Akib Amin is a citizen of the world. Born in Bangladesh, the entrepreneur found his way to the University of Toledo and eventually founded GAFFL, a site that helps connect travelers visiting the same place at the same time. Since then, the company has won LaunchPad’s Pitch and Pour event, the largest business pitch competition in northwest Ohio, gone through multiple rounds of funding and has users in 175 countries. We talked to Amin about how he’s managed to continue traveling, sponsor his childhood soccer team and keep learning the entrepreneurial ropes.
What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Southeast Asia — Bangladesh. My childhood was very normal with a middle-class family. We weren’t the richest or the poorest; somewhere in the middle. But I really loved sports, especially soccer. I created my own intramural soccer team called the Remian Raiders, and they still play.
My brother and I, with our friends from school, built the team when we were kids, and it’s 11 or 12 years old now, sponsored by GAFFL. It’s a non-professional team, but the club exists and there are people 12 years younger than us playing right now. When I think of that, it’s pretty cool. It was the first thing my brother and I started together.
What was your first job?
I worked in the auto industry as an intern for Tenneco, who makes Monroe shocks, learning how to build and work suspensions. Before finishing college, I had to do a senior design project and I built a suspension system for pedicabs, which I thought was really cool. I won the University of Toledo Engineering Department’s Sastri-Deshpande Award, and it was that moment in my life when I realized I wanted to do something more, something that creates value for the world. It was that moment of realization that led to GAFFL.
How did you find yourself in Toledo?
One of my childhood dreams was to work on cars. As a small kid, we didn’t have a car, so my brother and I talked about cars and how to build them. We knew about this Detroit area that was the car hub of the world. We were like, “how do you get there?” So I knew I had to take the SAT and all that stuff, and when I was researching schools in that whole area, somehow the University of Toledo came up. It had a good program and internships and it was affordable. I got a scholarship, and when I first came here, the people were warm and nice, and I just felt at home. So I never left.
How did you come up with GAFFL?
I studied mechanical engineering when I was in college. I was always broke and spent whatever money I had on travel. I really loved it. When I traveled, I would meet these wonderful people, but our itineraries would never match because we didn’t know each other. We would meet on a hike or some other activity. So you’re hiking the Grand Canyon, and then you meet this interesting person finishing the hike when you’re just starting and it’s like, “that’s a pretty cool person.” If you knew this person from before, you could do all those things together. But how can you make that happen? That was a challenge.
Then, after graduation, I went for this cross-country trip and got lost in the mountains of Colorado while I was hiking alone. That was the turning point for me. I came back from that hike and said to myself, “this isn’t just about saving money or making new connections, it’s also about safety.” Now, I don’t have to hike alone anymore.
How have you grown since starting the company?
I don’t think, personally, I’m that different. I’m still the same person. Professionally, sure, I’ve had lessons in things like fundraising, product building, marketing, getting out into the world, lots of these things. When you’re starting a company, there is a lot you don’t know about the entrepreneurial adventure. We started GAFFL, but we didn’t have any experience building a company or a product. We now understand the hurdles, what to do, what not to do. So of course these things change you professionally, but I’m the same Akib.
Do you still get to travel as much as you did before GAFFL?
Yeah, I always travel, now I just use GAFFL, and I learn from my trips. This past summer, I went to Telluride, Colorado, a small ski town that’s really beautiful. At the end of 2018, I was in Europe for two weeks, and that was fun. I was actually traveling solo on that trip because GAFFL was not very popular there, so I went through Europe to try to find out all the pain points of a solo traveler. Getting those experiences of going from one country to another by train, plane, whatever and learning those difficulties helped me realize the need of the market and what we could do better if GAFFL was involved.
Has it been rewarding to watch your company grow?
Yeah, absolutely. As a team, we feel really lucky. One of my teammates was just in Vietnam for two weeks. We’re all happy to be able to serve in a field where we can experience the idea and the love of travel, and we share that same passion as our users. We built the product for ourselves, so it’s great to see people use something you built to experience the emotions you love.
Why has Toledo been a good home for GAFFL?
For companies like GAFFL, the trend has been to move to Silicon Valley or the Bay Area. But after we won the Pitch and Pour LaunchPad competition, it gave us some good exposure and people in the entrepreneur community started believing in us. It was the right move, because Ohio has been great. Toledo is less expensive than other cities and it helped us keep our costs at a minimum. We love it here; it’s a great place to be.
What advice would you give young entrepreneurs?
I’m still very young as an entrepreneur and I still have a lot to learn. But one thing I’d say is that there will be times when it feels like it’s never going to work, when the idea is not good enough. There will be a lot of like naysayers, people who don’t believe in the project. But you need to know one thing: if you believe in something, keep going. You have to just do it. And that with enough persistence, anything is possible. That’s what I believe.
It’s not about skill all the time. It’s not about being able to build products or being able to hire people. It’s persistence. It’s a mindset. When you are very small and unknown in the world, it may feel tough, but then you slowly grow. It’s not a one-day project. Companies are built with big ambitions over multiple years, maybe decades. The biggest companies in the world were not built in one or two or four or five years. So for young entrepreneurs, you have to keep going.