Every year, the Consumer Electronics Show’s organizers nominate about 100 companies to participate in its CES Innovators Lab, with five of those companies being selected to present on opening day. This year, for the first time, a Black-founded and -owned company was chosen amongst the final five.
“Obviously it’s an honor. My partners and I are extremely humbled,” says Ali Abdullah, CEO and founder of the Claim It! app. “We are always acutely aware that, especially in technology, race/ethnicity take a backseat to innovation—which makes it even more amazing to have been selected.”
Claim It!, probably one of the fastest growing local mobile apps of the past year, has garnered over 137,000 downloads after launching on Apple’s App Store back in December 2014. With the app, Abdullah and his co-founders have also managed to give nearly 30,000 New York consumers over $360,000 worth of free product and gift cards from brands like Nike, Beats, Zico, Go Pro, Sephora, Google, Starbucks, Apple, AMC Theaters and more. Users merely need to watch a 15-second video to select one of the app’s weekly prizes. Selected winners pick up their prizes from one of the pink Claim It! trucks located throughout the city (and, soon, also directly from retail locations).
The Harlem-based startup (founded by Abdullah with partners Khalid Mills and Kaza Razat) has also been a hit with investors raising $2 million in seed capital from a host of angel investors. These include Blackstone senior managing director David Blitzer, former Whiptail CEO Dan Crain, former Saks CEO Steve Sadove, former Goldman Sachs managing director Dan Petrozzo, Razor Technology managing partner Jim Stillitano, president and CEO of Arjo Huntleigh Harald F. Stock, along with NBA player Al Harrington, former Detroit Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson, and Brooklyn Nets forward Thaddeus Young. With monetization coming from the advertisements in the app, the business model seems extremely viable, as more than 700,000 views of the 15-second ads have been watched to 100% completion by consumers.
Initially, Abdullah got the idea for Claim It! watching the rise of apps like Groupon and Living Social, and when he received free swag from Harrington and brands for marketing events. Amazingly enough, this was during a bout of homelessness in 2008 after quitting his job at the U.S. Department of Education. Abdullah’s idea came to fruition alongside his rise from the abyss as he landed a coding spot at the Clinton Foundation, and then a senior engineering gig at Google. But he still wasn’t satisfied with his lot in life, and wanted to build his own thing. After meeting his co-founders at a Harlem Tech Mixer and deciding to launch Claim It! together, the rest of the story is history.
Abdullah speaks with EBONY.com about the road to the Consumer Electronics Show, as well as his company’s story.
EBONY: How did presenting at CES come about?
Ali Abdullah: I met Gary Shapiro, the CES chairman and CEO, at the CES conference three years ago while presenting for Google. He and I reconnected this past February, shortly after the company launched. Afterwards, I was diligent about staying in touch and sharing updates on our progress. Fast forward to June, and Gary sent me an unexpected email informing us that CES and i3 magazine had decided to include the company at this year’s conference.
EBONY: Claim It!’s official launch was about a year ago, and you’ve landed some major brand partners. How did you get them all on board?
AA: I believe that we’ve been successful with onboarding major brands because the app provides a direct solution to a constant business dilemma: how to generate new consumer interest and easily get the product directly in their hands.
EBONY: Your growth trajectory is pretty amazing. What was the key marketing strategy?
AA: I think the majority of the growth can be attributed to the strength and simplicity of the idea. Everyone likes free stuff, and retailers want everyone to have access to their products. Also, the giveaways generate a lot of buzz.
EBONY: Can you explain more about how prize redemption works?
AA: Currently, users are able to claim daily free prizes at the Claim It! truck through the app. However, starting this Wednesday, users will be able to also redeem their free prizes inside participating retailers across NYC such as Crumbs, Harlem Shake, Philippe Chow, Liddabit Sweets and more.
EBONY: The app is only iOS. How long will Android users have to wait to participate?
AA: Good news, the wait is over. As of this Wednesday, the Android version goes into beta. So everyone can now download the app and join the fun.
EBONY: It seems your model has been really successful in New York. What’s the plan to roll it out in other cities?
AA: The launch of the Android version and in-store redemption will be the primary way that we quickly scale the business and see growth into other cities. We’re anticipating rolling out in the late second quarter in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.
EBONY: Everyone says it’s hard for Black tech founders to raise capital, but you’ve raised at least two million. What’s the story here?
AA: I think it’s difficult for all tech founders to raise capital. In our case, it might seem like an overnight success. Truth be told, we’ve actually been working on this app since 2008. So I’ve had almost eight years of thinking about, discussing and perfecting my sales pitch. This app is our baby. When you’re passionate and focused, anything is possible. I don’t believe in the words “no” or “can’t.” You just smile and get sh*t done.
EBONY: Have you guys reached your Series A round yet?
AA: We’ve completed our seed round and are currently moving into a Series A. It’s been about a year-long process for the company, with a robust group of investors ranging from YMN Ventures, the former Saks Fifth Ave chairman/CEO Steve Sadove, 76ers owner David Blitzer to NBA players Thad Young and Al Harrington and more.
EBONY: How did you get hooked up with Thad Young as an investor?
AA: I met Thaddeus at a 76ers home game in 2013. We immediately hit it off. I told him I was building an idea that I believed would be a game changer and he was interested in learning more. Over the years, we continued the conversations about the tech industry, business and basketball, as well as Claim It!. When the opportunity presented itself, he chose to invest in our company.
EBONY: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in the past year about being a tech CEO?
AA: To accept that even though a concept is unique and very simple, when you are the first one to market with the idea, it may still be a challenge for others to understand and/or believe in the business model.
Lynne d Johnson has been writing about music since the early 1990s, tech since the late ’90s, and the intersection of music and technology since the early 2000s. She currently writes, teaches and consults companies on how to better engage with their audiences. Follow her on Twitter @lynneluvah.