Asafu Thomas: Thinking Big and Making Your Impact

TECH ENTREPRENEUR / IMPACT INVESTOR

Interview by The DCStartupWeek Team on December 15, 2019

Asafu Thomas mobilizes communities that are passionate about bringing business and capital to Africa. He started his first company in 2011. He’s now the founder and CEO of naya labs, a cutting-edge software development company that leverages top developers across the African continent, to build web/mobile applications for startups in the US. In 2017, he became a founding member of the The HarvestVC, a diverse network of entrepreneurs and professionals committed to investing in tech startups on the Africa continent.

What do you love most about the DC Startup Community?

I’ve been a entrepreneur for 8yrs, but I‘m fairly new to the DC Startup community.  My first company was headquartered in Annapolis and that time I didn’t spend much time involving myself in the DC startup scene. With my current venture (Naya Labs) I’ve gotten more involved in the DC startup scene, I’m seeing a space with really smart people, from diverse backgrounds.  There seems to be a good sense of community and people willing to help others, which I think is powerful. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your business.

I’m a serial entrepreneur at heart, I’ve had my share of failures and successes in business.  My first company Datawerx, started out as a huge success – I specialized in lead generation for large insurance companies – by our third year in business we were doing $1.8MM in revenue.  I eventually had to transition out of this business because the space became commoditized, I could not maintain strong profit margins, I also did a poor job adapting fast enough to the changes going on in the industry and revenues began to fall.  I looked around at the core value we had in the company at the time and a lot of it was my staff, particular my tech team.  We were able to build cool CRM products and other database solutions for our insurance clients.  I decided to turn this internal value into a service offering for other young companies.  This is how Naya Labs was born.  We’re a full-service software development company with resources and skills needed for start-ups to launch new products and expand on existing technology while simultaneously proving new opportunities for talented developers on the African continent. 


What inspired you to become an entrepreneur?

I always wanted to work for myself and build my own business but it wasn’t until I was fired from my business development job at a marketing agency that I chose to take the leap toward entrepreneurship.  Instead of accepting a severance package I negotiated with my employer to allow me to take two accounts with me.  Those two accounts became the pillars of my first company and I never looked back ever since.  Now I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than running my own company or helping to build other new businesses.


Many startups may try to utilize their resources in-house to build software, websites and other forms of tech — at one point is it important to outsource and delegate these kinds of things?

I personally think it’s important to leverage technology help as soon as possible in your business, particularly if you are not a technical founder.  Think about the time and energy you have to spend learning to code or building your own website when it could be put towards building your company, improving your business model or customer acquisition strategy.  Finding reliable and experienced tech help in the beginning is huge for any new company.


The startup industry is heavily reliant on tech in this day and age, how do you separate your company from the competition?

From a technology stand point we decided to build our company with an expertise in progressive web applications (PWA’s), which are web applications that function like mobile apps.  Most times the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) for a startup does not need to be a mobile app.  Building a native app is a lot more costly than building a web application that has all the same functionality for mobile devices.  By specializing in PWA’s we help startups focus on building an effective first version of their product at price that they can afford.  

If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give yourself when you first started your business?

I would remind myself to be innovative and think big.  When I started my first business the idea was just to survive and make a living, and that was to my detriment because we did not evolve as a company because of that.  Today my perspective is to build businesses that make great impact and can change the world.