Yeah. I mean, I think that’s an interesting place to start. Like you said, it was kind of opportunistic, which is awesome.
[00:11:31] The structure of it. I mean, it’s, it seems like it’s a very structured industry and that, you know, the process is fairly established. It’s not a lot of deviation. You do these steps and follow this pattern. So you can learn a lot about business in general, when you have some structure to lean on like that. So what was after that?
[00:11:49] Roger Roman: [00:11:49] I will say I’ll add to this, to that, to the whole idea of outsourcing and contracting and subcontract, but it originally entered my framework at that point, because before that, I [00:12:00] always thought, you know, there’s a construction company that builds a building and, you know, they build everything and I found out like, no there’s plumbing company, there’s a cement company.
[00:12:07] There’s a cleaning crew there, all of these different pieces going together to build this one product. So that was when I originally got it. Subcontracting and working with outsource talent into my mind. Unfortunately, we finished the school project, but that was right in the midst of the market crash. So the real estate market crashed here.
[00:12:25] I am, I finished the school project. I got a huge project, $50 million budget under my belt. And you know, it’s great. We finished it on time and my boss has said, Hey. We can’t pay you for the next year. And maybe you should consider law school
[00:12:42] Dan: [00:12:42] Oh-oh, Were they talking to your mom.
[00:12:45] Roger Roman: [00:12:45] No, they were attorneys themselves before they got into development. So they said, Hey, you know, we’ll give you, they gave me a great severance package and you know, it wasn’t a brutal firing or anything, or lay off. Like they, they took care of me. Actually. They even [00:13:00] supplemented my ad to take some more courses.
[00:13:02] You know, Justin prep for law school when they supplemented some of that too. You know, I spent six months just kind of like studying and hanging out and trying to figure things out and out of nowhere, a friend of mine from college comes with this idea for a video game and I’m like, ah, video game, whatever.
[00:13:17] It’s not, you know, it’s a pipe dream. And, um, we actually met up and he showed me his notebook and it was so big. It was like textbook size, a little book with all of these notes and specs and, you know, game play at all these things. And I was impressed at that point. And, you know, he was begging me to help out, I won’t say begging, but he was asking me to help and I decided to help him out and things started to take off.
[00:13:39] And I had a reason not to go to law school. So came to LA to build this video game studio. And worked on that for about three years, man. It was a tough, tough, tough run. You know, we raised a little bit of a seed fund, but we had no idea what we were doing. We were in over our heads, you know, we were kind of learning as we go.
[00:13:57] And it’s hard to do that when you’re, you know, you’re a [00:14:00] black male or three black male found yourself, worked on that for three years and yeah, it, it, uh, eventually it ended. It’s funny. My co-founder actually went to law school. He left Ms. Startup to go back to law school and went back to the east coast and I stayed here.
[00:14:15] Dan: [00:14:15] How have you escaped law school?
[00:14:17] Roger Roman: [00:14:17] It’s been chasing me, man.
[00:14:19] Dan: [00:14:19] It just keeps going, coming into your life. Every step you turn the corner and there’s law school.
[00:14:24]Roger Roman: [00:14:24] And, you know, I decided to stay here in LA. I had an advisor, Keith, Boesky very instrumental in helping me break into tech, man. He, uh, when he was a big video game guy, he was actually one of the guys behind a tomb Raider.
[00:14:37] And he said, Hey, look, you got some skills, man. You got, you know, you know, some things you’ve learned, some stuff. Maybe you can package that and work as a freelancer. And you know, I know some people who will hire you in design will hire you with a copywriting and things like that. You know, maybe you should stay here and do that.
[00:14:50] And so you find your next opportunity. So that’s exactly what I did. You know, at this point, we’re at about 2014, 2015. Yeah. Stay here. Worked as a freelancer, had a few side [00:15:00] projects that I worked on. It didn’t amount to much. And some of that time I leave the story out a lot. Cause it’s just kind of like a memory I don’t, I don’t think about, but I actually had a record label at one time.
[00:15:09] You know, and it has some success there and then play some records on the charts and things like that. But I was really just trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And, um, eventually the freelance marketing stuff was the thing that kind of led the way I was making money from that, keeping the lights on.
[00:15:23] And I started to hire more people just cause I couldn’t take on the jobs myself. So, you know, I brought a few team members on and, and that was it. Like I’ve been working on that the past six years, man, until. Uh, reached out to me asking me if I can help him with his startup, uh, AfriBlocks.
[00:15:39] Dan: [00:15:39] So tell me, before we get into Afra blocks.
[00:15:41] So video games and record labels and moving to LA across the country. I mean, what gave you the confidence to enter into these industries that, you know, let’s call it what it is you weren’t exactly, you know, on a path that was sort of set where you studied entertainment. Design or something that [00:16:00] would be kind of more obvious, I guess, to some folks as serves as a career path, what gave you the confidence to hop into these
[00:16:05] Roger Roman: [00:16:05] things with both like with the video games and the music, there was more of a hobby, right?
[00:16:10] Like, you know, I’m a huge rap fan, huge music fan in general, right? Like I love me. It’s a part of my life. So all of these opportunities just kind of came and I think it had a mix. It was a mixture of, you know, people believing in me, people believing in my skillset and believe that I could actually help them in these places because in each one, it wasn’t, you know, the music record label thing.
[00:16:29] Wasn’t my original idea. It was, it was a cousin who actually, you know, had some success in music and he said, Hey, you, you know, business, you know, helped me out with this record label. And like, that’s kind of how that started. And it was the same thing with the video game thing. I played video games, been playing in my, my entire life.
[00:16:45] So, you know, it was just a mixture of something I like to do. Um, and maybe pushing in that direction in terms of the confidence being where I’m from, you know, being from the west side of Chicago, You know, going to Howard, I feel like there was a lot of people who invested in to my [00:17:00] success, right? Like they invested in my family.
[00:17:02] They put a lot into me to be successful. So, you know, I’ve never wanted to sell myself short and I’ve always felt like, Hey, you know, you can do great things. You can accomplish great things. And that was the motivation. Like it was crazy, man. I came to LA I didn’t have much money like that. Severance package had pretty much been drained at that point.
[00:17:19] You know, I was doing a little, few side things and you know, it was tough, but I definitely, I had the ultimate belief in myself and I, I think any founder and specifically any black bile you can talk to that has had a motor come with success will tell you the same thing like that confidence is, is, is invaluable.
[00:17:34] Dan: [00:17:34] And it’s not for everybody, right? I mean, at any step in that journey, you could have doubled down on. Let me just keep hammering it in development. Let me just keep hammering in the gaming world. Let me just kinda keep, you know, pursuing. The label thing or the music industry. Right. But you had this, my perspective, you’ve got this ability to say, okay, what’s out there.
[00:17:54] What am I interested in? What am I good at? And how can I bring that to the table? So that makes a lot of [00:18:00] sense. And we’re going to learn about how that has brought you to your startup in a minute, but we’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back with Roger Roman from AfriBlocks.
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[00:18:58] Dan: [00:18:58] So back with Roger from [00:19:00] AfriBlocks. So you mentioned you, you teased it up a little bit, that you were chugging along doing this grape sort of marketing agency type work and building a little business there. And then this guy named Tongai shows up. So tell us about how you met him and how that came to be.
[00:19:18] Roger Roman: [00:19:18] He was working at a FinTech startup. It was actually a blockchain, Bitcoin startup. They were building a remittance platform that allowed you to send money back to Zimbabwe, exclusively using Bitcoin. You know, it was really cool. And then I was hired, my company was hired actually to help build out their marketing department.
[00:19:34] So I started as an interim CMO of sorts for a while. And Tongai was the lead developer there. And it was really fun, you know, fun project to work on. You know, we were doing some good in the world and really trying to help. And some guy, and I became, you know, we became friends after that. I wouldn’t say we were best friends or anything like that, but we were boys, you know, he would check up on me.
[00:19:52] I would check up on him and kind of followed each other’s career. But as I moved on to other projects, he was still there. I want to say around [00:20:00] Christmas of 2019, he reached out and said, Hey, I’m working on this thing. You know, I really want to get you, you know, I want to get your input on it and what you think.
[00:20:07] And I was like, oh, that’s cool. You know, you know, hit me up. And then I didn’t hear from him for a while. And he finally followed up with me a couple of months later and he was like, No. Remember that thing I told you about was like, I started a WhatsApp group and it grew from, you know, about 10 people to like 600 people.
[00:20:22] And now if there’s something here, I just don’t, you know, I need some help in figuring out how, how do we build on this? So we just got to work. He sent me a deck that he had put together and, uh, it was rough, you know, but we kind of fleshed it out. We spent a couple of months working on the business model on how it would work.
[00:20:39] Everything. And I want to say by may, you know, we were all in, I think, may of 2020, you know, we both decided that this was something that was scalable. It was lucrative. I, we were making money and we both jumped in full-time as founders and he accepted me as a co-founder and we’ve taken off from there.
[00:20:54] Dan: [00:20:54] So tell us your thought process around again. So, you know, makes a lot of sense. You’ve worked [00:21:00] together. You kind of keep in those parallel careers and figure out, and then it sort of emerges that maybe you could work together. But again, he had started this business and it sounds like it was doing pretty well. You could have been just like, I work nine to five and I hire a bunch of people and I’m good. Tell us about it. What was the thought or the sort of thing that said, okay, I’m going to go do this.
[00:21:22] Roger Roman: [00:21:22] The thing about the marketing agency was that it was never the end for me. I always felt like it was just something that I could do to make money. And to steal, you know, learn and practice and grow and meet founders and, and do all those things while I, you know, can keep the lights on.
[00:21:37] And it was actually doing better than I anticipated, but I, I didn’t look at it as a scalable thing. Right. Like I wanted to, I want to build something. It was always there that I want to build something that can actually scale and be, you know, this big entity. So put the marketing thing. It was a grind man.
[00:21:50] Like you’re always grinding up clients, you know, you’re always, you know, grinding and keeping your contractors and your staff happy. Like, it’s just a constant grind and that wasn’t, [00:22:00] the life I’d necessarily want to deal. I felt like I could, you know, with PCM, you know, it was very successful. Could build it up to be huge.
[00:22:07] And I still do take some small consulting contracts or whatever, but I didn’t want to build a business where it depended on me 100% to exist. Right. I felt like that’s not a real business, a scalable business. That’s more of a, a small business. And then it’d be, you becomes a job and you’re trapped. No, I’ve got two small kids.
[00:22:23] I wanted to, you know, start figuring out how to have that work-life balance and the grind that I was pushing with the agency just wasn’t wasn’t it. So to make a long story short, the stars just aligned, uh, about March. I was helping a young guy out early in the year and about March and, you know, things started to shut down because of COVID.
[00:22:42] We had to put a lot of our contracts on, you know, just kind of pause there at the moment because some of our clients weren’t, they weren’t doing so well. And you know, we couldn’t charge them a monthly retainer if they’re not even making money. So I think about 70% of our contracts will, were halted. I mean, I had to lay off some people, like it was a tough time.
[00:22:59] But it [00:23:00] was perfect because now I had the time to dive into Afra blocks and it worked out, it actually worked out perfectly for me. And the real driver was that, you know, like I said before, working with the agency, we hired off shore town all the time. And, you know, and that was like, you know, the number one thing we would do and help our startups out in for our small businesses.
[00:23:20] It was really hard because they couldn’t even afford it. They didn’t know what they needed. They didn’t know where to start. And in the back of my mind, like solving these problems for small businesses was always there. Like, how can I do it? Because even beyond that, you know, I would have small businesses approach us, you know, to contract us, to do their marketing and they couldn’t afford it.
[00:23:38] Like you couldn’t afford the overhead and move the agency. So, you know, I, I would’ve plugged them away with a graphic designer that I knew or a web developer, then Anton guy was doing the same thing on the other side, you know, he was here. And people would say, Hey, you’re a developer. Can you help me build this website?
[00:23:53] And he didn’t have the time to do it because he had a full-time job. So he would connect them with a developer. He knew back home in Zimbabwe or [00:24:00] designer that he lived back home. So we were doing the same thing in two different spaces. And, you know, at first, like I said, I was. I wasn’t all in right away.
[00:24:08] And when he first told me the idea, cause I didn’t necessarily see the vision, but after we sat down and chopped it up and kind of went through his vision, it really aligned with a lot of the things that I wanted to build. So it was, it was a natural transition for me and COVID just so happened to shut the world down. So I had a little bit of time on my hands at that time.
[00:24:26] Dan: [00:24:26] Yeah, that’s it. I mean, sometimes it’s the way the timing works for some of this stuff. So that makes a lot of sense. So tell us a little bit more about Afra blocks itself. So maybe describe what the average, or if there’s such a thing or kind of the profile of a resource, and then maybe what is a client look like? What does the profile of a client?
[00:24:44] Roger Roman: [00:24:44] Most of our freelancers are young people who have, you know, finished college recently in the last five years. It would, it’s not exclusive though. I don’t want to make it seem like, you know, there’s some ages I’m or anything, but most of our freelancers are younger.
[00:24:56] People have other jobs, they have full time [00:25:00] jobs and they have part-time jobs. Cause they struggled to find a gig. And you know, whenever they studied in college, whether it’s computer science or design or things like that. So, um, the hell from seven, seven different countries, we have freelancers from Zimbabwe, of course, South Africa, Ghana, Zambia, Nigeria, Kenya.
[00:25:18] Yeah, they come from these different places. They’re on the younger side. Most of the mine and twenties, when they’re professionals know they’re skilled at what they do. And they just haven’t had an opportunity to get as many jobs across the globe as other people. And then on the demand side, on the buyer side, it really happened organically.
[00:25:34] The way we’ve decided to target this market. But our first 300 customers, we went back and gave them a survey and said, Hey, why did you choose. And the overwhelming majority said, Hey, I chose you guys because there was a cultural affinity there. I never seen African freelancers. You know, I’m an ex-pat or I’m a first generation immigrant, or I’m a black American, or I’m a black Canadian.
[00:25:55] And, you know, I want to work with people. I have a cultural affinity with, and we decided to lean [00:26:00] into that. And when we did the research, we found out that there’s 22 million businesses across the diaspora. That are considered small businesses of these businesses in the U S in particular, only 7% have more than five employees.
[00:26:13] So there’s this huge, huge opportunity to help these smaller businesses helped you solopreneurs build out their businesses, build out their teams with affordable quality, talent coming from Africa and would like to say, you know, we’re helping our customers build better businesses or projects, and we’re helping our freelancers build better careers. So everyone’s, you know, everyone is benefiting across the platform.
[00:26:33] Dan: [00:26:33] And how do you find freelancers? I mean, the, to go recruiting them, do you have to go through a screening process? Like how do you find these aspiring folks?
[00:26:42] Roger Roman: [00:26:42] Like, like we said before, the first 600 that we onboarded into the platform found us.
[00:26:48] Right. Like it just, it happened organically and it’s pretty much been that way since we launched. And again, we were just a little bit over a year old. Um, and we have about 3000 freelancers on the platform. [00:27:00] Most of them have come from word of mouth. I think the overwhelming majority we have. Any ad dollars or digital advertising dollars into acquiring freelancers.
[00:27:08] We’re actually at the point now, you know, we’re vetting freelancers, but really focused on building out the demand side of the platform because we have more freelancers at the moment. Then we actually have jobs being completed. So it’s been fairly easy. Um, in addition to that, we partner with several universities.
[00:27:23] We partner with several tech hubs throughout Africa. Um, you know, to kind of, you know, present the opportunity to their talent. And when you think about the fact that most freelancers work on three to four platforms, anyway, it just makes sense. You know, that, you know, once we get the word out and once we start to enter into new markets, that we can get people onboarding into the platform on the freelancers.
[00:27:43] Dan: [00:27:43] And so you mentioned from the client perspective, it sounds like there’s a smaller businesses, maybe startups themselves. Do you have to involve yourself in their projects from a management or liaison point of view or basically that once the freelancer sign. They’re kind of, you know, working [00:28:00] directly with the client.
[00:28:01] Roger Roman: [00:28:01] Great question then. So that’s a unique offering about our platform. That’s one of the things that we feel makes us unique in addition to asking those first 300 customers about, you know, why they chose us, we asked, you know, why would they come back? And again, the overwhelming majority said, We’ll come back to you guys because you have an attention to detail.
[00:28:20] You actually talk to us and understand our project before, you know, you just give us a bunch of freelancers to hire, and we decided to lean into that as well. So we, we built in a project management layer with each job that comes onto the planet. We have a project manager who helps you hire a freelancer.
[00:28:36] So you’re not just given thousands of developer profiles to search through and find the one that fits for you, especially if you’re low on time. And, you know, you don’t know the difference between a PHP developer or a react developer or whatever. We’ll have a project manager help you and say, Hey, okay, this is what you need to do.
[00:28:52] The build, you know, you want to do a Shopify redesign. You don’t need a, you know, you don’t need a database developer for that. You know, you just need [00:29:00] a designer here, three designers that are great for Shopify redesign, you know, and this is why this one is great. This is why this one. These are their rates.
[00:29:08] These are the times all as they work in, you know, based on what you said, I, you know, these are the three that work and then, you know, they’ll help you pick those states. I want you to pick the freelancer, that customer service agent or that project manager. We haven’t 100% settled on a name for them yet, but that person is actually with you.
[00:29:25] Through the duration of the project. So they’re making sure milestones are here. They’re making sure deadlines are here. They’re making sure communication is slowing well from both sides. You know, they’re making sure the freelancers are respected and their time is respected and they’re making sure the customer gets exactly what they want.
[00:29:40] And we feel like that’s unique because again, it’s this blind spot that the bigger platforms have missed of small business owners who aren’t necessarily technically savvy, who don’t spend their days, you know, hiring developers or understand. Colin languages is they need the same or done. Like we we’re entering in space now where you can’t really survive.
[00:29:59] You know, if your [00:30:00] business is not in the, in the digital space, so you don’t have certain foods which are beans. And so that’s how it works. And then in terms of. You know, we expanded this model to even help us vet our freelancers, working with freelances. And I think I mentioned it earlier. They can be the most talented people in the world.
[00:30:16] They can be the most skilled people in the world, but you can always run into problems in terms of communication and project management. That’s just an issue, whether you have the technical know-how or not, like, you know, I’ll spend money with freelances and it didn’t work out. And we wasted a lot of time and things like that.
[00:30:32] So we wanted to really attack that, right? We wanted to make sure that we made it easy for you to work with a freelancer, but we took that pain point away, you know, in terms of the project lands and little stuff. So when we onboard these guys, we not only vetting them for their technical talent, but we also have a project manager work with them for a month on each job, just to make sure that they understand the customer service part of freelancing, we’re building freelancers and we telling them, Hey, this is a business, you know, this is your business.
[00:30:58] This is your stuff. [00:31:00] You know, and there is more than just knowing how to code and knowing how to design. You actually have to know how to treat customers and make sure things are done in the proper way.
[00:31:08] Dan: [00:31:08] So tell me, like, you know, at some point when this thing is a success or the biggest success that you can imagine, like, what does that look like to you? Like, if you’re going to go back to that massive family of yours at some point and say, yeah, we did it after blocks did it, what does that look like? Like what’s the big vision for the company.
[00:31:27] Roger Roman: [00:31:27] At the risk of getting too deep.
[00:31:30] Dan: [00:31:30] Not possible on my show.
[00:31:32] Roger Roman: [00:31:32] Gotcha. Okay. So Tongai and I, this is where we really aligned, right?
[00:31:35] Like when he told me as far as big vision, I got it right away. Right. And we call ourselves a Pan-African platform. Right. We’ve talked about how we help small businesses throughout the diaspora. We help freelances on the continent. I think one of the biggest problems with black people across the globe in terms.
[00:31:51] Accelerating our advancement in society is that we think too small, you know, here I’m from Chicago, you know, like we’re here in the states. And we, when we think about [00:32:00] black issues or issues that affect black people, we usually limit that view to what’s going on here in the states. And that’s not a good thing, right.
[00:32:07] Once we open our eyes to realize that, you know, there’s millions and millions of black people across this globe. And even though we’re super diverse and like, even on a continent, like there, there’s so much diversity and there’s not a monolith at all. And even here in the states, black people, aren’t a monolith, right?
[00:32:21] Like we’re different. You go to, to the south and it’s different from New York or the west coast or whatever. So, you know, we have to be able to use that diversity as a tool and use that the vastness of the diaspora as a tool as well. And I think. Across the board advance and live. So the biggest vision for us is really to create a way for economy and commerce, to travel throughout the diaspora and to support businesses wherever you are.
[00:32:46] You know, if you are of African descent, like that’s the big vision in terms of the business model, we, we feel like, you know, in 10 years, well, we don’t feel like we actually know in 10 years there’s going to be a talent shortage, right? A global talent shortage. [00:33:00] Consulting firms are predicting this talent shortage of about 85 million people.
[00:33:04] I mean, there’s $8.5 trillion on the table that could be lost because there won’t be enough people to fill these next generation jobs. And our thesis is that the globe is going to turn to Africa to fill those jobs. I mean, it’s the youngest region in the world. Think it’s at 1.3 billion people today. And then I was supposed to swell to like two point something in the next few years.
[00:33:23] 60% of the population is under the age of 25. You got a lot of money being important to the tech hubs in just the past few years, you’ve seen the amount of tech hubs grow from, you know, a few hundred to over 600 today. I mean, so it’s all of these factors that are pouring around Africa, that we just see it as, as opportunity to deal with those rails that allow, you know, the small business owner in Los Angeles.
[00:33:46] You know, a graphic designer, as well as, you know, the fortune 500 company that needs to move, you know, data science team or, or machine learning team to be able to build that team in Africa. And we’re building the rails for them to do that. That’s the big vision. Anyone who wants to [00:34:00] work with African talent because they will, we’ll be using our platform in some respect, whether that’s for payments collaboration, or to find talent.
[00:34:07] Dan: [00:34:07] I love it thinking very big. Well, we’re going to take another short break and we’ll be right back with Roger Roman from AfriBlocks.
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[00:35:03] Dan: [00:35:03] So we’re back with Roger from AfriBlocks. So Roger, tell me, you are in LA and Tongai. Your co-founder is in Zimbabwe. That’s an advantage of that distance. And then what are some of the challenges of that time zone or physical?
[00:35:20] Roger Roman: [00:35:20] Yeah. So the challenge, I’ll say the challenge right away is meetings, right? Like we scheduled meeting. And we’ll, you know, we’ll just add the other four invited, you know, oftentimes we don’t consider what let’s find that meeting’s going to be for the other person. So it’ll just pop up like, oh, I got a 1:00 AM meeting tonight.
[00:35:36] Okay. Okay. I, you know, we’re used to it at this point, especially after, you know, going through Techstars and, and dealing with it that way. But I think the advantage is that we’re always on, you know, Zimbabwe is nine hours ahead of us. So, you know, my morning is time guys night and his night is my morning.
[00:35:50] And that means, you know, someone is always tending to the business. Someone is always. To get things going. And you know, when I wake up ton of things that he’s done and he’s shooting new messages, like, Hey, I [00:36:00] did this, did this, you know, where’s this. Or when are we going to finish this? And when I go to bed at night, you know, I’ll send him a message.
[00:36:05] Like, Hey man, this is what I knocked out today. This is what we got to do. And usually by the time I wake up, he’s answered it, you know? And the same thing, like he’ll send me something. And by the time he wakes up, he’ll answer. Now we’ll say 10 guys, a unique person, because he rarely sleep. So I’ll send them a message thinking he’s asleep and not expecting a response.
[00:36:22] And I get the response and I’m like, dude, what are you doing, man? But that’s been the bonus part. You know, we’ve built this company, we’ve built it in a centralized way from the start. And I think it really supports our thesis, that remote work, you know, and building these decentralized. Is the future of work, you know, and if we can’t do it ourselves, then how can we expect other people to do it?
[00:36:42] This has been fun though. I will say I ha it’s taken some getting used to, but…
[00:36:46] Dan: [00:36:46] I can identify, I have a team in India. And so I’m the only one in the U S so I basically have to go on their schedule when, uh, when we have meetings and stuff and yeah, you can get used to it. Have you been to Zimbabwe yourself yet?
[00:36:58] Roger Roman: [00:36:58] Not yet. So I’m going in [00:37:00] October four? I was planning to go before COVID and things just. Slow down and now even that’s in jeopardy, if I can go. And I told him, because I know we actually just had this conversation this morning, Zimbabwe is shut down again because they’ve had a spike in their cases. So, you know, who knows if, when it’ll happen, hopefully it’ll happen. So but I’m looking forward to it.
[00:37:20] Dan: [00:37:20] Yeah, but it’s going to be really interesting. I know for me, like when they deal with people, even in the United States and it’s like, then you go to meet them and you see where they are. And it’s like, oh, this is so different than what I imagined. Let’s talk a little bit about the journey at like fundraising and Techstars. How has that been so far? Have you raised money? Are you out raising money? How was that journey?
[00:37:42] Roger Roman: [00:37:42] You know, we’ve bootstrapped up until this point. The first money that we take in was from Techstars. So now when you join the accelerator, We get a check from them. That’s been instrumental kind of helping us grow the business because before that we were, we were bootstrapped, like I said, but since we finished the program about a little over a month, [00:38:00] no, we started our seed round, our seed fundraising round.
[00:38:03] And it has been interesting to say the least, you know, we do have some commitments. We’re about quarter of the way through the route, got some commitments this week, you know, yesterday and earlier today. So that’s great, but it’s been a challenge. I wouldn’t be being honest. If I said, you know, it was an easy road or, you know, it was fine.
[00:38:19] It’s been a challenge. You know, you have this thing that you’re building have all these great metrics and you feel like you’ve checked all the boxes and you know, it’s still not enough for some, you know, investors and you know, that can be discouraging, right? Like that’s when you have to lean back on that confidence and that belief in yourself and what you’re doing, because it can get discouraging to hear, you know, you know, you can go two weeks without.
[00:38:39] No, you can go three weeks without, without a yes. And, you know, having those NOLs build up can be discouraging. You know, you just gotta keep pushing it and you’ll find the right investors for you. And maybe you have to be a little unorthodox, you know, at the risk of, I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining because I’m in a great position.
[00:38:55] And I feel like, you know, we’ve been blessed and we’ve been lucky to be where we are, but it’s hard [00:39:00] for black founders, man, just to be real, like it’s tough. I mean, you know, you try to find investors who will believe in what you believe. And a lot of times those investors come from similar backgrounds as you, or, you know, they look like you and there’s only so many of those investors out there, right?
[00:39:13] Like, I feel like, you know, in terms of VC and especially early stage, you know, we all know the black, the black VC’s right. Cause there’s about, you know, a good 20, 30 of them that we all know about it and they’re kind of famous and, you know, to their credit, they can’t say yes to every deal. So I know it’s hard for them too, but it’s a struggle when then, you know, once you venture outside of that, It’s really hard to find people, especially where we are, because not only are we are a black startup, but you know, we’re African startup as well.
[00:39:40] So like, it’s kind of like a double negative, you know, in terms of finding, uh, you know, investors who see the vision, who understand that we’re trying to build something that, you know, of course makes money grows and can be a huge enterprise, but also helps people a lot of the way in terms of, you know, getting people, jobs and things like that.
[00:39:57] So it’s been a challenge. I’ll say all that to say, it’s [00:40:00] been a challenge they’re going through. There’s a light at the end of the title. So excited about that, but it’s not for the weak.
[00:40:06]Dan: [00:40:06] Yeah, it is a hard, hard journey. And on top of that, you’re trying to run the business and build the business. It’s a side activity, right?
[00:40:14] There’s a part of the activity that isn’t really contributing directly to your business. So it’s a lot of effort and a lot of sacrifice. So tell me, I want to pick up on one thing that you mentioned. So I’m wondering, do you have any investors, whether they’ve committed or not have shown positive interest who don’t look like you.
[00:40:31] Roger Roman: [00:40:31] Yes, we have actually, we’ve had some angel investors who. I actually spoke with a group of investors from Canada today, white men who are really into what we’re building. And we’ve also had some interest from the east. Uh, we’ve talked to a bunch of, uh, VCs from Japan as well, who have shown interest in what we’re building.
[00:40:50] And then here, of course, in the states, you know, some of the VC farms, you know, we’ve taken meetings with them. They’ve shown some interest as well. Well, for the most part, you know, it’s been people who actually understand [00:41:00] Africa or understand, you know, black America or whatever. Like there’s been people who have some type of connection there who’s taking the most interest.
[00:41:07] Well, like we said, like I said before, there’s only so many of those people out there, so. You’re kind of forced to expand beyond that. And hopefully you can find people who, you know, who see the vision and it will agree with the vision outside of that. But our cap table, you know, I remember at one point we said we wanted to have a black cap table.
[00:41:23] It’s gotta to be pretty diverse and that’s okay. You know, we have a black founding team, so, you know, the diverse cap table, I think, I think we can be okay with that.
[00:41:31] Dan: [00:41:31] Hey, the reason I asked about that is I’m wondering, you know, without trying to live in somebody else’s head, what do you think was sort of the positive indicators? Was it about who you are that tracks in the opportunity to set a, get people into that mode of potentially want to invest?
[00:41:50] Roger Roman: [00:41:50] Yeah, I think it was a mixture of both. So I think Tongai and I both have solid pedigrees as founders having built something before and that having pushed something out to market before [00:42:00] I think that worked in our favor.
[00:42:01] I think Techstars was definitely a big plus, right. Like knowing that we were able to, to be accepted and to actually get through the program that has helped out. And then I think people are starting to see the opportunity that is Africa. Right. There’s just so much opportunity there. You know, usually when you hear about things in the news or you hear about opportunities in the news, it’s kind of too late, right?
[00:42:21] Like, you know, I think starting to get to that point with Africa, but we’re still in the early stages and not a lot of people have Africa on their radar in terms of investment and business and skills. So I think those three, I would like to think that, you know, Tonga and I drove a lot of it interests, you know, just cause we’re amazing.
[00:42:38] We’re dope. And we’re cool people. But I do know that the opportunity that lies in Africa and then the ability to build scalable businesses, there is something that is able to some interests.
[00:42:49] Dan: [00:42:49] That makes a lot of sense and that’s what we want to see. Right. We want to see people appreciate the opportunity for what it is.
[00:42:55] And there’s a bonus, like you said, you’re a super dope team and that’s [00:43:00] just sort of the gravy on top of that. So I did want to ask a little bit about China. So there’s an interesting, you know, I don’t know if it’s a controversy or is different perspectives, right? China has really come into Africa big time and some people look at it as.
[00:43:14] They’re willing to kind of come in and to the buildings from the foundation and help to put tech and dollars in and other people looking at it more like it’s economic colonialism, and they’re just kind of like take advantage. So from your perspective and where you sit with this sort of this platform, how do you view that?
[00:43:30] I mean, have you had people from China talk to you or approach you or anything?
[00:43:34] Roger Roman: [00:43:34] Yeah. We’ve actually had some investors from China. We actually had some customers in China as well. So the China thing is it’s interesting. Right? I haven’t met anyone who has a clear view of how they feel about it. Right. And being the fact that I’m here in the states, I’m not a continental African, right.
[00:43:49] And like I’m hearing. You know, I can only speak on it from the outside looking in, but I’ve heard both sides, right? Just as you have, I’ve heard people say, Hey, you know, this is a new form of [00:44:00] colonialism. Then I’ve heard people say, Hey, you know, China is already an empire, you know, China’s empire that has been built for thousands of thousands of years.
[00:44:08] You know, and they don’t have any interest in coming here in Africa. This is a purely an exchange of resources. I think any situation where you’re dealing with trading and doing international training, things like that, it can be exploited, right. If someone can be getting used. And, and I think that’s just a natural human thing.
[00:44:24] The way you should get around that is to just make sure that your interests are covered when you’re doing these deals. And you do that just by having leaders and the people who are making these deals, you know, look out for your best interest. So in terms of China moving into Africa, I wouldn’t say I’m opposed to it because obviously in the same thing comes from the west.
[00:44:41] I just seen a lot of the tech companies moving to Africa as well. Like you said, Twitter and all these companies, and we know where China is focusing on here, for sure. You have a lot of American and Western companies focusing on, you know, the tech infrastructure and things like that. So, you know, I think China just like, you know, the Western country, they see the opportunity and it’s really up to the [00:45:00] continental Africans, the people there, the leadership to make sure that they have the best people know the people’s best interest at heart.
[00:45:06] Right. And it’s, it’s tough when you’re talking about 54 different countries, right. If you can’t get into one country, you just go into another and there’s always going to be somebody somewhere willing to sell to people. But the people of Africa, just like, you know, the people across the basket, they’re resilient, you know, just like we’re resilient here.
[00:45:22] And I think we’re coming into a space where we can use this technology that we’re building and the technology that we have to make sure things are more equitable. Whether you know, there’s partnerships with China and this partnerships with the west, it’s real, there’s a lot of gray. It’s not black and white at all.
[00:45:38] In terms of China man, and I support anything. It helps people, you know, do better. Like, I, I feel like, you know, it’s not realistic to think that China’s going to come in and invest into the infrastructure of Africa and not expecting anything in return. And like I said before, as long as that thing is not exploitive in nature, then I think it’s good.
[00:45:56] Dan: [00:45:56] I dunno how good a lawyer you would be, Roger, but you definitely would be a good [00:46:00] political scientist. That was pretty articulate there. So as we look to wrap up our conversation, I think one of the big questions I like to ask people, and this is particularly interesting because you’re a repeat founder.
[00:46:12] All black teams. So it’s interesting, but let’s, you can pick the time you want, but I always like to say, like, you could go back before your entrepreneurial journey began. And again, it could be before our foot blocks or before, you know, one of the other opportunities and speak to that. Roger. And with the wisdom of this, Roger, what would you tell him? What would you say to avoid? What would you say to double down on what kind of wisdom would you share?
[00:46:37]Roger Roman: [00:46:37] I would tell them for one to buy Bitcoin, that’s the one over one thing, adults sell your Bitcoin. Right? Like now I bought a bunch of Bitcoin back in the day. I sold a lot of it when I thought we hit all time highs.
[00:46:51] So, you know, I still got a little bit and I’m holding on to them, but that would be one thing. And then I would, I guess the best advice I would give is, you know, not to get too down on yourself [00:47:00] when things don’t go well, Right. You know, when you’re living in those moments where, you know, you started this venture and it failed or things didn’t quite work out, right.
[00:47:06] Or you didn’t lay it off from a job and things like that, like, you know, you can’t really beat yourself up. And even though you’re chugging along and you’re, you’re pushing like internally, you know, you kind of hold some of those things. So I would say, Hey man, you’re absolutely right. You know, to have ultimate belief in yourself, don’t let him can get you down.
[00:47:21] It’s just another, you know, there’s always another opportunity around the corner in my life. Yeah, worked out that way with opportunities just is popping up, you know? And I think it’s because I put myself in those positions to be prepared. I, you know, I’m always learning and always looking to meet people. So yeah, just, just keep going. That would be the device. Buy Bitcoin, keep going. Don’t stop.
[00:47:40] Dan: [00:47:40] I love it, it’s like Back To The Future with the Biff gets that magazine. I think about it all the time. Well, this has been great. So, but before we go, let’s put a call out to an foundation. Our audiences are ways that we can be helpful to you or to AfriBlocks.
[00:47:56] Roger Roman: [00:47:56] Sure. Yeah. I mean, listen, afriblocks.com you know, [00:48:00] affordable fast quality service from world-class. Whether it’s graphic design, software development, web design, virtual assistance founders. I know you need virtual assistants because you’re very busy. Any of those things that we can actually help you out with, we’d love to help you out.
[00:48:14] We actually built this platform for you, which you. So, yeah. Check us out afriblocks.com. We’ll take care of you. If you mentioned that you heard us on, on Founders Unfound, we’ll give you a discount. I just can’t tell you how much that discount will be, but I guarantee you, if you mentioned Dan, or you mentioned the powders out, we’ll take care of you.
[00:48:31] Dan is, is, is our people. He’s good people. Come check us out. And then, you know, anyone on the continent, that’s listening. If you’re, you know, you got some talent, when you want to jump into the freelance space, check us out. Uh, we have a bunch of resources for freelancers outside of just plugging them with jobs.
[00:48:45] You know, we have a bunch of free classes from data camp where you can learn machine learning and artificial Intel. And data science. And we’ve had courses with a number of platforms that, you know, just kind of help you out. And this is nothing like baloney into a community. Now we have the AfriBlocks to build a community that is [00:49:00] growing by the day.
[00:49:00] So if you’re a freelancer, check us out, we can help make some money. If you’re here, if you’re a small business owner or you got this idea and it’s eating away at you for some time now, and you just haven’t started in smell, we’re here to help you check it out.
[00:49:13] Dan: [00:49:13] I love it. And any other social handles or ways to get ahold of you
[00:49:17] Roger Roman: [00:49:17] @afriblocks on Twitter @afriblocks. on Instagram pretty much across the board. I’m at Frank Jr. On Instagram. And I think my name is Roger Roman on Roger L. Roman, the second on Twitter. I’m not on social media that much. So, you know, if you want to see what Afra blocks is doing, I suggest you just find, but yeah, a F R I B L O C K. They were on all the social platforms, check us out.
[00:49:42] Dan: [00:49:42] This has been awesome. Roger, thanks so much for taking the time. I really, really,
[00:49:47] Roger Roman: [00:49:47] I appreciate you, Dan. Thank you for all that you do, man, for founders, like we need voices like yours. We need platforms like yours and I definitely appreciate it.
[00:49:55] Dan: [00:49:55] We’d like to thank our guests. Roger Roman and our sponsor Founders Live.
[00:49:59] This [00:50:00] podcast was produced by me, Dan Kihnya.
[00:50:02] Audio editing and production by We Edit Podcasts.
[00:50:06] Don’t forget to subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts or simply go to foundersunfound.com/listenedto. That’s. Listen, T O.
[00:50:15] And follow us on Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn @foundersunfound.
[00:50:19] Thanks so much for tuning in.
[00:50:20] I am Dan Kihanya, and you’ve been listening to Founders Unfound.