Josh Fabian has a chip on his shoulder. It's been there for around three decades, and counting.
A 32-year-old Black man, Fabian was adopted and raised from a young age by a white couple who also fostered a rotating cast of sometimes-troubled children, about an hour outside of Pittsburgh. Everywhere he went, he felt isolated because of his skin color — and always had something to prove.
"I remember just feeling so invisible, just feeling like I didn't fit in anywhere," Fabian tells CNBC Make It. "[I] wanted to be significant ... To be seen as the best at something, in some way."
Marginalization can be a powerful motivator, Fabian says. Today, he's the co-founder and CEO of Pittsburgh-based Metafy, a 2-year-old online platform where amateur video gamers pay for coaching sessions with some of the world's top players.
Since launching at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Metafy has attracted more than 50,000 users and thousands of coaches, including top-ranked players of popular games like "League of Legends" and "Super Smash Bros." The company has raised nearly $34 million from investors, and was valued at $105 million in February.
Metafy's journey so far may seem like a somewhat conventional startup story. But Fabian's journey, which includes living off food stamps as a teenager and becoming a nationally ranked "Yu-Gi-Oh!" player, certainly isn't.
At age 16, Fabian emancipated himself from his adoptive parents. He dropped out of high school and became a father for the first time by age 20. For a time, he and his then-girlfriend lived off food stamps, occasionally resorting to stealing diapers and other supplies for their baby, he says.
Fabian was a self-taught coder. His main source of income at the time was designing small websites for about $100 per job. Deciding he needed to get serious about a career to support his family, Fabian refined his skills in a three-month coding course in Chicago, which led to a web designer job with social marketplace startup Obaz in 2012.
In addition to a six-figure salary, Fabian says he also got equity in the company. When Groupon acquired Obaz two years later — for approximately $250,000, according to a 2015 SEC filing — he became more financially comfortable than he'd ever been before.
"That was life-changing," Fabian says.
After nearly three years at Groupon, Fabian stepped away from the tech world to focus on another passion: gaming. As a teenager, Fabian achieved a national ranking among the country's top "Yu-Gi-Oh!" players. By 2016, he was spending eight hours per day playing online games like "Clash Royale" and "Hearthstone," while watching his name climb the leaderboards.
Fabian regularly live-streamed his games on Twitch and posted videos to YouTube. Eventually, people requested one-on-one coaching sessions. "I did it for $100 an hour," says Fabian.
In six months of coaching, Fabian says he earned $40,000. It was a good haul, but not enough to convince him to abandon his lucrative career as a web designer.
That is, until the chip on his shoulder started telling him that he had something to prove again — and entrepreneurship seemed the most viable way to do it.
In 2016, Fabian tried launching Kitsu, a social networking platform for fans of anime and manga comics to connect with each other and discover new titles. It struggled, running out of money, and Fabian kept returning to the idea of video game coaching.
By that time, his own children — he now has four of them — were obsessively playing the "Pokémon" trading card game online. Fabian reached out to a few top-ranked players to see if they'd be willing to coach his kids. One offered his services for just $20 an hour, which Fabian says was less than he paid babysitters.
Later, Fabian discovered that the coach's primary source of income was a minimum-wage warehouse job.
"I just found that incredible," he says. "[I realized] I wasn't alone, and that there must be hundreds of thousands of people experiencing this feeling of being truly great — very few people ever accomplish being truly great at something — and not being able to make a living doing it."
Gamers already advertised themselves as coaches on platforms like GamerSensei and Fiverr, but Fabian says none of them catered to high-level experts or allowed coaches to keep 100% of their booking fees. He and Tom McNiven, a software engineer he'd hired to help build Kitsu, started fleshing out details for a new platform and writing code in their spare time.
When the pandemic hit, the duo took the idea to Product Club, a San Francisco-based startup accelerator run by former Tinder vice president Jeff Morris Jr. that offered $100,000 in startup funding. Metafy got in. The money was helpful, but Fabian says the real value was gaining access to a network of eager venture capitalists.
That mattered: Less than 1% of venture capital goes to Black founders each year, and Fabian says even successful VC pitches can be awkward. "For investors to say these things about how they care about diversity, when I never asked about it ... It sucks so much," he says.
Today, Metafy is well-funded with a reliable revenue stream: The company makes money off a 5% fee charged to each student.
Fabian says he wants his platform to eventually host "MasterClass-style content for gaming" and events where coaches and students can meet — or even compete — in real life. He loftily proclaims that Metafy can become a billion-dollar startup "within the next few years," and permanently alter the e-sports landscape, like when Twitch popularized online streaming.
Metafy's investors say they believe he can pull it off — though, of course, they're biased. Forerunner Ventures managing partner Brian O'Malley, who Fabian considers "maybe my biggest mentor," says he invested because of Fabian's "understanding of the gamer, not just what they want, but what they would love if it was only available."
That's a "one in a million" trait to find in a founder, O'Malley says.
Perhaps that's why Fabian compares his vision to tech disruptors like YouTube and Uber, despite running a very young company that he admits is "not even close" to profitability yet.
"I look to all those CEOs and I see them as rivals. Which is insane," he says. "I realize that sounds crazy, but I do."