For this latest instalment of In the Industry we spoke to Alex Fefegha, co-founder and “chief maker of things” at London-based design and tech studio Comuzi. Alex is a co-founder at London based design studio COMUZI where he leads on creative technology projects for brands, governments and organisations. Alex is also an associate lecturer at the University of Arts London's creative computing institute, teaching a module on computational futures and artificial intelligence. Alex holds a Masters degree in Innovation from internationally renowned Art & Design School, Central St Martins.
Co-founder, Comuzi (2013-ongoing)
MA in Innovation: Central Saint Martins
How would you describe COMUZI?
Basically, it's a design and technology studio. A lot of our work is based around the creation of new products, services and experiences. And in the world of tech, we use the term product or service - they can come in forms of web apps, mobile apps, a web experience, a physical product or a toolkit, which could be in the form of a book. We've made quite a lot of stuff, but our predominant focus is working on the intersection of design and technology to help companies prepare for a new future. That's where a lot our expertise is being utilized right now. When we first started, a lot of our work was deeply experimental, we were always working on cool stuff, or different stuff. And I think in 2020 our work grew to become a bit more serious. From working with local governments on creating digital citizens of the future, all the way to working on COVID-19 vaccine responses to figure out how we can improve knowledge about the vaccine in black communities across South London. And we're also working on artistic experiences, such as an archive for Black British art.
What were you guys doing before you started Comuzi?
I’ve never had a job. I’ve always worked for myself and made stuff for other people. Akil worked in a Japanese restaurant and Richard worked night shifts in either Tesco or Lidl at different points in his life.
As a Co-founder, what does a typical day for you look like?
I started the company with three others. There's Richard, who is the managing director of the company. If there's a CEO, Richard is the CEO, his day to day is to ensure that the company runs, exists, lives, breathes, survives and thrives. Richard manages almost every single thing. So, he wears many hats. Akil is the Strategy Director. When we started we didn't really have all of these titles, because it was only three of us. And we were like "why do you need these titles?". But as our company has grown, and the clients we work with have gotten bigger and we're working with big organizations that have more impact, sometimes people respect you more when you have a fancy titles. We always say that we get paid to do two things; we get paid to make and we get paid to think, and Akil is probably one of the best thinkers I know. As a strategic director, he thinks for our clients and he thinks for Comuzi. My role is more focused on the making side of things and maintaining the essence of design and technology. My responsibility is for the final outputs. It's either I'm the person who created it, or I have lead the team who did. So yeah. I don't really have a title for myself. I think I call myself Chief Maker of Things. And each day it's something very different.
In an article, you talked about dressing in three-piece suits and presenting a version of yourself to please the predominantly white tech world. How was that journey for you and at what point did you shed those ideals?
We were advised by an older generation of black people who have existed in an industry where they were judged and put in boxes. They were raised with the sentiments of "you’ve got to work 10 times harder than this person", "you've got to always be presentable." I remember once a black entrepreneur said to me that she hires a white person to close deals and I was 18 at the time and looking at these people like "wow you're successful" so I thought let me try some of these things. We tried these looks, but we were never happy. It just wasn't comfortable. I remember looking at a creative agency in the States and they basically had this thing on their website that said, "make dope shit. get paid." I was staying at my friend's house and I was like oh my God
it's a whole studio of white people and they're basically using all of this language that I'm scared to use. Why the fuck am I scared to use that?
I was trying to basically fit a box, trying to assimilate to something that makes me uncomfortable. Fuck that shit. So yeah, we just went the opposite way and radically ended up trying to be ourselves. Then we flourished and the business flourished as well.
You mentioned leading a team for the design output - is there a team that works with you permanently?
Yeah, so there are six of us and the team is growing right now. But at times, we've been like 10/11 people deep. We have a core team, and then we hire freelancers to work with us on a project for a period of time. We're doing a lot of recruitment and now we're actually hiring for a new position. It depends on the projects. So, capacity can be pretty overwhelming pretty fast. You're always trying to manage how to hire. Comuzi is self-funded, so every payment is money used to pay our rent, to pay ourselves, to pay for our equipment or to pay for our software. And also to reinvest it back into the business, whether that’s terms of hiring new staff or bringing in a contractor or freelancer. Let's just say the last couple of months, we've spent a lot of money on freelancers, which we see no problem with. But we are making the steps to have more people, more salary staff members. We’ll still always have freelancers because we're trying to build the creative agency of the future.
You said that you're self-funded. Did you guys not try to get any funding?
First, we tried to set up our own record label and that failed so we just basically pivoted to a new business idea. The initial idea we had was to build a music app that allowed artists to have a deeper relationship with their fans. Where fans could support their artists by paying a monthly subscription to support them. The initial name was actually Comuzi, it was about enjoying music together. But sometimes being a bit too ahead of the curve is a patience game. And people might not believe in you. So we found it very hard to make money from it. In 2015 we said to ourselves that we were going to start building our own apps, and building stuff for other people. And that’s how we planned to build our own social capital. Statistically a lot of successful entrepreneurs already have money. But for Black entrepreneurs, when you’re coming from an immigrant family, you can say you want to set up a business but if your mum is struggling, how are you going to do that? In the tech world there’s something called the friends or family round. How many people in our communities can raise a good six figures from friends and family? We figured we don't have financial capital to grow this business. But we can build apps and we can build tech for other people, so we can build off the social capital we gain from that.
When did you start making money from Comuzi?
That’s a good question. Comuzi made money from 2013 because we were doing some music technology stuff. But in 2019, we started making solid consistent bread (money) which changed the trajectory of everything. So, we made money from 2013-2019, but it was very much a chunk of money here and there. Then we'd be like "Oh my god oh my God way we need to make money". It wasn't a consistent thing. Akil was still working at the Japanese restaurant till maybe the second half of 2018. Richard was on and off stacking shelves till we were able to make enough money to pay him the same salary he made from working at Lidl. 2019 is when everything was consistent, and we were making money every month. Around 2018/2019 times was when people started discovering our work, and our reputation continued to grow.
When did you land your very first big client?
We worked with the BBC in 2018, and I’d say it was one of the first moments of validation for our work. We also did design workshops for NHS innovation team, where we were trying to teach health technology entrepreneurs how to implement design methodologies into how they create things for patients. We can say that was another big break. But yeah, I think the BBC stuff kicked off a lot of the work that we do now
How did you go about getting BBC as a client?
Well, we're very good at just letting people know about our work. I think we ran some workshops, and people attended. Then we were invited to come and give a show and tell about what we were working on. At that time, we were kind of exploring the future. Our work is always about the future in some way. We were speaking to the BBC R&D team and they connected with our vibe. They just loved what we were about. Then they emailed us maybe a month or so later, saying, "hey, we've got this project exploring the future of news articles. You want to work on it?" We were like, “yeah, bro. Sure. Let's take this shit.” It was a very rewarding project. It was like the first time we had the opportunity to try to apply the thinking that we wanted to our work. Our approach to our work with the BBC built a lot of the way we've operated since then.
And what do you do now to get new clients?
There was once a year where we travelled everywhere up and down the country just to let people know we existed. We would speak at events, conferences, everywhere. We plugged ourselves everywhere. Now, as the company has grown, and the reputation for our work has been respected. We'd say that finding hew work has been way easier because more people approach us to do work now. There was a long stage where nobody ever did that. That used to be a desire of mine. I used to wish that people would email us with work. Trying to find new work is flipping hard.
Because your business is your passion, do you find it hard to switch off?
I don't sit down to work till like hours in the morning. I don't have that built in me. That was when I was like 18/19. Now I be tired. I'm not up all night thinking about the business. I think we've built enough financial stability to not have to always stress about that. There might be some late nights but it's more about the task that needs to be done by a certain time.
Interviewed by Aisha Ayoade