Allan Jones dropped out of college and spent a decade learning how to run a startup. In 2016, that education resulted in the launch of Los Angeles-based Bambee, which helps small companies by acting as their HR department with the goal of keeping them in compliance with government rules and regulations.
But he found getting funded a challenge in spite of his background. He said that as a Black man, he had to move more carefully in the startup world.
“I think it came as part of the complexities of navigating a mostly white male ecosystem, a mostly straight cis white male ecosystem that either helps you create some skills that make you really effective at the job, or generates so much resentment that it becomes hard to be effective. […] I think that I was always one comment away from the opposite direction [I ended up going],” he explained.
Fortunately, that didn’t happen, and he kept on climbing and gaining skills and single-handedly founded his own company, one which has reached Series B and raised $33 million, a significant amount of money for any startup, but particularly for a startup run by a Black founder.
A study published by Crunchbase in February found that VC firms distributed $150 billion in venture funding in 2020. Of that, less than 1%, or around $1 billion, went to Black founders. That highlights just how difficult it has been for him to raise from such a limited pool of money in spite of having a great idea and the business skill and acumen to pull it off.
Jones got his start at the age of 20 at a startup called Helio, which targeted the youth market for multimedia services on mobile phones. It was eventually acquired by Virgin Mobile. He went on to run product at a couple of companies before landing as CMO at ZipRecruiter in 2013. He left that position after three years to launch Bambee in 2016.
In spite of all that experience, he felt that as a gay Black man in Silicon Valley that he was continually saddled with the label of “the kid with potential,” and not always taken as seriously as his straight white counterparts. “And I don’t think those intentions necessarily were bad, I think it was quite the opposite, which actually makes them almost worse because they were entrenched in a bias of how to characterize [my abilities].”
Jones launched Bambee, a startup that is going after SMBs with fewer than 500 employees, most of which are operating without an HR department, and could be out of compliance with federal mandates because they don’t have anyone in charge who is aware of the rules.
“Bambee aims to put an HR manager in every American small business. We’ve done so by building a model that allows you to hire one on our platform for $99 a month. So you pay us a flat fee and you get access to our platform and your own dedicated HR professional. […] She acts as your human resource manager and your human resource arm for your company. And our platform helps keep those companies compliant,” Jones explained.
Jones says that while he might not encounter direct bias as he builds his business, there is an unconscious bias that investing in Bambee could be riskier than investing in someone who fits the prototypical startup founder mold, and this is especially true in early-stage investing when investors are essentially betting on the entrepreneur.
“They take bets that they deem as a bit safer — entrepreneurs that look like a certain profile — white cis-gender males that come from Stanford and Harvard that match the profile of confidence and they have kind of built in an anti-bias determination around, so they automatically get the benefit of the doubt to those pedigrees, and those profiles,” Jones said.
He says that means that Black founders have to work that much harder to overcome those biases. Today Bambee has some decent metrics to show investors with revenue reaching tens of millions, growing 300% year over year with thousands of customers across all 50 states, according to Jones. With 100 employees, he plans to double that number by the end of this year.
Even with that, he says there are still barriers to entry he has to deal with. Even if it’s harder for investors to ignore the company’s numbers, he still sees a tendency to accentuate the negative.
“Building a great company with the deficit in belief in you that starts so early on in the venture process, the [obstacles] that you have to [overcome] to get here. It seems impossible with less than 1% of venture capital dollars going to Black founders, and it isn’t because Black founders don’t exist, it’s because the belief in us is not there at scale,” he said.
As Jones continues to build the company, he has learned to look for investors who believe in him and his vision for the company. If he senses that negativity from a potential investor, he moves on because he wants to work with people who want to help build the company and believe in it as much as he does. He says this won’t change when he goes to raise his C round, a stage few Black entrepreneurs reach.
“Is it going to be easier for me going forward? I don’t think so. I think the type of bias that I have to combat based on the class of entrepreneur I’m becoming, it starts to shift and change, and I’ve seen that in every round and I’m prepared for it in my Series C, as well.”
He says that the progress he’s made in the company and his belief in the business will help him find the right partners to continue on that journey, just as he has in previous rounds.
“We will navigate this […] and I think we’ll build a really great business, and ultimately the partners we discover along this journey will be the exact right ones who we were meant to.”