Thu | Oct 29, 2020

Ajani Williams-Harris: Transforming the technology landscape

Published:Sunday | April 5, 2020 | 12:06 AM
Ajani Williams-Harris of SciFi Studios displays the Keez App.
Ajani Williams-Harris of SciFi Studios displays the Keez App.

In another life, Ajani Williams-Harris could have been an engineer. He was two years into the mechanical engineering programme at the Georgia Institute of Technology, United States of America, studying on an academic scholarship and also playing basketball, when he decided he would like a better opportunity to showcase his talent and possibly pursue a professional career in the sport. That desire took him to the University of Eastern Michigan, where he walked on to the team and graduated a year later with a degree in mathematics, minoring in physics.

From there, Williams-Harris enjoyed a seven-year career playing in the European Basketball Championship and the Chinese Basketball Association leagues, and had two preseason stints with National Basketball Association teams Orlando Magic and Atlanta Hawks in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Shortly afterwards, he hung up his jersey and returned to Jamaica, where he sought to contribute to nation-building through various sports-based initiatives, including a sports management company. At the same time, he was also putting his math and physics background and interest in design to use by working in Jamaica’s nascent technology development industry. “I started getting into tech from as early as 2008, when everybody was getting into tech. I had a couple of glitches, then finally struck some level of oil or gold by making a sports text messaging app that I licensed to Supreme Ventures. They were also my lead advertiser. I grew that to about 400,000 subscribers in Jamaica,” he said.

CATCHING THE NEXT WAVE

Realising that the landscape was changing quickly and the next wave was going to be mobile app development, not text messaging, he leant into gaining hands-on experience in areas such as wireframing and database architecture, as well as working with design teams to build Internet-based products and platforms.

The drive to bring that compelling proposition to life led to the creation of Search it Find it (SiFi) Studios Jamaica Limited. “That’s the theme of everything that we do – curated search,” he said.

SiFi Studios is currently in its second incarnation. It was founded as SiFi Studios Inc by Ajani (the conceptualiser and wireframer) and business partner Marvin Whitfield (the software developer) in 2014 as a virtual company. Their first product was Seek, which curated information on local restaurants. “We didn’t try to monetise it. We launched it to see how the platform would work and that did well,” he said.

The success of Seek led to the development of Keez, which is SiFi Studios Jamaica’s flagship mobile app. Keez provides a platform for real estate agents to list their properties. The agents sign up to list properties, and when prospective buyers click on the listings, both Keez and the agent are notified of the lead for a possible sale. Keez only gets paid when the agent closes the sale. The new company was incorporated in January 2018 and they started developing Keez in April that year. It was launched at the end of December 2018.

A QUEST FOR INVESTMENT

Although the company was initially self-financed by Williams-Harris, he eventually began to look around for investors as he sought to take Keez from idea to reality. His quest soon led him to FirstAngelsJA, the country’s first angel investor network. He shared, “I got in touch with one of the great business gatekeepers in Jamaica, Mark Mahfood, and he took a real interest in me and the project. He took me to NCB and they really liked the project and said they would finance it, but they don’t do venture capital. However, they are affiliated with an organisation, which happened to be FirstAngels. They felt that would be the best way to consummate the deal.”

Through NCB, he was connected with Sandra Glasgow, FirstAngels co-founder and manager, who helped him refine his pitch, which he admitted was a bit too long. “She got me to be able to do it in 15 minutes and hit all the salient points. Even Mark acknowledged that he thought my pitch had improved dramatically,” said Ajani.

That was good news, since he did the pitch twice – first in Montego Bay at a FirstAngels-sponsored event and again to the network of Angels in Kingston. The response was a resounding ‘Yes’. “I was really happy that we got what we needed for year one – what I like to call MVP (minimal viable product), which was significant financing to test and launch the product,” said Ajani. “There was a lot of risk as there was no product yet that we had fully finalised. It was 75 per cent done, but for the other 25 per cent, the business model needed to be finalised, as well as some regulatory matters. We also had to make partnerships with brokers and agents and banks. And we had to hire people and market the product. With the investment, we were able to reconcile all those pieces within a couple of months. We feel very blessed, not lucky.”

Williams-Harris continued, “It really positioned us for the success that we’re organically still having now because we were able to secure in the first months about 15 per cent of the entire market of customers looking for real estate in Jamaica. That’s a huge market share chunk in one go. It shows you the strength of the product and that the marketing was effective, and that the product was not just liked but effective in solving a problem people have, which is difficulty finding properties. Without the financing, that would have likely been impossible to achieve.”

ONCE-IN-A-LIFETIME PRODUCT

Now that he has seen Keez in action and the kinds of opportunities that still abound, Ajani is eagerly looking forward to the drive now that the ‘new gas’ is available. Going forward, the focus will be on monetising and marketing the app, as well as expanding partnerships, making operations between Keez and real estate agents as smooth and seamless as possible. He said, “We want to move from that 15 per cent of the real estate market to a lot more and we’re offering even more value to our partner agents and brokers. We’ve increased the number of business technology features, which is linked to our business model. Last June, we launched our mortgage pre-approval feature, which now allows people to get pre-approved through our app instead of going into the bank. If you have your payslips, ID and a utility bill, you can get pre-approved. It takes 15 minutes to do the application and two days to get it back.”