As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Mbiyimoh Ghogomu, Co-founder, CEO of Tradeblock.
Mbiyimoh Ghogomu is the child of an African lawyer and an American teacher. He began his life in Cameroon before moving to Chicago, and then eventually to Houston with his family. Mbiyimoh (pronounced Beemo) played competitive basketball all through his young school years and went on to play college basketball at Dartmouth for two seasons before transferring to University of Texas, Austin and earning two degrees: Sociology and Journalism.
After graduation, Mbiyimoh scored a coveted position on the IBM campus in Austin, Texas, hired as a storyteller for their Enterprise Design Thinking program. Mbiyimoh spent 4 years working at IBM leading content and strategy for a wide range of projects, from IBM’s SXSW presence to interactive Watson AI exhibits.
He joined Tradeblock as Head of Product Development in late 2019 and recently became CEO to help shepherd this start-up forward for an early 2021 launch. Tradeblock successfully raised their seed funding and is currently in beta with thousands of sneakers already in the app.
In his free time, Mbiyimoh loses money on cryptocurrency, plays an unreasonable amount of Catan, and outlines dystopian novels that he will likely never write.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Fundamentally, I’m just a really curious guy who likes making cooling things for people. My first foray into entrepreneurship was a news blog called thehigherlearning.com that I co-founded with one of my childhood friends, Dylan Dement, while we were still in college. We covered everything from current events to advances in science, space exploration and technology, and my work on the site led to me pursue a degree in Journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.
Shortly after graduating, I was offered a job as a content creator at IBM Design’s flagship studio in Austin. While there, I fell in love with product design, design thinking, and business more generally. About 4 years into my time at IBM, a longtime friend and former teammate, Darren Smith shared with me the idea that he and Tony Malveaux (another friend from high school), were cooking up: building a platform that invited people to trade shoes for shoes. I was immediately hooked on the idea and joined the team officially just a few weeks later. I pulled double duty for about 9 months before resigning from IBM to work on Tradeblock, full time.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company?
Tony gets all the credit for that. He’s not only the biggest sneakerhead on the team, he’s also a sports fanatic. He actually had the idea about 10 years ago while playing around with ESPN’s Trade Machine, which lets you simulate different sports trades as if you’re the GM of a team. Tony and Darren were working at Footlocker at the time (I was working a few stores down at Finishline), and one day he just put those two things together: what if there was a way to trade sneakers online as if they were players on your team roster?
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Ha! I don’t know that I would use the word “funny” to describe any of our early mistakes (all of them are still associated with a good amount of stress and anxiety in my memory bank…), but the one that comes to mind is just being way too optimistic about how long it would take to build our beta app.
Our initial plans had it taking 3–4 months, but it actually ended up taking closet to 7. The #1 lesson here: whenever you’re scoping out how long a big development project will take, double your initial estimate!
And to be clear, this isn’t just about how long it takes to code things — there’s hundreds of little nuances and edge cases that you just can’t account for until you’re actually in the process of turning your vision into a reality. So when you’re planning out the project, make sure to budget plenty of time for all the unknowns.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
There were two things we really focused on as we mapped out the broader vision for Tradeblock.
The first was access. The growth of the sneaker resale market has brought a ton of new folks into the culture over the past few years, but it has also led to a rapid increase in sneaker prices across the board. We saw a lot of passionate, longtime sneakerheads getting priced out of pretty much every shoe they wanted and realized that by enabling them to use their existing “kicks as currency”, Tradeblock could create an entirely new (and much more affordable) way for them to acquire the shoes they wanted most.
The second was culture and community. At Tradeblock, we quickly realized that sneaker culture was about so much more than buying and selling… it’s a highly social and interconnected community of collectors who are constantly looking for ways to connect with other people who share their passion for shoes. By contrast, the existing marketplaces that dominate the space today are almost purely transactional. We felt that if we could build a platform that not only increased access, but also tapped into the powerful social dynamics of sneaker culture, Tradeblock would be a truly revolutionary experience for sneakerheads.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
It all starts with accessibility and transparency. We really strive to make ourselves accessible to our members, whether that’s showing up at major events like Sneakercon to connect with them in person, or just making sure that a real human being responds to them when they have questions or problems. We also go out of our way to actually listen to people’s feedback. I’m constantly asking people what sucks about the platform — we’ve built a lot of trust by prioritizing these issues in our product updates, which shows our members that we actually listen to them and put their needs above all else.
I’m fortunate to lead a team of people who put others first by their very nature. One example of how Tradeblock reinforces these values is in the language that we use. We have a fun rule that anyone who refers to the people who use Tradeblock as “users” instead of members has to do 10 pushups. This may seem pedantic, but that subtle difference in language has a huge impact on how you think about the people you serve. Our brains naturally think about “users” as data points, because that’s how the term is most often used; by making a point of using the term members, we force ourselves to always think about the people we serve as human beings, which can drastically change the way we think about a particular issue.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
The most important principles for me as a leader are resilience and emotional balance. Founding a company is an emotional roller coaster — one minute you’re on the top of the world, and the next you’re dealing with what feels like an existential crisis. I believe that the founders who are successful are the ones who… a) build up strong mental “armor” that enables them to think clearly and act decisively even in the face of crisis; and b) cultivate emotional balance that keeps them from getting too high or too low as they go through the natural (but often drastic) swings of building a company from scratch.
From a business standpoint, our number one principle is “be decent.” In a nutshell, this just means treating all human beings with respect and dignity no matter what.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up?
I’ve certainly had my fair share of challenges but I’m going to use this answer to talk about the incredible sacrifices my cofounders made to turn this vision into reality. Before we ever even facilitated a trade, the Tradeblock team were busy attending sneaker conventions every other week to tell people about the idea and build up a following behind it. My co-founders sold off their entire sneaker collections to help fund their travel and even slept in cars outside of event venues at times to save money on hotels.
The hardships I’ve gone through pale in comparison to the sacrifices they’ve made for this business, and I’m forever grateful that they invited me to join them on the journey.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Having a genuine brotherhood with my cofounders, who I’ve known for more than half of my life, is huge. We lean on each other when times are hard and being able to share those challenges goes a long way in terms of being able to get through them.
Beyond that, we just all believe really strongly in the vision itself. We don’t think Tradeblock will be successful, we know it. When you have that level of believe, no challenge seems insurmountable.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
There’s always room for improvement, but I think it’s fair to say that things are going even better than we expected.
The Tradeblock community is growing faster than we anticipated, which is forcing us to accelerate a lot of the plans we had for growth, but more importantly, the reception we’ve seen from the community has been nothing short of incredible. We are constantly hearing from members who genuinely love the platform, and we’ve heard things like, “I want to see yall win” more times than I can count now. That level of support is super humbling, and to harken back to the last question, it’s one of the things that makes it relatively easy to keep going even when times are hard.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Prioritization. You can only do two, maybe three really well at the same time. This rule applies on an individual contributor level, but also at the highest level of the business as a whole. There are dozens of great ideas we’ve discussed internally, and hundreds of feature requests we’ve gotten from our members since we launched, so my #1 responsibility as a CEO is to decide what 2 or 3 things we’re going to focus on at any given time, and then to make sure we stick to those priorities — even it means ignoring things that other people think are critically important. It’s always better to do 2–3 things really well than to do 5 or 10 things poorly!
- Staying laser-focused on the people you serve. Our approach to the product and our business more generally is rooted in design thinking, which is about truly understanding the needs and pain points of the people who use your product or service, and then putting them first, always. This goes way beyond just interviewing a few people to validate your idea up front. You have to constantly work to build and maintain real bonds with people, and you have to be genuinely willing to prioritize their needs at all times, even if it means scrapping other plans or ideas that you yourself are really keen on.
- Being present in the moment. As a CEO, you’re constantly juggling a ton of different responsibilities, projects, and relationships. It can be very hard to not start thinking about other things when you’re in the middle of a meeting with your employees or a conversation with someone who uses your product, for example. But not only does that show a lack of respect for their time, but it also limits your ability to reap the value of those interactions. If some other responsibility is so pressing that you have to think about it now, reschedule the meeting. Otherwise, you have to be able to put all of those other things to the side for a bit to really listen to what is being said. Only then will you maximize the value of every interaction you have.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
First off I have to give a shoutout to my Tradeblock cofounders Darren and Tony, who I genuinely consider to be my brothers for life. Besides inviting me to join them on this journey, they entrusted me with the mantle of leadership. While I may be the guy at the steering wheel, they are the real engine behind this company. None of what we’ve accomplished so far would’ve been possible without them.
My other shoutout has to go to my better half Britany Gilman. She has been an absolute rock in my life ever since we met back in high school and words literally can’t describe how instrumental she’s been in every success I’ve had since then. She keeps me grounded, helps me maintain perspective, and constantly goes above and beyond to help accommodate all of my crazy goals and ambitions. She is one of the kindest and most selfless people I have ever met, and I genuinely feel like I hit the lottery having her in my corner.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Great question! To me, the most important things that are sorely lacking in our society today are critical thinking, introspection, and empathy. If I were to start a movement, it would be centered around teaching these three things to kids as early as possible.
Understand the world around you (critical thinking), understand yourself (introspection), and understand, as best you can, the experiences of others (empathy). If we all sought to do this, the world would be a much better place.