I was first introduced to JJGeewax at the Developing Caribbean Open Data Conference held earlier this year at the University of the West Indies by Matthew McNaughton, Founder of Slashroots Foundation and co-producer of the conference.
After that, JJ and I traded we-must-meet up-and-chat emails with him, then I was included in an email thread by Julian Robinson, the Government’s Tech Entrepreneurship Champion in State Minister in the Ministry of Science, Technology and Mining Julian Robinson, as JJ announced his intention to open up JGXLabs. That thread included a link to the site which was not publicly live as yet.
JJ and I then finally had a sit down chat at Cannonball cafe in Barbican along with partners Imani Duncan-Price and Ashley-Ann Robinson-Foster and then after that at JGXLabs itself one Friday afternoon. In between all of that talking to JJ, his partners, I was listening to the various feedback I was getting from people from various sectors and from the tech industry. Yes the Google guy had landed in Kingston and everyone and their mother had an opinion about what he was doing and what JGXLabs was all about. I was constantly being asked by phone, email and what’s app what do I think of JJGxLabs, even was pressed for “my official opinion on it”.
So here goes:
What JJGeewax and his JGXLabs IS:
1. Timely- He couldn’t have been a more perfect time to land his lab here in Kingston. The eyes and ears of the Jamaican government and Corporate Jamaica are open for the most part and they are seeking to manifest more success stories by facilitating, investing resources and aligning themselves with it all. It comes at a perfect time when the government has made its intention clear re their Startup Jamaica initiative and will stage a Venture Capital Conference in September.
Most importantly, after years of being starting and/or being in microgroups on college campuses, online in Google, Facebook and Linked groups; attending meetups and conference; competing in hackathons and innovation challenges; by reading local, regional and international blogs and magazines; watching Youtube videos, trying and failing and trying their ideas again and again, teaching themselves things they didn’t learn in college courses; taking courses online and by sheer self interest -the Jamaica Tech/Entrepreneurial Community is primed to pop. Where we are now and are headed was part of a process that started years ago.
2. He is An Entrepreneur with Experience in the Tech Startup Scene: JJ Geewax was part of a company that raised US$5 million for their Philadelphia-based company Invite Media which “developed technology that enables advertisers and agencies to use “real time bidding” to buy display ad space, and to optimize display ad campaigns, across multiple advertising exchanges, all in a single interface.” The company had 45 employees at the time DoubleClick a subsidiary of Google which bought it for US$81million dollars, all now work for Google.
What does this really mean? He’s had the experience of building a product the market wants from scratch, something investors wanted in on, a company is willing to buy- all with by working with a team of other smart people. Frankly it’s that experience that is most valuable at JGXLabs and the entrepreneurs inside it – not his acquired Google pedigree.
3. A Beacon that’s now showing up the local investment and entrepreneurial community : Yeah I said it! If I had US$1 for every time I heard someone was “about to” launch an accelerator or incubator here, especially over the last 2 years, I’d be richer than Oprah. Fact is there has always been talented entrepreneurs, developers, designers IT professionals here, but have struggled long with perception of what is grown here ain’t good enough or that they simply do not exist at all, justifying them not rolling up their sleeves and getting down with the fast growing tech/entrepreneurial community. The Tech and Entrepreneurial community has to take part blame for that perception too, by acting as unproven prima donnas at times and also for not learning the soft skills or the ability to market themselves in a way that inspires trust, credibility and confidence.
That aside, while there has not been large scale venture capital investments happening in the Tech Sector outside of the usual telemarketing Business Processing Operations (BPO) sector, the Tech sector has always seen low profile angel investing for many years by some wealthy Jamaicans. Added to that, in the past recent years, there has been US based venture capitalists who have flown down, invested in Jamaican tech startups and gone right back, with zero fan fare.
So things are happening, it’s just that we need more and local investors and investment houses to take the time to understand more about the stunning potential of the Jamaican Tech sector especially when it comes to software, mobile, internet, animation, digital content etc. Then they need to take some calculated risks, get closer to the feeder pipe of ideas and talent growing here, who can either be partners in business or disruptors and competitors in your marketplace. Yes the Jamaican tech community has it like that! Of course they need some training, mentorship, cash and some more global connections…and that’s why more accelerators and incubators are needed. We still as Jamaicans need to stop underestimating the very talented, locally trained, self taught, developers, designers and other IT professionals we have here and we haven’t really started tapping the talent at the high school levels. The possibilities are amazing I’m telling yah!
4. A hybrid of an incubator and a nearshore Development Shop: His idea as I’ve been told is to invest a small amount of money US$5k-US$15k(which I am sure is tax writeoffable so government and corporate Jamaica please take note of that as we develop our own Venture Capital Ecosystem here) per project and transfer that wealth of experience and knowledge of building products that global markets want. According to this website jbxlabs.com, if you don’t have an idea no problem, he has a store of ideas so you can come in and work on one of his. At the moment, with this first batch, outside of Edufocal started almost two years ago by Gordon Swaby and one other I believe-the ideas that developers and designers are working on at JGXLabs are JJs.
Fact is, JJ has decided to start small and as he said, it is an initial 3 month summer programme, that comes with a 4 month office lease and most importantly a 3 month deadline for the startups on the inside to totally focus on building the products and getting them to market. If for whatever reasons it fails – meaning the products are not built in time or the products are built but there is not enough of a market uptake, then he is going to close and start again with fresh people next summer. He believes in failing fast, cheap and often and that’s right in line with the global ethos of startups. Additionally, it’s a smart way of working a scenario like this vs setting up permanent stakes in the ground and then die on the vine to prove a point, even when things are just not working. Some people will like that and others won’t, but that’s cool. Let some Jamaican and US-based Diaspora people stop their long talking and cough come cash and launch a flavour of their own.
The companies being built in JGXLabs now are:
” Blaze Payment is a mobile payment tool allowing persons to “top up” their account, either with a credit card or by purchasing credit from a friend, and use this credit to buy meals and other items from the Blaze Network of merchants. “ This is essence making using your phone credit to buy products and service, somewhat formalising what’s been happening in a certain sector of the economy already….this is somewhat akin to movie currency.
“An online learning website, EduFocal is focused on training and test-taking to prepare students in Jamaica for GSAT and CSEC exams. The long-term goal of EduFocal is to tackle corporate learning which, according to recent estimates, is a US$56 billion market.” Launched over a year ago by Gordon Swaby.
“HireForge is an online application tracking and hiring pipeline system targeting small businesses.”
Labelled as an “internal version of Twitter”, Checkpoint.io is focused on helping small companies or teams keep track of what members are doing on a day-to-day basis, using daily reminder and team summary emails.
5. Another reason for the world to take notice that things have been happening in Jamaica and the Caribbean and if they are smart they too can take a little risk with a little money and get close to some talented, smart, globally minded aspiring and current tech entrepreneurs, developers and designers here.
What JJGeewax and his JGXLabs is NOT:
1. Revolutionary or the answer to Jamaica’s job and wealth creation dreams: As I said earlier in this blog posts, JGXLabs is not revolutionary, he’s a fast moving entrepreneur who understands the value of moving fast and getting things done, but it is still just that, one way of getting things done in the Jamaican Tech Startup Ecosystem. This is no magic bullet that will all of a sudden populate the landscape with hundreds of startup and success stories for millionaire and billionaire entrepreneurs. It’s not the first and of course it won’t be the last. As I had said earlier in this post, like every successful global startup ecosystem, diversity is the key, an open playing field where different flavours of accelerators and incubators can come to bear on the Startup Scene.
2. A model for everyone to follow. In every startup ecosystem across the world there are development shops, incubators and accelerators of every stripe, it typically is dependent on the bias and intentions of its founders and their partners. Having choice, is in fact great for aspiring and current entrepreneurs, developers and designers – so they can find one that match their type of startups and and the working, mentorship and investor environments that suits them. There is no single entity that can match the needs of every startup whether they are in early stages or in scaling up mode.
3. A representative of Google. Inc here in Jamaica. Not because JJ is here on his own mission it means he is representing Google. Nope that’s not the case. Truth be told Google had already long time been fishing around Jamaica at a particular government ministry but nothing to report as yet. So calm down people.
Words of Advice to JJGeewax
And JJ when I met with you I told you this already when you asked me my opinion on a number of things, but I wanted to put this on the record too.
1. Relax, Stop trying so Hard. Stop trying so hard to win friends and influence people here. It’s not necessary, you have nothing to prove. The one thing that will draw the right entrepreneurs, partners and endorsements is the success that you and the entrepreneurs there produce and also the mistakes and lessons learnt that you and your lab will experience along the way. If you have the time or inclination have your media people and your lab entrepreneurs, blog their journeys and share it with the world. As I’ve said transparency achieves a lot, especially when you have nothing to hide.
2. Stop walking around with the damn entourage, it’s not necessary. This isn’t New York or Silicon Valley. And by entourage I am not referring to your partners individually and specifically, because I know some people get really touchy about such matters in this here small island. I mean the concept of walking around with “crowd a people” it can be off putting. While I understand you being here and what you are doing, could play out like a scene from sharks the water, where people smell your money and opportunity and want to take advantage of you- the simple answer to that is to do your homework. Google it! Find out who are the boots on the ground are in the tech and entrepreneurial community and build “authentic one on one relationships” with them….don’t hard sell them, disrespect them or question their pedigree and tell that to your partners too. Take this advice of course if you it even matters to you and if you really care about making a difference in the industry here.
3. Pick your other local partners wisely and that’s if you need them at all. Your entity is private, just pay your taxes, keep your nose clean and do your thing.
So, in a nutshell, I am all for anyone, any organisation who is working to get us to what I know Jamaica/Caribbean will achieve- I’ve always said it, we will deliver to the world the Tech equivalent of Usain Bolt and Bob Marley. Watch for it, but help us achieve it if you can.
So there it is, my official opinion as Editor of SiliconCaribe.com and Founder of ConnectiMass Tech Entrepreneurship Foundation. See you all tomorrow Thursday evening at JJ’s media launch.