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  1. Nafis Azad taught himself design as a pre-teen, started freelancing at age 12, and at 20 dropped out of Ohio State University to focus on his design and software development business, building the guts of others’ startup ideas.
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  3. Ghost Lab grew to 12 employees and topped $1 million revenue in its first year going full-time.
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  5. It has designed products and built apps and websites for entrepreneurs at the idea stage and big corporations needing internal software. Azad has taken no outside investment, and the business has made enough money that he’s investing in some of startups he's helping build.
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  7. “I believe in myself and I trust my process,” Azad said. “The biggest mistake you can make as a young entrepreneur starting out is expecting something (to happen) at a certain time.
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  9. “The biggest thing that drove me every day was literally trusting the process and being excited by the game. I look at entrepreneurship as a game – a game I can get better and better at every single day."
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  11. And although he stopped taking classes halfway through his junior year, the 21-year-old is often on the Ohio State campus, mentoring other young entrepreneurs.
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  13. Paul Reeder, executive director of OSU's Center for Innovation Strategies, calls Azad "one of our go-to entrepreneurs" for making presentations to students.
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  15. “I know that with enough dedication, persistence and focus, any young person can build themselves into a self-made entrepreneur,” Azad said.
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  17. A Dublin native, Azad started out simply by opening Photoshop and figuring out how to duplicate or redesign work he admired – “out of boredom and ambition,” he said. Every time he needed to add a skill, like 3-D modeling, he’d find an online tutorial and learn it. Then he started teaching others, building a following on YouTube as a teenager.
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  19. “I was literally teaching 3-D modeling to 22-year-old art students who are emailing me: ‘Hey man, I passed my exam because of your videos,' " he said.
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  21. From aesthetic design, he dove deeper into user experience – how to structure an app so the user finds it easy or even delightful to navigate – and strategy for building products that can handle the traffic as the user base grows.
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  23. “I wanted to have a business that would drive lasting impact and not on a touch-and-go basis," he said.
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  25. After graduating Dublin Scioto High School with a cumulative 4.0 GPA, he started Azad Creative LLC (still the business’ legal name), then went to Ohio State for computer science engineering.
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  27. But college classes didn’t seem to keep up with the work he was already doing.
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  29. “I got excited over ... trusting the journey of building myself as an entrepreneur, instead of building myself as a student," he said.
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  31. Azad dropped his last OSU class in November 2017 and spent the first half of 2018 crossing the country to visit clients, including Atlanta, New York City, Los Angeles and Austin. He partnered with an Atlanta software engineer, Philip Bale III, who became chief technology officer.
  32.  
  33. “We both get really excited about ... the level of impact we want to provide," Azad said. “It’s exciting for us to contribute to companies (where) the founders believe they are building the next generation of innovation in their industry.”
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  35. If a client comes in with an idea for a startup, and maybe has rough drawings and notes, Azad breaks down the core functions and needed integrations with other technology, filling a wall-size white board with design aesthetic and what it would take to build a prototype.
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  37. He doesn’t charge for that discovery session, instead using it to develop the proposal and cost estimate.
  38.  
  39. “It’s a risk that we take,” he said. “People have said ‘no’ to the proposal, and come back with new opportunities or referred other work. … I have developed amazing relationships with clients I’ve never worked with.
  40.  
  41. “I’m really passionate about startups. It excites me to talk to you in January and then talk to you in June and see your growth.”
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  43. One of Ghost Lab’s first projects was an app redesign for TicketFire, the Columbus startup that can digitize paper tickets and has added a ticket marketplace.
  44.  
  45. “That was one of our first experiences looking at a really successful app that had 100,000 users,” Azad said. “There were already key insights we could pull away and use the data to design around."
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  47. Ray Shealy, TicketFire’s board chairman, said Ghost Lab’s work was both affordable and “outstanding.” He’s hired Azad for more design and coding new features at TicketFire and his other startup, SafeWhite. Shealy's also referred other clients, who are happy.
  48.  
  49. “Design is pretty much the foundation of everything,” Shealy said. “If it’s done right, the build should be more straightforward. That’s been key to his success: He does a really good job at design.
  50.  
  51. “We were able to kind of jump-start our project with him,” he said. “He’s very insightful, very creative; he’s assembled a very good team all around him.
  52.  
  53. “His challenge is going to be continuing to scale while providing a high level of customer service. You can’t really scale yourself.”
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  55. Rev1 Ventures, which advises, trains and invests in startups, has added Ghost Lab to its First Connect program for entrepreneurs to find professional services.
  56.  
  57. Ghost Lab is now investing in startups for which it’s designing and building software, including Columbus-based Studium, an app for college students to connect while on campus, such as to organize a study group. Ohio State, University of South Florida and Georgia Tech are running pilots.
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  59. There’s also an app for location-based marketing within smart-city apps that’s going through an accelerator in Atlanta, and software using artificial intelligence in physical rehabilitation exercise. Azad’s also getting into philanthropy, such as organizing a holiday tech toy drive.
  60.  
  61. “I really have enjoyed the process of working with my clients,” he said. “I don’t have a client that we only discuss products. My clients trust me as a person."
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  63. The son of immigrants from Bangladesh, Azad grew up with the first-generation pressure to get an education and succeed to justify their sacrifices. That’s why he knew he had to throw himself whole-heartedly into his business once he told them he was dropping out.
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  65. “I can’t say they were happy, but I also can’t say they were surprised,” he said.
  66.  
  67. After a few months, they saw the work he was producing – and it really helped when he could help his mom buy a car.
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  69. “My dad walks around with Ghost Lab shirts on,” Azad said. “I’m trying to build a foundation for me, and I’m trying to build something bigger than me. They respect that.
  70.  
  71. “Every day I wake up excited to grow my business. Why wouldn’t I do that with my life?"
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