Meet Jibril Sulaiman. His story is the backdrop of the Drake lyric “started from the bottom now we’re here.”
The 35-year-old entrepreneur said he was just trying to solve a problem with his own wireless company when he decided to begin Pay Sell Co. The company has grown rapidly, so much so that he was recognized on Inc.com’s annual list of fastest-growing private companies in the United States.
“I was excited that we actually made the list for 2016,” Sulaiman told The Undefeated. “I figured we’d rank around 4,000, not 400.”
Sulaiman’s success in the tech industry did not happen overnight. Nearly 16 years ago, he bought three cellphones from a wireless store owner whose company was going out of business. He figured out that one of the phones with a chip inside could be altered.
“That Nokia basically was the phone that I found out I could add ring tones to. I could change the little banner where it had the company’s name, so I actually bought a little cable, bought a laptop and I went out to a flea market, and that began everything,” Sulaiman said.
He started purchasing used phone parts and faceplates. He would rebuild cellphones and take them to flea markets to sell. He later purchased his own wireless store and figured people needed a place to pay their bills without any hassle. So he developed the software that would allow payments to be taken through a third-party system.
“I was ‘hood-famous,” Sulaiman said. “I owned all these wireless stores. I was cutting my own commercials. I went from ‘hood-famous to working at home on the computer, by myself, building this business. I wasn’t talking to anybody. Some good ideas came out of that solitude.”
In 2011, Sulaiman launched Cell Pay, a platform used by wireless stores that allowed customers to pay their wireless bills. In 2015, the company was re-branded as Pay Sell Co., which expanded into e-commerce platforms in several niche markets. These brands includeRapfeatures.com (a marketplace for selling song features),RazSum.cash (an enterprise fundraising platform), Cutt.rs (a payments platform for barbers) and Spendwith.in (a marketplace for sellers of color).
Though blacks are severely underrepresented in the tech market, Sulaiman found a way to break into the industry — which happens to be one of the nation’s fastest growing sectors — and climb the ranks of aspiring entrepreneurs. His company is based out of Pensacola, Florida, a rarity since Silicon Valley is the place where most budding tech companies become recognized and hit it big.
According to an article published in February by USA Today, Silicon Valley is even taking steps to offer more opportunities to underrepresented minorities in the tech industry. “But no one is working harder to tear down barriers for African Americans than a growing cadre of entrepreneurs, investors, engineers and advocates pioneering a range of innovative efforts, from teaching kids of color how to code to preparing African American and Latino engineers for jobs in Silicon Valley,” the article said.
“The movement for tech inclusion has become the most important drive for economic progress and opportunity in black America,” saidVan Jones, who founded #YesWeCode with the support of music icon Prince. “Tech has become the center of the bull’s-eye for African-Americans trying to create hope and possibility in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore.”
Sulaiman said he was mentored by startup expert and founder of the NewMe Accelerator, Angela Benton. “She’s been such a great resource over the phone and through the NewMe coaching platform,” he said. “I want to continue to grow my network. I value the advice from Angela and likewise will value the advice of any other entrepreneur I meet.”
He said it was out of necessity that he had to broaden his reach into the tech industry. “The reduction in my own personal income created the drive for me to create something new. That was the catalyst to make me jump into entrepreneurship or as a small-business owner.”
There are a few hundred wireless stores across the country that use Pay Sell Co.’s platform to accept payment, Sulaiman said. The stores also have the ability now to sell products with his software, including cellphone accessories they couldn’t sell online before the software hit the market.
His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs: Use whatever resources that are available. For example, he hired someone from the online companyUpwork formerly known as eLance to help him with his business plan. After carefully evaluating the new plan, he realized there were opportunities he was missing. One opportunity was in marketing.
“You have to find innovative ways to market your business,” Sulaiman said. So he started advertising through Google AdWords. “That’s when revenue started pick it up,” he added.
In addition to running his tech company, Sulaiman has set out to empower other entrepreneurs. He co-founded Workbase, a co-working/shared office space in northwest Pensacola, Florida. According to the company’s website, Workbase provides shared desk space, dedicated desk space, shared private offices and dedicated private offices on daily or monthly terms. It also offers a Facebook community and other digital platforms that are membership-based.