Editor’s note: This profile is part of Something Ventured, an ongoing series by Crunchbase News examining diversity and access to capital in the venture-backed startup ecosystem. As part of this project, we’ll follow seven seed-stage entrepreneurs over the course of several months as they build their businesses. Access the full project here.
The life of startups and venture capital is a world away from where Josh Fabian was just a decade ago — riding the “L” in Chicago looking for work as a high school dropout, collecting food stamps, and stealing diapers and formula.
“That was the lowest point,” said Fabian, the 31-year-old founder of Pittsburgh-based Metafy. “Stealing diapers and formula. I was so embarrassed. I was embarrassed just because I was in that situation.”
While it’s true entrepreneurs take various roads to founding their companies, Fabian went completely off-road to get to the place that allowed him to start Metafy, a platform that enables online gamers to monetize their talent through one-on-one coaching and courses.
That’s a long way from stealing to get by.
Fabian is brutally honest about his past, and acknowledges many of his problems were self-inflicted. But he also is a study in perseverance — knocking down many of the obstacles he put in front of himself until he eventually learned to stop and follow his passion for design, building community and gaming.
Fabian was born just south of Pittsburgh in Monongahela, Pennsylvania. But he wasn’t there long.
Born addicted to methamphetamine and adopted as a baby, his adoptive parents moved an hour east of the city to Derry, Pennsylvania, a farming town of about 2,500.
“I just stood out there,” said Fabian, who is Black. “There were like two other people there of color in any capacity. I just didn’t fit in.”
A self-described “dork,” Fabian took to anime and video games, favoring the Sony Playstation and Nintendo’s Gameboy. As he became a teenager, he developed a love for the more underground aspects of tech, reading 2600 Magazine and even creating proxies on school computers so students could go anywhere on the internet.
“I was becoming popular because I could do that,” Fabian laughed.
It also led to Fabian starting his first online community, which he named — admittedly poorly — Very Angry Toad. The group was dedicated to all things outside of the normally accepted activities, like hacking, graffiti art and people doing anything slightly lawless.
The group grew to more than 100,000 users and went viral in France. While he eventually closed the group, Fabian finally felt like he belonged. He enjoyed the sense of fulfillment he got by building a community.
“I loved it,” he said. “I still love the jailbreak community.”
Despite gaining a sense of place online, Fabian felt like less so at home. Tensions escalated, and fighting — especially with his father — became common.
Personal relationships and Fabian’s new love for graffiti — learned during his Very Angry Toad days — only served to increase that friction. Fabian said he also loved to spiral any disagreement into a fight.
“It was just kind of me being an asshole,” he remembers. “Now, as a parent, I get it. I totally understand how frustrating it can be.”
One fight, when he was 16 years old, left his mother completely exhausted.
“She said she hated me,” he said. “I remember that, and deep down, I felt everybody hated me.”
The fight brought up emotions Fabian had felt since learning about being adopted — feelings of being unwanted and rejected.
That was it.
Fabian was emancipated from his parents that same year and left home. He also basically left school, only attending occasionally and leaving whenever the mood struck him.
While his friends were graduating, Fabian was working at a Radio Shack. At a graduation party, he reconnected with a former high school acquaintance — Ashley, and a year later, she was pregnant with their first son.
Fabian had aspirations of moving to California, but since he was going to be a father, “That dream of moving away was gone,” he said.
Growing family and desperation
The couple had a second son. Fabian was on food stamps and eventually stole to get by. But that low point also served as a catalyst to jumpstart him into a period of motivation.
He briefly got a job at a web design agency, but quit shortly after. However, a realization started to germinate in his mind — he could build his own ideas if he could just become a better developer.
Fabian found a three-month coding bootcamp — one of the firsts of its kind — in Chicago. He and Ashley sold everything and borrowed money from his father, but still couldn’t afford the camp.
He went to Chicago anyway and rode the “L” for a weekend, soliciting his web design ability to make money. A payday loan business took him up on the offer and he earned enough to attend the bootcamp.
“It was eye-opening,” he said of the camp.
While the camp offered Fabian a gateway to a new world of startups and innovation, he didn’t finish because he had secured a job with then fashion blog startup oBaz.
“The company had raised $1 million, and I was like, ‘Holy shit! A million dollars,’ ” Fabian remembers with a laugh.
Bluffing your way through
Fabian didn’t just get a job, he got equity in the company, and Ashley and the boys moved to Chicago. Despite the massive life change, Fabian couldn’t shake his insecurities.
“I felt like such a fraud,” he remembers. “Everybody was so smart and here I was. I had a felony for graffiti. I kept thinking, ‘Do they know I dropped out of high school?’ ”
But he persevered through his doubt and worked all day and studied all night at home to become a better designer and developer.
“I was growing so quickly,” Fabian recalls. “After two years, I didn’t feel like a fraud anymore.”
Groupon eventually bought oBaz in 2014 and accelerated Fabian’s vesting period so he could leave in 2016.
With more than enough money in the bank — a first — Fabian finally had some freedom.
“I could kind of do whatever I wanted to do,” he said.
That freedom meant spending a little more time with one of his first loves — video games. He fell into Clash Royale by Supercell and started playing competitively. He kept copious amounts of notes to improve his strategy and eventually broke into the top 20 rankings in the world.
Fabian became so good that others contacted him to coach them in the game, and the seeds for Metafy were planted.
While he was somewhat interested in the coaching idea, it proved a hassle with too many pain points and the money, while good, was not what he had been making in tech.
Fabian returned to the startup world professionally, but gaming stayed in the picture. It wasn’t his own love of gaming, but rather his sons’ that kept the switch on. They wanted to be coached by the players they were watching.
“I reached out to one of their favorite players to help them and he said he could do it for $20 an hour,” Fabian said. “I was so amazed, I was like ‘$20? Really? That’s all?’”
That particular player — while a top Pokemon player in the world — also was working in a warehouse making $30,000 a year.
Fabian had his “ah-ha” moment while attending tournaments with his kids where he saw players passing out business cards trying to stir up interest in their coaching.
“I realized there’s got to be a better way,” he said. “And I realized I could solve it.”
Eight months ago, Fabian founded Metafy — out of his love of gaming, building community and solving problems — which now has more than 400 coaches and 3,500 paying student gamers. Some coaches can make upwards of $100,000 on the platform, and the 18-person company expects to hit $1 million in ARR in the next couple of months.
That was all accomplished with Fabian forging his own road on the path to entrepreneurship.
“I can’t believe what we’ve done in eight months,” he said. “It’s crazy. The whole thing’s crazy.”
Read Part 2: A New Type Of Tipping Point, Hiring And Slowing Down
Photo illustration by Dom Guzman
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