Josh Fabian is worried his fast-growing startup isn’t growing fast enough.
As cofounder and CEO of Metafy, Fabian led the video game coaching company to raise an $8.65 million seed round in the spring of 2021, followed by a $25 million Series A at the start of this month. In less than a year, the startup has raised more capital than most of the larger VC deals out of Pittsburgh in all of 2021. But Fabian is hungry for more.
“I’m terrified we’re going too slow,” he told Technical.ly this week. It’s both a reflection of the demands of the VC world, and on Pittsburgh itself.
Growth and gains
Though running Metafy often feels less like a job and more like building something with a group of friends, Fabian noted that taking on larger sums of venture capital brings added pressure.
“We’re on that drug [of VC], and that is what sustains us now until years from now, at a minimum,” he said. “So for that reason, I do worry a lot that we’re not going as fast as I would like us to go in terms of scaling the team, in terms of community adoption, and so on.”
Despite Fabian’s concerns about meeting his own lofty expectations, Metafy is perhaps the most successful startup out of Pittsburgh right now. Beyond topping Technical.ly’s first RealLIST Startups for the city last month, the company posted over 100% growth rates across several of its key metrics last year, and coaches using the platform saw a gross income of over $1 million in 2021, per the company.
In 2022, Fabian told Technical.ly he hopes to see that income increase by a factor of five or even 10. This year, too, will see the startup focused on rapid hiring and marketing strategy, in addition to potential product updates including gaming course options, recurring payment models for coaches, and an event platform for competitions.
Metafy as community company
If Fabian’s focus on the company’s growth rate and other financial metrics won’t make Metafy successful, then perhaps his awareness for the gaming community will. Of the $25 million in the Series A round the startup closed, $1 million will go toward what Fabian and his team have dubbed the Metafy Community Fund — a fund to support user competitions, community events, creative projects and more for the gamers on Metafy’s platform.
“The community fund is something that’s pretty deeply personal for me,” Fabian said. “I grew up in the gaming community. The gaming community was there for the highest and lowest points of my life. So now that I’m profiting off of this community, it feels kind of gross.”
The community fund is one of the safety mechanisms we’re putting in place to keep our soul. We’re setting aside $1,000,000 to encourage a rising tide.
We intend to support and sponsor competitive and community events, creative projects, and more. https://t.co/tu0iBIb4mU
— Cruecial (@JoshFabian) February 1, 2022
The fund is his way of showing the gaming community that even as Metafy continues to grow, it wants to keep the individuals who support it in mind. Creating that connection, Fabian said, is mutually beneficial: As Metafy grows and scales support for its community, so too will the community support the business. And he hope it inspires competitors to do the same — “because, you know, as cliché as it is, a rising tide helps here.”
Pittsburgh as startup hub
While that trend might be true for the gaming industry, it has yet to fully deliver in the Pittsburgh startup community. Fabian knows that Metafy’s notable success and larger VC deals happen far less frequently in Pittsburgh than they do in tech hubs like Silicon Valley, Boston or New York. Still, he acknowledges that much of Metafy’s traction so far is attributable to a combination of hard work and luck, and it’s hard to control the latter of those two factors.
All the same, Fabian believes that “Pittsburgh is — right now, at least — not a great place to start a hyper-growth startup.” Between inconsistent support from local investors to a lack of real support in the mid to later stages of growth to a weak informal entrepreneurship community, Fabian sees a lot of room for improvement.
"Pittsburgh is — right now, at least — not a great place to start a hyper-growth startup."
He’s far from the only one to point out these challenges keeping Pittsburgh from becoming a true startup hub, particularly when it comes to VC. It’s not a totally unreasonable possibility that Metafy, just like Pittsburgh’s beloved startup-turned-unicorn Duolingo, could build the company with almost no local investment. That would mean that once again, the returns on a successful Pittsburgh company won’t end up in Pittsburgh pockets.
But even more than money, Fabian wants to see more communication across the startup world here at all levels.
“The best you’re going to find is camaraderie in that you’re all in this kind of starting point together,” he said. “And that’s helpful at times. But in a very healthy startup culture, you have folks at each step of that journey where you can go to some of them for camaraderie, but then you can go to others for mentorship. And then you can also be a mentor yourself. We don’t quite have that yet.”
Though Metafy is a fully remote company, Fabian himself has plans to stay in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future, despite his admission that he’s starting to feel like “a big fish in a small pond here.” But he remains hopeful that Metafy’s success so far will inspire others, and that he can remain an active voice in the local entrepreneurship scene.
“There’s a nice seed planted here at Pittsburgh,” he said. “It just needs time to really grow.”
If Pittsburgh wants to keep more promising startups like his, it better grow quickly.
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments.-30-