Meet one of the youngest Black entrepreneurs in tech, who just raised a seed round topping $4 million that included Alexis Ohanian

Dominic-Madori Davis-Mon, December 21, 2020, 9:09 AM EST

  • Realtime, an invite-only social networking app cofounded by two Gen Zers, just announced on Friday a $4 million seed round led by Alexis Ohanian‘s Seven Seven Six venture fund. 
  • Users on the app create video chat rooms where they can talk and connect with each other, and also host conferences and group meetings.
  • Vernon Coleman, 23, cofounder and CEO of Realtime, told Insider that the app wants to become the “authentic social layer for Gen Z and young millennials” and he has plans to expand into the real world after the pandemic subsides. 
  • Other investors in the app include Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler, former Tinder CPO Ravi Metha, and Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin. Coleman is now one of the 1% of Black founders that have raised VC funding. 
  • In an interview with Insider, Coleman talks about the company’s plans to create a next-gen social service, how he was able to connect with key investors, and what the future holds for him as a Black man in tech. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Last year, Vernon Coleman and his friend Kevin Robertson took a risk. In their fourth year at the University of California, Santa Cruz, they dropped out to work full-time on their social networking app, Realtime.

They wanted to redefine social networking for Gen Zers and young millennials. The initial premise of Realtime centered around people meeting each other in person, but the onset of the pandemic forced the duo to rethink everything. 

“We were like ‘Okay, let’s rethink what social connectivity and community look like in the age of remote universities,'” Coleman, 23, now Realtime’s CEO, told Business Insider. “Where the places where people serendipitously meet are gone.” 

They adapted fast, making Realtime an invite-only video chatting service that allows users to create chat rooms to talk and hang out with each other. People can also hold conferences and group meetings on it.- ADVERTISEMENT -https://s.yimg.com/rq/darla/4-6-0/html/r-sf-flx.html

The app doesn’t officially launch until early next year, but big names are already betting big on it. On Friday, the app announced it raised a $4 million seed round led by investor Alexis Ohanian‘s Seven Seven Six venture fund. Other investors include Kickstarter cofounder Yancey Strickler, former Tinder CPO Ravi Mehta, and Twitch co-founder Kevin Lin.

Coleman said he wants Realtime to be a “very egalitarian place,” in contrast to most social networks, which “are focused on this aspect of status and almost somewhat the worst parts of human beings in how we think and perceive each other.”

Kevin(CTO) and Vernon(CEO).JPG
(L) Kevin Robertson (CTO) and (R) Vernon (CEO). Courtesy of Realtime

Realtime forgoes traditional social networking features such as likes and followers to focus solely on connecting and fostering social environments. It just finished its alpha testing round, and Coleman said Realtime has already accrued a waiting list, though he declined to say how many people were on it. 

“People are craving human connection now more than ever and Vernon has identified a unique way to expedite today’s evolving need for interaction,” Ohanian said in a press release. “His innovative approach to building hyper-personal online communities through instant, real-time video chatting made Realtime a compelling company to invest in.” 

This is also a big deal for Coleman, who identifies as Black. Only about 1% of VC funding goes to Black startup founders, meaning the 23-year-old Gen Zer just became the latest addition to one of tech’s most exclusive clubs. 

Realtime
Courtesy of Realtime

Realtime wants to become the social layer for Gen Zers and young millennials 

Traditional social clubs and even tech spaces haven’t always been known for being the most inclusive spaces and earlier this year, Coleman was part of a group of young people pointing that out.

He had a position called “head of Hype” at a place called  👁👄👁 (eye mouth eye), a social club that started as an inside joke online but quickly began to pick up steam as the group began to criticize Silicon Valley and venture capitalists for fostering an environment of elitism.

 👁👄👁 went on to raise over $200,000 for three charities that support people of color and the LGBTQ community. It started off as a joke, Coleman told Business Insider, but it quickly became an emblem for how young people currently see the system of tech and social spaces. 

“People either break the cycle or join within the cycle,” he said. “If you look at most social networks and communities, they’ve been built by pretty much the same person.”  

Realtime
Realtime logo Courtesy of Realtime

Right now, only two people are running Realtime: Coleman, who handles operations, fundraising, and product design,  and his cofounder Robertson, the chief technical officer, who works on development. Even though the app hasn’t officially launched, Coleman said he and Robertson are already trying to figure out how to bring Realtime into the real world once the pandemic subsides.

Seed funding breakthrough after more than a year of hustling

This $4 million funding round is big news for Coleman, who spent the last year-and-a-half hustling for investors. 

Getting into Silicon Valley had always been a dream of his, Coleman said. Growing up, he moved around a lot. Both of his parents were in the US Navy, and he was born in Okinawa, Japan. They briefly moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, before settling down in South Carolina when he was around 7 years old.

In high school, he would practice building iOS and Android games and he said he always wanted to find a way to intersect technology and entrepreneurship. He used to watch videos about the founding of startups to study how big names in tech spoke – memorizing the names of the entrepreneurs and founders who were making it big. 

He did so, he said, to understand “how people think and how people viewed the world.” This became useful for him as he began to seek investors. It helped that he was able to speak their language. “Every industry has its own type of lexicon,” he said. 

“I remember watching Scott Heiferman talk about Meetup. I remember listening to Yancey [Strickler] talk about confounding Kickstarter,” he said. Today, both Heiferman and Strickler are investors in Realtime. 

Vernon Coleman Realtime
Vernon Coleman Courtesy of Vernon Coleman

Sometimes, he said, he would ask his brother, who works in real estate, for money to buy plane tickets and pay for Uber rides so he could get to cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York, to meet possible investors. 

“I would go places and I would ask questions,” Coleman said. “Even if that was ‘Yo, how do you make it? How do you make it in the game when you don’t have the resources financially to do so?'” 

He was able to meet other investors for Realtime via friends who knew people. Some people, however, Coleman would simply recognize at events or parties and approach – take Nick Caldwell, for example, who is the vice president of engineering at Twitter. 

“I recognized that there was another Black dude doing tech in Santa Cruz,” Coleman said. “Santa Cruz doesn’t have many black people.” 

Silicon Valley and “Big Tech” in general don’t have many Black people – CNBC reported this year that only 3% of Facebook’s workforce is Black. And though 9% of Apple’s workforce identities as Black, only 3% hold leadership positions. At the start of 2019, about 6% of Twitter’s workforce identified as Black – up 2% from 2014, the outlet reported.  

So when Coleman was at a Facebook conference one day – it didn’t take much to recognize Caldwell in the room. Coleman was able to introduce himself to Caldwell and they later went out for coffee. Today, Caldwell’s an investor in Realtime. He’s the one who made the introduction to Alexis Ohanian, too.

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