If you’ve ever admired someone’s shoes, wardrobe or general style on social media and wanted to grab it, the good news is there’s an app for that called CoSign. The greater news is that it’s a black creation courtesy of first-generation Nigerian Americans Esosa Ighodaro and Abiodun “A.J.” Johnson.
When Johnson complimented Ighodaro’s outfit on a New York City subway platform years ago, they had no idea they would be here. At the time, neither one of them had even considered an app like CoSign. That is until Johnson saw a pair of red shoes in a car commercial that he needed in his life. But when he went to the all-knowing internet, he surprisingly struck out. When he noticed he wasn’t the only one looking for those red shoes, an app was born.
CoSign bills itself as an app that “helps style-conscious millennials monetize their social media images.” And CoSign makes it super easy. Just download the CoSign app. Once it’s in place, “snap or upload a picture of your favorite product. Tag the product info. Share it on your social media channels.” Then wait for the ka-ching because, if they buy, you earn. Social commerce is what it’s called. “It’s peer-to-peer recommendation, and we’re trying to amplify that,” says Johnson.
When the duo started out, they didn’t have money per se. Luckily Johnson, a Dartmouth grad who grew up mainly in Memphis, Tenn., worked initially in the tech industry in project management and later in e-commerce. Ighodaro, a Temple grad who was born and raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., worked in finance and banking. But like anyone else, they had to start, even with full-time jobs.
“The first step for us was kind of putting together sketches in regards to what we were looking to create from an app perspective and then just finding the right team to put a prototype together,” explains Johnson.
“We put our money into it to begin the initial prototype phase and then, after that, started raising money through friends and family to make the more valuable product,” he says.
Because they were “exploring untapped territory,” says Ighodaro, they were “really working with the tech team to create something that [didn’t] exist.”
Kickstarter showed them that they weren’t the only ones interested in the outcome. In just 30 days, CoSign raised more than $41,000, which forced them to double down and make it work.
“That really changed the game for us,” Ighodaro says, “because it no longer became this thing that you’re working on, on your own, in the basement. It’s a concept that people actually got behind and put their own money in and said, ‘Hey, we want you to build this concept.’”
Their supporters meant it, too. When the concept Johnson and Ighodaro conceived in 2013 finally entered the beta stage in 2015, they expected the input of a couple of hundred participants to make it better and received thousands instead.
So when CoSign became available for mass consumption, it wasn’t really surprising how quickly it caught on with both consumers and retailers like Sephora and Neiman Marcus. A bonus is that right now, this lane is still almost exclusively theirs. “We don’t really have a true competitor that’s doing what we’re doing,” Ighodaro says.
Being embraced by the tech community and having various publications, ranging from Delta Sky magazine to the Okay Africa website, feature them hasn’t blinded Ighodaro or Johnson to the barriers that techpreneurs of color face.
“As you know, minorities, typically, we’re not getting funded at a high-enough rate as the other startups, so less funding [equals] less resources and less [mobility] for us,” Johnson says. “There are a lot of minorities who are trying to create companies, but they are just not able to get money to last long enough to get revenue.”
That is especially true when that techpreneur is a black woman, says Ighodaro.
“#ProjectDiane is this report that shows how many black women have actually raised money as a tech founder, and I think it’s only been 14 total who have actually raised over a million dollars, which is unfortunate and incredibly abysmal,” she schools. “The average black woman raises about $36,000 for her startup, compared to the average white guy, who raises about $1.4 million for that technology startup. You can last a little bit longer with $1.4 million. So, yes, we can be scrappy with what we have, but there’s definitely a need to have more of that social capital to find those folks who can take a chance on smart, talented, scrappy people of color that are creating great businesses of value.”
And even as Ighodaro and Johnson prioritize growing CoSign, they do their best to make themselves available to up-and-coming techpreneurs. “You fit it in when you can,” says Ighodaro, who gladly pays it forward thanks to tech veterans “way past me who help me with different challenges that I am facing.”
While Ighodaro encourages others to “take the risk,” she keeps it 100. “It’s really daunting,” she warns. “I’m not going to try to pretend like it’s a walk in the park by any means. Some of the other things that most people don’t even talk about is the emotional trials entrepreneurship brings and the emotional stress what weighs on you with really trying to smooth this thing out.”
To those determined to make a go of it, Ighodaro strongly recommends finding “a strong community of people that are kind of going through the same things, because it’s a lot harder to stick with it if you don’t have examples or people encouraging you to do it, especially if it’s something that nobody has ever done before.”
Adversity does have its upside, says Johnson. “We’re used to working with less, so we’re used to not having access to a lot of things, so we’re able to be scrappy and really hustle hard to get to the next point. That’s what makes us unique.”