How Ali Abdullah, CEO of the fledgling app Claim It!, is beating the industry’s notorious odds against funding for black-owned firms.
by Sheryl Huggins Salomon
For anyone who follows the tech sector, it isn’t news that black entrepreneurs struggle to attract investors to their ventures. In 2010, a CB Insights study found that less than 1 percent of venture-capital-backed business founders were black and access to capital for black tech entrepreneurs hasn’t improved much in recent years.
That struggle is one of many that Ali Abdullah, CEO of Claim It! Inc., has faced over the course of his young life. Before launching an iPhone app that allows users to win freebies after watching a 15-second video ad, the 29-year-old former Google senior product manager weathered difficult teen years in New York City, as well as a brief period of homelessness back in 2008—never mind an environment that makes it especially tough for a black person to get startup funding for a tech venture.
His approach to getting over those hurdles? “Smile, and get s–t done,” Abdullah said recently (with a smile, of course), in an interview with The Root. It’s the unofficial motto of his company, Claim It! Inc., which he runs with co-founders Khalid Mills, who is chief technical officer, and Kaza Razat, who is head of product.
The motto also perfectly captures the combination of dogged perseverance and disarming social skills that gave Abdullah the chutzpah to pitch a former president for a job upon meeting him and to attract high-profile investors to his venture.
The Business of Free Stuff
Since its Jan. 1 launch, 107,000 users have downloaded the app and subscribed to Claim It!, says Abdullah. Nearly 20,000 people have won $360,000 worth of free products and gift cards from brands such as Apple, Starbucks, Garmin, Nike, Chipotle, Forever 21, Starbucks, Zico and Harlem Shake.
The marketing potential in the app’s business model has drawn media coverage by Money, MSNBC, Alley Watch, Inc. and the New York Post. It also attracted $1.1 million in seed money from deep pockets that hale from the worlds of sports, finance and technology, including Blackstone senior managing director David Blitzer, a partial owner of the Philadelphia 76ers; Thaddeus Young, basketball player for the Brooklyn Nets; Al Harrington, retired NBA player; Steve Sadove, former Saks CEO; Dan Petrozzo, former Goldman Sachs managing director; and Jim Stillittano, managing partner at Razor Technology.
That the investors’ roll call leans so heavily toward the sports world makes sense.
Basketball helped Abdullah build confidence and connections as a shy, awkward teenager in Manhattan. “I was really good at math. However, I couldn’t read well and I wasn’t confident in myself,” Abdullah explains. Embarrassment about his appearance added to his insecurities—he had eczema so severe that he would scratch his skin until it bled—causing him to disengage from his studies. Two things drew him out of his shell: therapy and meeting a kindred spirit in his best friend, Alphonso Howlett….
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