Today, we discuss student entrepreneurship with newly minted Princeton graduates Richard Adjei '18, Felix Madutsa '18, and Avthar Sewrathan '18, founders of BlockX, which aims to build decentralized applications to help people reclaim their privacy and data on the internet using blockchain-based technology. Their main product, Afari, is a decentralized social network that aims to combine the best elements of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram into a social media platform that puts users, not advertisers, first. BlockX recently took home both the 1st Place and Audience Choice awards at TigerLaunch 2018, winning over $15k in prize money and the opportunity to pitch to Sequoia Capital.
What ignited the spark in you to become an entrepreneur? What inspired you to work with blockchain technology?
Avthar: Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa, I wanted to help be part of the solution that helped both South Africa and Africa as a whole develop such that every citizen can reach their full potential. Entrepreneurship, for me, is about using capital to build products and systems in order to achieve my vision of empowering people to be the best they can be. During my time at Princeton, I’ve surveyed lots of technology such as those involved in space travel and machine learning and AI. After doing research on blockchain tech with Professor Arvind Narayanan in my junior year, I felt that it had the most potential for an individual to make a large impact compared to the other fields, which required more capital or access to the data silos of large companies like Facebook and Google. As a result, I pursued another independent work project on blockchain applications with Professor Mike Freedman and it was from that project that BlockX started.
Felix: I believe in the power of technology as a driving force for development in both the developed and the developing world, and entrepreneurship gives me the ability to use technology in that way. I have tried other side projects in the past for different reasons. But they didn’t work, due to team, market, competitive advantage, time, or other similar reasons. I have been reading and closely following the blockchain space since 2015 and have gained a fundamental understanding of the technology, what it enables, and the use cases that it’s well-suited for.
Richard: I have had a passion for entrepreneurship for as long as I can remember. I believe the ability to create items of value is a powerful tool for the progression of human society. My interest in blockchain technology is one of the many ways this passion is expressed. I was introduced to the space during my freshman year of college and ever since I have been expanding my knowledge in the space and the possible applications that can be created with it.
Can you talk about your experience participating in TigerLaunch 2018?
Team: We qualified for TigerLaunch by winning the 2018 Princeton pitch competition, which put us automatically into the NYC semi-final round. We then used that validation to build prototypes of our product and to seek out mentors and advisors to add credibility to our project. After much hard work and many hours of practice pitching and answering questions, we finished as one of the top 5 teams in NYC and qualified for the finals. Between the semi-finals and the finals we pivoted slightly in order to focus on Afari – this decision was mainly driven by the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the resulting consumer recognition of the importance of data privacy. Before the finals, we built out an MVP and Alpha version of Afari, tested it with private test users, and once again re-crafted and practiced our pitch. We knew that it was important that we had answers for all areas of questions judges could ask. Thanks to our preparation, many late nights and early mornings, as well as lots of luck, we were fortunate to win both 1st overall place and audience choice award in TigerLaunch 2018.
TigerLaunch has been a humbling experience. We’re grateful for all of the support and well wishes from the Princeton community when we were garnering support in the audience choice competition and during the competition. Overall, TigerLaunch was a great way to learn from other student entrepreneurs who tackling some of the most interesting and impactful problems today. Moreover, the feedback from the judges and having them as people we can reach out to in future for advice, will prove to be helpful as we continue to seek product-market-fit and as we continue to build out our product.
Can you comment on the role Princeton University played in your entrepreneurial endeavors?
Team: We’re fortunate to ride the wave of Princeton’s effort to empower student entrepreneurs. The amount of resources at Princeton is tremendous, and we wouldn’t be this far without both the Keller Center and the Princeton alumni network. We’ve built relationships with professors through the classes we’ve taken. For instance, Avthar is in the Entrepreneurship certificate and has taken many classes on design, leadership and building businesses, including those by Professor Ed Zschau and Professor Derek Lidow who are now our advisors. Moreover, we have met many of our mentors and advisors through relationships in the Princeton alumni network, including Nader Al-Naji ’13, founder of Basis (formerly Basecoin), Jon Ma ‘15 (investor at SignalFire) and Pardon Makumbe ’07 (managing partner at CRE Venture Capital). Furthermore, the support from Keller Center, in the form of accepting us into the eLab Summer Accelerator and providing us with media coverage and connections to mentors and advisors has been invaluable.
Moreover, we also have access to all our professors in the COS department for advice and mentorship in both technical and non-technical matters. There is a good number of professors here, like Professor Mike Freedman, who have started and/or are running early-stage companies and we are fortunate to have Professor Freedman, along with Professors Felten, Narayanan and Weinberg, all of whom do research in blockchain tech and whom we’ve built relationships with through our independent research or through classes we’ve taken. The COS classes here are rigorous enough to give you a fundamental understanding of a discipline or piece of technology, which is very valuable to have a competitive advantage and to build a great product. Specifically, we started freshman year with no computer science or programming experience but through research, classes and talking to professors, we now have breadth and depth in knowledge that is enabling us to make great products.
What are some challenges you faced as student entrepreneurs? Do you have any advice for your peers who may be considering startups?
Avthar: The biggest challenge is making time for your startup among the competing “urgent” deadlines of problem sets and other coursework. I try to overcome this problem by framing it as “making time for my dreams.” Moreover, asking myself “what can I do now that in 10 years will have a lasting impact on my life?” has helped me prioritize things in order of importance and not by due date. Another challenge is building a team of people who share your vision and are willing to sacrifice their personal life, academics or other uses of their time to build the future with you. Having friends that complement your skill-sets and personality, that can execute when the pressure is on and that you can trust and respect to work with for the next 20 years through good times and bad, is how I recruited Felix and Richard as co-founders and I think the same criteria applies for other budding founders looking for a people to help them build their vision. Lastly, my biggest piece of advice is for students to become self-aware and continuously question their motives for being an entrepreneur. I’d encourage them to reflect on why they want to build a company, what impact they want to have in the world and what way of living life will make them peaceful and fulfilled. When you can align all three of those, then entrepreneurship becomes a way of life and a means of living your truth. Some good books I’ve read that have helped me begin this process are “Designing Your Life” by Bill Burnett and “Startup Leadership” By Derek Lidow.
Felix: Time is definitely on top of the list. We need to be focusing on our classes and deadlines as well as running the company. Try to integrate work into your other activities. You will be surprised to know how efficient you can be when you are running on a very tight clock. Also, learn to say “no” to a lot of other “unnecessary” events. Use a calendar and guard it as if it is the most important thing to you because it actually is. Every day, start with a list of things that needs to be done, and before going to bed, make sure you take stock of the things you managed to finish and those you did not; that helps to keep you accountable.
Richard: I believe the biggest challenge as a student entrepreneur is balancing school and company obligations. It very easy to get caught up in one and completely neglect the other. Some of the skills you need to succeed are time management, organization and prioritization.
What's next after graduation? What's next for BlockX?
Team: We will work on BlockX during the summer as part of the Keller Center’s eLab Summer Accelerator at Princeton and are exploring what it would take to work on BlockX full time. We’re still putting a lot of the details together, so we can’t reveal too much at this point, but working on BlockX full time would be the best-case scenario for all three of us.
Any concluding thoughts on your experience building BlockX?
Felix: It is a lot of work, and most of the stuff is just figuring it out along the way. The good thing is that it is fun. Also, make sure you have a great team around you.
Avthar: I’m building a company with my closest friends and working on interesting problems that impact millions of people in the world. It’s not glamorous, it’s all hard work, it’s quiet iteration and thankless hours of work that sometimes culminates in victories like TigerLaunch. I’m extremely grateful for my journey so far and extend my gratitude to all those who’ve helped make it happen.
Check out BlockX and other winning teams from TigerLaunch 2018 at www.tigerlaunch.com.