Gordon Swaby

On becoming 27…

“We tell people to follow their dreams, but you can only dream of what you can imagine, and, depending on where you come from, your imagination can be quite limited. The highest rung of what’s possible is far beyond the world you can see” – @Trevornoah

As a kid growing up in a middle class family in rural Jamaica I was afforded opportunities that many of my peers weren’t. My exposure to certain things gave my dreams scope and breadth, but certainly not the scope and breadth that my life is and has been.

Many things I’ve experienced as an adult have been beyond my wildest dreams, hopes and aspirations. The above quote from Trevor Noah encapsulates my thinking on the matter. The more you achieve, the more your eyes open to the possibilities of what is possible and what you can accomplish. Experiencing any kind of success, especially success that you’ve longed for gives you a kind confidence that is unparalleled. Experiencing success that you never thought possible? Next level.

I remember driving into Kingston with my father as a child, and in my child-eyes Kingston was big, impressive, chaotic and confusing. My hopes, dreams and aspirations began and ended in Kingston. I never thought my life would have scope beyond the capital city. If I ever did think so, I would have, for example, taken my Spanish classes more seriously in high school, but in my limited dreaming I never saw the need for it. Why would I ever need to learn Spanish? Why would I ever need to learn a second language?! I never thought that I’d travel often and if I did, it probably wouldn’t be beyond America.

I’ve never liked traveling. I remember in Prep school I was in the Cub Scouts and we had the opportunity to travel to St. Vincent to climb a Volcano. Travel to St. Vincent to climb a mountain? Hell no! As an adult I regret that decision. I still don’t like traveling, but traveling gives you scope. It opens up your mind to new possibilities.

In all honesty, I started EduFocal because I thought it was a cool idea and that I’d get the opportunity to be in the press and make a lot of money! I had no grand plan. Oh, how limited my imagination was! Five and a half years later and we’ve been featured on every major (and many minor ones!) radio station in Jamaica, every major newspaper in Jamaica and also every major TV station. We’ve also been featured in major press regionally and internationally; from Virgin to BBC to the UK Guardian and many others. My limited imagination couldn’t think beyond my original ambitions. We’ve accomplished so much more since my original selfish ambitions. We’ve transformed thousands of lives, provided employment for Jamaicans and along the way we’ve given back to both our country and others. And guess what? We’re just getting started.

EduFocal celebrated five years at our home base at the Technology Innovation Centre on the UTech campus. Five years later and it still feels like day one. Thank you to our teachers, students, parents, principals, team members, board and every other stakeholder for trusting us, believing in us and supporting us. My scope of what I thought possible was limited, however, if you’ve interacted with me in any way over the last five years, you have helped to expand my mind and show me what’s possible. We at EduFocal have touched so many lives in a positive way, and for me that has been a truly humbling experience.

 

Thanks to Project Binario, EduFocal had the opportunity to showcase its offering at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco; if you’re not familiar, TC Disrupt is the equivalent of the Super Bowl for startups. It was such an amazing experience and once in a life time experience.

This year, I visited 3 countries and 8 cities. Of the 3 countries, 2 were new. The two new ones are China and Bolivia. The final was the USA. In terms of cities, I visited Beijing (China),  Fort Lauderdale (USA), Shanghai (China), Miami (USA), San Francisco (USA), New York (USA), Miami ( USA), Santa Cruz de la Sierra (Bolivia). I’ve always wanted to visit China and I was very happy that the opportunity presented itself this year.

In 2017, I found myself in new and exciting professional circles that I’m grateful for. Thanks to the Inter-American Development Bank for my appointment to their Civil Society Consulting Group and also to the US Embassy in Jamaica for my appointment to their Social Media Working Group

My big highlight for 2017 was the deepening of friendships. I made new friends and grew closer to old ones. Strengthening friendships was something I committed to doing going into 2017, and I am happy that at the end of the year, I have meaningful relationships with some amazing people .

Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’ve done is just a small fraction of what you think you can do and what’s possible. I’m grateful to have exceeded what I thought I was capable of, but I know that I’m still capable of much more. 2017 was a really great year, but also a challenging both personally and professionally. I’m still struggling with weight loss and I got sick more often than I would have liked, primarily because of chronic sinusitis.  I did lose some weight, but not as much as I would have wanted. Fortunately, I’m going into 2018 with more support in that department. Professionally some key deals that I would have wanted to happen, did not.

I’m excited about 2018; if I was to sum up my expectations for 2018 in one word it would be scale. More personal and professional growth and just generally pushing myself beyond what I think that I’m capable of. Here’s to a great 2018 and beyond!

 


On becoming 26…

Today I celebrate my twenty-sixth birthday. Like every year for the last few years, I use the occasion of my birthday to reflect on the last 12 months of my life and also to speak about the year ahead.

I lost my grandmother this year and it hurt like hell. I still cry about it.

She lived a full life. She accomplished a lot, prayed a lot and touched the lives of many. She was a truly selfless person and I miss her dearly. My grandmother, my god-mother and the person who gave me my name, rest in peace.

I accomplished a lot in 2016 and I know that my grandmother would have been proud of me. After she died and we started packing away her belongings, I came across a scrap book with newspaper clippings of my past accomplishments. She was always excited to read about me in the newspaper and listen to me on the radio. She was my cheerleader and I know that she supported me in all my endeavours.

Death is hard, but it gives us the opportunity to reflect on our own life and, cherish the best memories of those we love who have passed, and also treasure and value the time spent with those that are still with us.

I have to say it again, 2016 was kind to me; truly my best year yet. EduFocal grew, I grew and my relationship grew. I won’t speak at length about my relationship here, but I can’t write about my year without mentioning the most significant part of it. I’m fortunate to be with a strong, kind and loving woman that I have so much respect for. She’s better than I am in more ways than I can count.

What I do professionally isn’t work. At least, it doesn’t feel like work. I’m fortunate to lead a strong and growing team and I cannot speak about my accomplishments without mentioning them. Thank you to Paul, EduFocal’s co-founder. Thank you to Godiva, Sheldon and the newest addition to the team, Krysta-Leigh. Thank you to my board for their guidance and the solid advice that they always give. Thank you to my parents who always support me. And last, but not least, thank you to old friends and new ones who are honest, loyal and supportive of me and my work.

EduFocal grew by leaps and bounds. Every previous key performance indicator was destroyed this year, and really, we’re just getting started. In May I got the opportunity, via a feature on BBC, to leverage a very big platform where I shared EduFocal’s story and our future plans with the world. Many people provided positive feedback, for which I am grateful. Because of this interview, I have connected with valuable new partners that will help to push EduFocal forward.

In June, I got the opportunity to speak at President Obama’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit at Stanford University. It was truly an amazing event and opportunity. Thanks to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) for providing this opportunity. It was my first time in San Francisco and I excitedly took the opportunity to do a tour of LinkedIn and Google. Visiting the campuses of companies that I use on a regular basis was mind blowing.

This year was also a year of board appointments for me; wow! I was appointed to the Jamaica Library Service board, the National ICT Council and the NCB Foundation board. All very different boards, but each an opportunity to contribute and learn. Thank you to everybody who has given me these opportunities.

On the subject of contributing and giving back. I believe that I am privileged and therefore I have a responsibility to give back. This year I have given a lot of my time through speaking engagements, one-on-one sessions with aspiring entrepreneurs and through financial contributions to schools and students. We also executed our 4th Annual EduFocal Excellence Awards ceremony; our largest one yet.

This year, I traveled more than I usually do. 2016 saw me travelling to 5 countries and 8 cities across North America, Europe, the Caribbean and Africa (I actually travel to Africa a few days after this is published). I traveled to the USA, England, the Bahamas, Scotland and Nigeria. In terms of cities, I traveled to Charlotte, New York, Lagos*, San Francisco, Nassau, Miami, York, London and Edinburgh. I truly enjoyed traveling this year, and if you know me, you know I hate travelling. I particularly enjoyed Edinburgh and the time I spent there with my partner.

Life is about balance, so if there were successes, there must have been some ‘failures’. My biggest challenge and failure in 2016 was my inability to lose weight. Weight loss is a major challenge for me and constant struggle. I will try again in 2017. I’d also say that my relationship with God isn’t where I wanted it to be in 2016. I intend to work on that in 2017.

This exercise in reflection annually on my birthday is always something I enjoy. It’s always good to search my mind and smile about everything that I’ve experienced. Sometimes I catch myself saying “Wow, this happened this year!”

To conclude, it’s been a great year for learning and growth. I look forward to 2017 and all the successes and challenges that it will bring. I plan to double down on all my relationships, focus on my goals and push EduFocal on a clear path to an initial public offering.

*I travel to Lagos a few days after this is published


Advice to Startup Entrepreneurs

My edtech company, EduFocal celebrated its 4th birthday recently. I’ve learned a lot over the last 4 years running the company. I’ve made some great decisions and I’ve made some bad ones. See below for some hopefully valuable advice for you and your company.

 

Entrepreneurship isn’t a hustle
It isn’t, so don’t treat it like one. You’re not in it to make a quick buck. You’re in it for personal and professional growth. You’re in it to make other people’s lives better. If you think about it like a hustle you’re going to treat it like a hustle.

 

Bookkeeping isn’t a distraction
Record everything, everything. This has been a big pain for me. I’ve never been a fan of accounting, and bookkeeping has always felt like a hassle for me, it’s not. Please take it seriously. At the very minimum, put everything through your business’ banking account. Note, I said your business’s bank account, not your personal bank account. It’s never a good idea to mix your personal and professional accounts. Open a checking account specifically for your business. This helps to develop your relationship with the bank and also a paper trail. It doesn’t matter if you’re putting a lot of money through the account or not, just do it. When/if you ever have to raise money or get a loan good bookkeeping will save you a lot of headache.

 

Have a Board of Directors or an advisory board

Part of not treating your business like a hustle is not being an authority onto yourself. You should hold yourself accountable and you should have others to hold you accountable. That’s where your board comes in. Choosing your board of directors/advisors is important as you want to have people who are well connected, experienced and can help to push your company forward. Take it seriously and meet regularly. My board meets on the third Thursday every other month. Having a board is extremely important as they’re not too involved in your company, but they are also not divorced from your company’s operations. Their unique position allows you to get invaluable advice.

 

The media is your friend

And by media I mean traditional media and social media. Twitter is important, Facebook is important and LinkedIn is important. You should have a personal presence on social media, so should your brand. Traditional media helps to establish credibility, especially if you’re a first time Entrepreneur. Don’t get distracted by media attention though. It’s useful, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

 

Join useful networks

When I started EduFocal I joined the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship. It was and still is a valuable network to me. I’ve benefitted a lot from the Branson Centre and you can too. I encourage you too join. If not Branson, there are many others valuable networks to join. Do your research and make the right decision.

 

Hire the right people

At some point, you’ll have to hire people. Having the right team is extremely important. Hiring too early is bad, hiring too late can also be problematic. I can’t tell you when it’s right to hire, but growing your business means hiring, but a bad hire can hurt your business. Hiring is an art and you get better at it each time you have to do it.

 

Be honest

Be honest with yourself and others about your challenges. You can’t get help if you’re not honest about the problems you’re having.

 

Negotiate

Humans are not robots. If somebody tells that the price is x, negotiate. Negotiating doesn’t mean that you’re asking them to lower the price, it could also mean that you’re negotiating payment terms or something else. Don’t be afraid to ask and don’t be afraid of hearing no.

 

Rejection is OK

On the matter of hearing no. You’re going to hear that, a lot. It’s ok, don’t sweat it. Your emails will also go unanswered, people who you’ve met many times will forget who you are and so on and so on.

 

People will let you down

Guaranteed. Your priority isn’t their priority. But, push on.

 

Your existing network is valuable; you’re valuable.

In growing our network we sometimes forget that we already have people in our network who are valuable. It’s important that you pull on that network. Maybe you’re a great marketer, designer or writer. It’s a valuable skill in business. Use it. It means that you won’t need to spend money on that skill because you can do it yourself. We also have family members or good friends who will help us for free or at at steeply discounted price; even if only for the formative stages.

 

Read, everyday.

This is my last tip, but probably the most important. Read everything you can get your hands on. Priority reading? Books and the newspaper. Read the latter daily and the former regularly. You can’t exploit opportunities if you don’t know about them. Being in the know is your responsibility, nobody else’s. You may learn something new from reading a book and you may spot opportunities in the newspaper, you may also spot opportunities for your business. Read, read, read!

When you have little or no money it’s easy to have singular focus on just that; making money, but a part of making money is putting things in place to make that money. A weak foundation can cause a strong structure to crumble.

I hope these tips are valuable. Happy Easter!


On becoming 25…

Quarter Century, wow. I’m 25!

2015 was a year of transition for me.

The first quarter of the year was personally very challenging. It allowed me to rediscover how supportive family is and I experienced the kindness of friends and strangers. As it turns out, the best time to find out who your true friends are is when life throws you an unwelcome curveball.

I fell out of love, I experienced great betrayal and I fell in love; an emotional rollercoaster would be an understatement.  I was told by a close friend as a teen that the only thing constant in life is change. That thought has stayed with me ever since. So, I welcome change in whatever form it may come. Change has allowed me to rekindle old friendships and create amazing new ones.

In March, I was invited by the World Bank to speak to a group of young professionals at their HQ in Washington DC. It was an amazing experience and I truly enjoyed speaking and interacting with them. I will close 2015 having spoken to more than 3,000 people. I am truly grateful for the opportunity to speak to others and I do jump at it every opportunity I get.

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In July I travelled to Canada for the first time for a Global Shapers event. It’s truly a privilege to interact with so many millennials who are doing great things in their respective countries. I left Canada inspired to continue to contribute to Jamaica, the region and the world.

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EduFocal continues to grow and I couldn’t be happier. Happy, but I’m certainly not satisfied. Our team is strong and we continue to expand our reach in Jamaica and we have plans for an even larger expansion. In 2015 we made our first multi-million dollar cash acquisition; purchasing a defunct competitor’s content base. This acquisition allowed us to become the largest online GSAT resource in Jamaica. We’re still very much a small company, but 2015 saw us giving back more than $300,000 in cash and kind to students, NGOs, the local tech community and others. This year’s EduFocal Excellence Awards has also been our largest yet.

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I’ve been writing my “Year in review” posts for a few years now and it’s been such an interesting and worthwhile exercise for me. It forces me to reflect on the year I’ve had it helps me to plan for the year ahead and it helps me to reflect on the progress I’ve made both personally and professionally.

2015 was a year of challenges and change, but it was also a year of growth and opportunity. The mission continues in 2016 and I know that it will also be a year full of more opportunity and growth.

A big, big thank you to those who continue to help and inspire me on my journey. My family, my better half, my board of directors, friends and even strangers. Thank you to those who are honest with me, those who encourage me and provide invaluable feedback. I truly do appreciate and I look forward to continuing on this journey called life with your guidance and support.

Happy 25th birthday to me!

As usual I want to thank local, regional, international media and others for following our journey. Here are some of the many stories throughout the year:

Jamaica Hosts First Ever Nexus Caribbean Youth Summit” by Huffington Post

Jamaica’s move from ‘education for all’ to ‘quality education for all’” by Virgin

EduFocal Provides More GSATready Resources” by The Jamaica Gleaner

GSAT, CSEC Students Top EduFocal Excellence Awards” by The Jamaica Gleaner

EduFocal Awards top Users” by the Jamaica Observer

 


The Jamaican dream and happiness in a broken country

First, I have to declare my bias. I love Jamaica, dearly. I have been privileged to visit and explore at least 9 countries and many cities. Each time I travel there’s one feeling I always look forward to, the feeling I get when the plane hits the runway at the Norman Manley International Airport (NMIA) in Kingston, Jamaica. Oh, what a great feeling that is; the joy of home.

The requirements for happiness varies from person to person. Your requirements may be different from mine. My advice to you? Go where you can find your own brand of happiness. I have found mine in my home country Jamaica.

I am the product of a broken country and imperfect education system.  I was educated at Sacred Heart Academy, a small catholic school in Christiana, Manchester, Knox College, a high school in Spaldings, Clarendon, Holmwood Technical High School, a technical high school in Christiana, Manchester and the University of Technology, one of Jamaica’s major Universities.  Many of my peers grew up in countries with better healthcare, a better education system, safer environment, but despite that, they are my equals. In March 2015, I was invited by the World Bank to speak to a group of young professionals at their HQ in Washington, DC. A part my talk was encouraging  them to acknowledge and leverage their privilege. Because yes, living and working in DC is a privilege. I try to do the same, to acknowledge my privileged life in Jamaica. My success is a privilege that I am acutely aware of.

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At 24, I have little to no personal debt and through my company, I am able to fully maintain myself financially and provide temporary and permanent employment for a few others. What is my brand of happiness? My brand of happiness is value creation. Creating value for myself and others. It so happens that in Jamaica, a lot of value needs to be created. I am privileged to own a growing company that is creating value for myself, others and children. A company that can stand toe-to-toe with a similar company in Silicon Valley or anywhere else in the world. In 2014, I was recognized by the Inter-American Development bank (The IDB) as 1 of 10 innovators in Latin America and the Caribbean. I consequently had the opportunity to travel to Brazil to present to the IDB’s board of Governors and President, Luis Alberto Moreno. I don’t do what I do for recognition, but it’s humbling to know that an entity like the IDB can honor  and acknowledge the work of a country boy from Christiana and his team; I’ve achieved this in a broken country, imagine the possibilities for me and others if we were even marginally better off. What if I didn’t have to worry about the struggles of a 3rd world Entrepreneur?

In 2013 and 2014 I had the opportunity to travel to Geneva, Switzerland. I visited the World Economic Forum and something that its founder, Klaus Schwab said in regards to his foundation resonated with me. He said “…I am happy, but I am not satisfied”. A shared sentiment; I am happy, but I’m certainly not satisfied. I am not satisfied because the success that I’ve had as a young adult in Jamaica is the exception, not the rule. I am not satisfied because I have been provided with opportunities and support that many others don’t have access to. I am not satisfied because too many Jamaicans go to bed hungry each night. I am not satisfied because too many Jamaicans continue to be victims of crime and violence. I am not satisfied because there’s so much to be done. However, I am happy because unhappy people don’t produce great work, and I want to produce great work. I will always see the opportunities in challenges and I will always seek to create value for myself and others.

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Jamaica, I love you. Happy 53rd birthday. Let’s continue working to fix our amazing, but broken country together.


The Third World Entrepreneur

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Entrepreneurship and how your environment aids in the success of your business/company.

Entrepreneurship is hard and even in the most ideal environment the chances of a business failing is pretty high.  Entrepreneurs the world over have similar challenges, but I think that the challenges entrepreneurs in developing countries face are far more acute.

The third world Entrepreneur has to grapple with a myriad of problems. Bad roads, lack of capital, crime and violence, high energy costs, underdeveloped public transportation system, corruption and government bureaucracy to name a few. The third world Entrepreneur has to contend with most of the problems of the First World Entrepreneur plus the challenges that come with living in a third world country.

Despite these additional challenges, many third world entrepreneurs experience great levels of success; success that rivals that of any first world company. I believe that it takes a certain kind of grit, sheer will, confidence and resolve to succeed in less than ideal situations. The returns of which are not only financial, but can potentially in the short term transform their countries. Problems in developing countries are many and big, but every problem problem is an opportunity. Opportunities that can provide employment and transform lives in a big way.

I believe that Entrepreneurs that thrive in less than ideal environments are super people, people that you could place in almost any environment and they would excel.

I didn’t write this to discount the success of first World Entrepreneurs, it is instead to acknowledge all the Entrepreneurs that make it work despite all odds. So, kudos to all Entrepreneurs who make it work; against all odds.


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