Gordon Swaby ON ANOTHER LEVEL
Lunchtime Conversations with Robert Lalah
If you were waiting around to meet the CEO of a growing Jamaican company, who has won several awards and travelled the world participating in global economic fora, you'd hardly expect to see Gordon Swaby walk in the room. Swaby is all of 23 years old, after all, and looks like everyone's best friend in high school. But he's a star of the local Internet industry and a growing figure in the Jamaican business arena. Swaby is head of EduFocal, an online social learning service that, among other things, uses gaming methodology to help students and teachers prepare for GSAT and CSEC exams.
I asked him how he came up with the idea for the company. "The idea started with my cousin, Luwayne. The most unique thing about EduFocal is the 'gamification' aspect. Gamififcation is incorporating gaming elements into non-game contexts. I liked the idea and I immediately started building on it," he said. "We started out together, but he was doing his Master's at the time and didn't have much time to contribute, so I toiled along alone. The idea came about in November 2011. We spent almost a year developing it and launched on March 15, 2012 at The Jamaica Pegasus."
HIGH LEVELS AND HIGHER LEARNING
The gaming component of the site is a big pull for students. They can climb levels based on the work they do and even win prizes for outstanding results. The idea seems simple, but when you meet Swaby, you realise that it would take someone like him to put all the pieces together and actually make it work. He has an easy way about him; smiles a lot and is quick to share ideas as they pop into his head. But his drive and propensity to think outside of the proverbial box, are obvious. He also reads a lot and the way he's able to switch topics and speak confidently on a variety of matters, makes this clear.
I asked him what career he dreamed of getting into when he was growing up in Christiana, Manchester.
"I knew that I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I wasn't sure what specifically I wanted to get into," he said. "I've always loved technology and the Internet, so I'm not surprised where my path has taken me." But there must be something that made him want to go the entrepreneurship route. It would be easier to just become an office drone and be sure of a paycheque each month. Wouldn't it?
"As a child, I thought that's what everyone did. You know, they grow up and 'do their own thing', because that's what I saw my parents doing for most of their lives. So I wanted to do that too. Even before I could spell 'entrepreneurship' I was doing entrepreneurial things. I loved video games, but my parents refused to buy them for me, so I started a video-gaming website - Advance-Gamers.com - and started writing American video-game publishers who sent me video games to review and, you guessed it, keep!" he said.
Advance-Gamers.com became the largest video-gaming resource website in the Caribbean. "But I eventually shut it down because it took up a lot of my time. Back then, I was making about US$1,300 from it, annually. Of course, I hadn't started it to be a business, so I never expected to make any money from it."
EduFocal is also taking up a lot of his time. But Swaby is enjoying the success it has been reaping. "As of March 15, 2012, EduFocal has been operational for two years and four months. A lot has happened in two years. We've been blessed with a lot of opportunities, but we've also faced a lot of growing pains. We've partnered with First Global Bank for a partnership that I'm very excited about; a partnership that we will be launching in September. We have also partnered with Versan Educational Services to offer SAT prep services to their students come September. We're also expanding to Trinidad and Tobago and expanding our GSAT/CSEC test prep footprint in Jamaica."
And you can bet that Swaby isn't satisfied with that. "EduFocal has huge regional potential. My aim for us is to be dominant in at least five Caribbean islands in the next three to four years and also list on the Jamaica Junior Stock Exchange in three years," he said. "There's also an opportunity for us in the United States via SAT and other exams."
I put it to Swaby that surely he's had to sacrifice a lot to be where he is today. There must be a good deal of juvenile tomfoolery that has gone neglected. He isn't convinced.
MAKING THE SACRIFICE
"I'm not sure I'd use the word 'sacrifice'. I'm doing what I love and I'm making a difference, so it has never felt like a sacrifice to me. I have turned down other opportunities, but that's not a sacrifice in my eyes," he said.
With the economy the way it is, I asked him how he manages to stay motivated.
"Tough times are the best times to start a company. It forces you to be lean with how you operate, less competition, among other things. Many well-known companies that we know today were started in tough times. These include big names like CNN, Fedex, Kraft, Johnson and Johnson etc. Many local companies that have done well were also started during extremely tough periods for Jamaica," he said.
I asked Swaby what was the biggest mistake he's made in his professional life, and what he learned from it. "I've made many mistakes, but I'm happy that I made them when I did. I would say that my biggest mistake was hiring at the wrong time and hiring someone with a skill set that I didn't need, at least not at the time," he said.
His work is inspiring other young people in Jamaica, yet Swaby remains humble and thinks there's a lot left for him to learn.
"I'm inspired by many things and people," he said. "I'm inspired by my parents, other entrepreneurs, both locally and internationally, and by people who are working hard to make a difference in this world."