First person: How a series of side hustle led Bernard Parah to create a Bitcoin startup

Bernard Parah first became a founder in 2020 when he launched Bitnob, an app that helps users register and transact in bitcoin. However, this was not his first foray into entrepreneurship; he’s been knee-deep in it for over a decade.

In this article, the first in a new series Ventures Africa – First personParah takes us into his backstory, showing how he went from always having hustles to discovering bitcoin and taking the leap of faith to create a startup.

Build Bitnob by Severe Bernard

Let me tell you where it all started. I come from Joe. I grew up there and spent most of my life there until 2013 when I moved to Ghana. My childhood was between Jos and Abuja because my father worked in Abuja. Between 2010 and 2011, I entered the University of Abuja. I wanted to study computer science, but that’s not what I was offered. So I gave up about a year later, went back to Jos and did nothing for two years.

Not exactly nothing, anyway. Basically, I went back to the streets and did a lot of odd jobs because “how dare you drop out of school in Nigeria?” My parents were like, “Oh! So you gave up? You are all alone now. My father never wanted me to study computer science because the only possibility he saw was to run an internet cafe. He wanted me to do medicine instead.

So, I packed up, went back to Jos and did all the odd jobs I could; construction, farming, washing, anything. The goal was to save as much as possible to study computer science, even if it was at a private university. In 2013, I finally succeeded, and with the support of my mother, I moved to Ghana to study computer science.

I arrived in Ghana with doubts in my head. I didn’t know if I could get good grades and earn money at the same time. Since 2009, when my family encountered financial difficulties, I had to grow up early to support them since I had four siblings. And now, at school, I had to make sure they were covered.
My dad didn’t know I was there to study computer science because we still didn’t agree. I told them at home that I was doing mechanical engineering instead. Now you would wonder why I was so stubborn about IT. I’ll explain.

I have always been a computer enthusiast. In 2006-2007, when Symbian phones were all the rage, I was one of those who could bypass the internet to browse for free. It was a big problem then. I also knew how to fix phones and laptops and install and use Excel and Word. When I was at the University of Abuja, I spent more time with the computer science students. My strength was clearly with computers, and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.

Bernard Severe bitnob
Severe Bernard

The result of all this is that I always had jostling. I needed them. In Abuja, he printed and helped students with their projects. But in Ghana, I started taking coding gigs. I joined several developer groups online and was in other forums where I was just helping people with computer problems. It turned out later that one of the people I kept answering his questions to worked in one of the biggest PR agencies in Ghana. He was surprised to find that a student solved many of his company’s problems. He invited me into his office, and what followed was my first big breakthrough in technology.

But again, that wasn’t all I was doing. In November 2013, I discovered bitcoin. At that time, I just thought it was a cool way to earn some extra income. People redeemed it basically the same way with gift cards, and most of the redemption was done on WhatsApp and Telegram groups. The business was simple, and I wasn’t looking to make any changes.

But in 2016, something interesting happened. The central bank governor has blocked the use of naira cards abroad. So many of us Nigerians in Ghana could not transact with our naira cards. This is when the usefulness of bitcoin started to become more important. I started using bitcoin to help people transfer money between Nigeria and Ghana with P2P commerce. Then we had a bitcoin community running bitcoin programs in Ghana. Confidence began to grow. At one point, we were moving through the streets of Accra carrying the equivalent of $50,000 in Ghanaian cedis in bags to trade with someone in need of bitcoins. But it was still a side hustle. I was a full-time software engineer.

Eventually the market started to mature and people started creating Bitcoin websites. Thus, the demand for developers who understood bitcoin began to increase. It brought a lot of people to me, and I was taking contracts.

In 2017, I had a revelation. I realized that the crypto industry would be much bigger than most people expected in the next five to ten years. People haven’t figured it out yet. By the time they do, developers who understand crypto will be scarce and in high demand. I wanted to be in the top ten developers that would come to mind when the time came. So I quit my job and focused more on blockchain engineering.

That same year, I met Ryan Strauss in one of the crypto groups where I had been active. After jumping on a call, he said, “You seem to know a lot about the industry. Why aren’t you running a formal business yet? I wasn’t interested in doing any of this until he said, ‘Man, you already have a business. You just haven’t structured it. It was after this conversation that I registered bitnob.com.

It was just a simple website where people could order the amount of bitcoins they wanted to trade. I was still meeting people in person to exchange bitcoins for cash on the streets of Accra. But it still wasn’t a full-time thing.

In March 2018, I returned to Nigeria during the bear market. I met an old friend and told him about Bitnob. He wanted to invest in it, so we discussed what we could do with Bitnob. But at this point, it was starting to become apparent that not being full-time was a problem. He didn’t have my full attention.

In 2019, my team and I tried to create a non-custodial wallet, like Trust Wallet. But it didn’t go the way we wanted. Then we tried to create a kind of digital update for the cooperatives. We were supposed to launch this product in February 2020, but then I called my team and we agreed that Bitnob was our best chance to make an impact. The only reason it didn’t take off was that we didn’t fully focus on that idea.

So I suggested that we should not accept consulting or freelance jobs for at least a year. If we fail, we will at least know that we tried. But if it succeeds, it could become very important. And these lunatics actually agreed. People quit their jobs to focus on Bitnob.

It was a tough choice for everyone, but today I’m glad we took that leap of faith. I won’t deny that we still have challenges and times when we feel like quitting. When I dropped everything, it was like a part of me died. I had to interrupt some of my friends who still had lots of ideas. I didn’t want to be tempted to start something else.
Building a bitcoin startup in Nigeria is as hard as they say. A Nigerian bank has only a few competitors to worry about. But in crypto, everyone is a potential competitor. Next, you need to earn the trust of an untrusting and impatient market. Yet, Nigerians want to make a quick buck. It’s a lot. Sometimes it feels like a thankless job. But, on the other hand, knowing that Nigerians will do anything to get their problems solved gives me courage. As long as I understand their challenges and how much they would pay to solve them, I have a deal. Even when global players come to compete in this market, I know they don’t understand it as well as I do.

Building Bitnob has changed me a lot. I believe more in intense concentration than multitasking. It helps to get results faster. So even when I fail, I fail fast. In the future, I see myself exploring other fields outside of technology: agriculture, sports, social intervention, etc., and I know better how to start venturing into them because I have chosen to create a company.

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