Video game

From video game coaching to a $105 million startup

Josh Fabian has a chip on his shoulder. He’s been around for about three decades, and counting.

A 32-year-old black man, Fabian was adopted and raised at an early age by a white couple who also fostered a rotating cast of sometimes troubled children, about an hour from Pittsburgh. Wherever he went, he felt isolated because of his skin color – and always had something to prove.

“I remember feeling so invisible, feeling like I didn’t fit in anywhere,” Fabian told CNBC Make It. “[I] wanted to be meaningful… To be seen as the best at something, in a way.”

Marginalization can be a powerful motivator, says Fabian. Today, he’s co-founder and CEO of Los Angeles-based Metafy, a 2-year-old online platform where amateur video gamers pay for coaching sessions with some of the best gamers in the world.

Since launching during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Metafy has attracted over 50,000 users and thousands of trainers, including top players from popular games like “League of Legends” and “Super Smash Bros.” The company has raised nearly $34 million from investors and was valued at $105 million in February.

So far, Metafy’s journey may seem like a somewhat conventional startup story. But Fabian’s journey, which includes living on food stamps as a teenager and becoming a “Yu-Gi-Ih!” player, certainly is not.

A sum of money that “changes lives”

At 16, Fabian frees himself from his adoptive parents. He dropped out of high school and became a father for the first time when he was 20 years old. For a time, he and his then-girlfriend lived on food stamps, sometimes resorting to stealing diapers and other baby supplies, he says.

Fabian was a self-taught coder. His main source of income at the time was designing small websites for around $100 per job. Deciding he needed to get serious about a career to support his family, Fabian honed his skills during a three-month coding course in Chicago, which led to a job as a web designer with the startup. Obaz social market in 2012.

Along with a six-figure salary, Fabian says he has also secured equity in the business. When Groupon acquired Obaz two years later — for about $250,000, according to a 2015 SEC filing — it became more financially comfortable than it had ever been before.

“It changed my life,” says Fabian.

After nearly three years at Groupon, Fabian moved away from the tech world to pursue another passion: gaming. As a teenager, Fabian achieved a national top “Yu-Gi-Oh!” players. In 2016, he spent eight hours a day playing online games like ‘Clash Royale’ and ‘Hearthstone’ while watching his name climb the rankings.

Fabian regularly broadcast his games live on Twitch and posted videos on YouTube. Eventually, people asked for individual coaching sessions. “I did it for $100 an hour,” says Fabian.

In six months of coaching, Fabian says he earned $40,000. It was a good move, but not enough to convince him to give up his lucrative career as a web designer.

That is, until the chip on his shoulder started telling him he had something to prove again – and entrepreneurship seemed like the most viable way to do that.

Realizing he “wasn’t alone”

In 2016, Fabian tried to launch Kitsu, a social networking platform for anime and manga comics fans to connect with each other and discover new titles. He struggled, short of money, and Fabian kept coming back to the idea of ​​video game coaching.

At that time, his own children – he now has four – were obsessively playing “Pokémon GO” on their phones. Fabian contacted a few top players to see if they would be willing to coach his children. One offered his services for just $20 an hour, which Fabian said was less than he paid babysitters.

Later, Fabian discovered that the coach’s main source of income was a minimum-wage warehouse job.

“I just thought it was amazing,” he says. “[I realized] I wasn’t alone, and that there must be hundreds of thousands of people having this feeling of being really great – very few people manage to be really good at anything – and not being able to make a living doing it.”

Players have advertised themselves as coaches before on platforms like GamerSensei and Fiverr, but Fabian says none of them went to high-level experts or allowed coaches to keep 100% of their coaching fees. reservation. He and Tom McNiven, a software engineer he had hired to help build Kitsu, began fleshing out details for a new platform and writing code in their spare time.

When the pandemic hit, the duo pitched the idea to Product Club, a San Francisco-based startup accelerator run by former Tinder VP Jeff Morris Jr., who offered $100,000 in funding from startup. Metafy entered. The money was helpful, but Fabian says the real value was having access to a network of eager venture capitalists.

It mattered: Less than 1% of venture capital goes to black founders each year, and Fabian says even successful venture capital pitches can be troublesome. “For investors to say these things about how they care about diversity, when I’ve never asked about it… It just sucks,” he says.

Great goals ahead

Today, Metafy is well funded with a reliable source of revenue: the company earns money through a 5% fee charged to each student.

Fabian says he wants his platform to eventually host “MasterClass-style content for games” and events where coaches and students can meet – or even compete – in real life. He haughtily proclaims that Metafy can become a billion-dollar startup “in the next few years” and permanently alter the esports landscape, like when Twitch popularized online streaming.

Metafy investors say they believe it can make it happen – although, of course, they are biased. Forerunner Ventures managing partner Brian O’Malley, whom Fabian considers “perhaps my greatest mentor”, says he invested because of “Fabian’s understanding of the player, not just what he wants, but of what he would like if it were only available”.

It’s a “one in a million” trait to find in a founder, says O’Malley.

Perhaps that’s why Fabian likens his vision to tech disruptors like YouTube and Uber, despite running a very young company that he admits is “not even close” to profitability yet. .

“I look at all these CEOs and see them as rivals. Which is insane,” he says. “I realize that sounds crazy, but I do.”

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