Rahim Fazal – A Startup Saga
At 21, Rahim Fazal was the youngest CEO ever to head a publicly traded company. He was the celebrity entrepreneur whose face was splashed in newspapers and who at 16 had already sold another company for $1.5 million. But within a year his new company was in trouble, and he had to walk away from it – to study in a community college since he had hardly finished high school. Talk about ups and downs!
Rahim, who was named amongst America’s top 30 entrepreneurs under 30 by Inc. magazine and amongst the top 25 digital thought leaders by iMedia, has had enough twists and turns in his life to be worthy of a Hollywood – or Bollywood – movie!
Now at 27, the resilient, never-say-die entrepreneur is co-founder and CEO of San Francisco-based Involver, a hot and hugely successful social media company which has over 200,000 clients including Facebook, Nike, RCA – and the White House. International music sensation Alicia Keys partnered with Involver to release her new album on Facebook, before the album’s official offline launch.
Involver – Harnessing Social Media
So how did Involver come about? While working at another company, in a typical Silicon Valley scenario, Rahim and his colleague Noah Horton decided to leave and start something unique on their own. They felt that the way companies were advertising their brands through traditional banner ads was just not effective and was almost alienating clients. The better way, they felt, was to build a software platform and tools to help brands create advertising which would work on social media.
“Our big idea was to create a company that would standardize a new set of ad formats for social media and the mantra we came up with was ‘It’s apps – and not ads,” says Rahim. Involver, which Rahim co-founded with Noah who is CTO, began by creating apps for videos since many companies were already using videos for advertising on Youtube.
While putting prototypes together, they got to see the power of these apps for social media in a real life scenario. Vinay, a young Indian in Boston desperately needed a bone marrow transplant and his family had put together a video with all the information to search for a donor. The video was languishing on Youtube, for as Rahim puts it, “Nobody found it because it was like trying to find a grain of sand on the beach.”
Rahim and Noah, feeling compassionate for the cause, spent all their time on this campaign, spreading it to Facebook and My Space with a special app which added different calls to action for the video watchers, from sending support and comments to actually attending a marrow drive. In just six weeks, the video was watched by 300,000 people and thousands took the calls to action. The happy ending was that a life-saving bone marrow match was found for Vinay through the pool.
“We wanted to create software that would allow companies to create applications for their video which would help them to go viral on FB, be more engaging and more interactive,” says Rahim. With the app, companies could share and personalize the videos, write comments, submit photos, and turn it into a interactive marketing campaign on FB, getting the users involved and engaged in the advertising experience.
Involver’s clients included Nissan and Puma, and soon the company had expanded the concept to include 35 apps, a whole package to promote the brands on Twitter, Flicker, and offer file sharing, polls and quizzes, coupons and e-commerce, gifts and contests. Currently Involver is one of the biggest distributors of apps on Facebook, with over 200,000 companies that use the platform including big brands like Nike, The White House and Facebook itself.
Last year the company received $8M series C funding round, led by venture firm Bessemer Venture Partners. Existing investors Cervin Ventures and Western Technology Investment also participated. The new capital will be used to fuel Involver’s growth initiatives and continue to expand the company’s social marketing platform. Right from the start, the company has also received support and funding from Indian-American entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, and Rahim says the company’s success is closely tied to that network.
Rahim Fazal: Ups and Downs of an Entrepreneur
Rahim can smile now but he certainly went through ups and downs. He grew up in Vancouver, the child of immigrants who were born in East Africa but whose families came from Gujarat and Rajasthan. During the time of Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians, the family, who were pharmacists by profession, came to Vancouver to start over again.
When Rahim was 15, he got a job with McDonalds but was fired within 3 months. He says, “Once you get fired from McDonalds, it’s difficult to get a job anywhere else.” He was always intrigued by the story of his grandfather who had been a perfume entrepreneur and ran a successful business called Gulab in Africa.
“The entrepreneurial bug was in my system,” he says. “My friend and I used to mess around with computers and we always heard about entrepreneurs taking their companies public. If they can do it, we thought, why can’t we?”
His first company, started from his bedroom at the age of 16, was done in secrecy because his parents, who were big on education, would have been really mad if they knew what was going on. The company, which created websites, grew to 25,000 customers. After a year he got an offer and sold the company for $1.5 million. Reluctantly his parents allowed him to give up his education.
His next company, Merchant Park, involved turnkey e-commerce, email and website hosting and on his 20th birthday he took it public, becoming the youngest person to sit on the board of a publicly traded company. However, after two years it didn’t do well and he had to walk away and shut it down. It was a bitter experience.
Then followed a down period when reality sunk in and he had to go back to school to get a degree. The Ivy Leagues were out of reach now and he had to go to a community college and start with a beginner’s business class – a big downer for someone who had reached the top and run a million dollar company.
Fortunately for him, the instructor recognized him from the newspaper stories from the past and connected him with the Dean of Richard Ivey School of Business, the top ranked business school in Canada. After going through a few hoops, Rahim became the youngest person without an undergraduate degree to graduate with an MBA in the university’s 90 year history.
The ups and downs have honed Rahim and he is a frequent and popular speaker for high school and college students across the US and Canada. He is also an adviser to the Extreme Entrepreneurship Education Corporation in New York City, which mentors young people.
Involver started out as a small idea but now has 65 employees and 4 offices. “I think Involver has the opportunity to really be a home run and make a big difference in helping brands figure out social media,” Rahim says. “I’m happy because I’ve taken my life into my own hands now. Being able to do things for my parents, put smiles on their faces – that makes me really happy too.”
For someone who’s tasted bitter and sweet, what advice does he have for emerging entrepreneurs? He says, ““For me, the best thing is knowing that every single day that I get up, I’m doing something that I love. It’s important to blaze your own path and follow your heart.”
© Lavina Melwani
(This is part of a series which first appeared in Hi Blitz)