“People don’t know me as a footballer anymore. I’m no longer defined by the game. This, along with the fact that I can build products that real people are using, is a true mark of success.”
At 14, UK-born Ghanaian Julian Owusu discovered a talent that would earn him money: playing football.
It’s a dream many young boys have, to gain global recognition and wealth doing something they enjoy, a sport watched by over 1.1 billion people across the world. While football might not be one of the top 20 paying professions in the world, it is the fifth-highest paid sports profession, with pro players getting an average of $3.6 million yearly.
Even though football held a promising future for Julian, it was only one of his dreams. “I grew up playing football,” he says, “But I’ve always been interested in tech, even long before I started playing professionally.”
At the beginning of his football career, Julian knew he wanted to tell a different story with his journey. “Most of the other footballers I know have the same story, whether they were rich or poor. They don’t know what else to do when they’re not practising or playing. They don’t know where or if they belong outside the field. I wanted to be different.”
He started his professional journey at 16 when he joined Eleven Wise—a Division One football league club based in Ghana—as a striker. Julian had joined the club on the recommendation of his agent who thought he would benefit from the club’s rigorous training. “It was actually my first solo trip to Ghana,” he says. “My folks had brought me over every year, but coming down to join Eleven Wise was the first time I’d be in Ghana on my own. And I think that trip is really what helped me build my entrepreneurial spirit.”
He had to forget his UK background and immerse himself in Ghana’s culture. “I had to understand local cultures and become like my teammates. I had to understand what the fans wanted, and what my coaches wanted. So I learned a lot of lessons very quickly about becoming a professional and just having a professional mindset.”
Upon completion of his one-year contract with Eleven Wise, Julian moved to Berekum Chelsea, a premier league club out of Ghana, in 2010 where he helped the team score several goals including the 2010–2011 Ghana Premier League cup—the youngest team ever to win the cup—the MTN FA Cup, and the 2011 Ghana’s President’s Cup.
From Berekum Chelsea, he glided through other clubs, from Hayes and Yeading United, to Burnham, right until 2014 when he decided to retire.
When football players on defining paths, such as Julian, retire, it’s often because of injury. Like in most contact sports, football players are exposed to more than their fair share of harm including muscle sprains and toe fractures.
Julian’s retirement, however, had nothing to do with injury, age, or scandal. He simply wanted to be more.
“I was on holiday one year, writing and thinking through what I wanted to become,” he recalls. “I wondered what I wanted to be when I was in my 30s, 40s, 50s or 60s, and I realised that football wasn’t the only thing I wanted to do.”
He needed to build knowledge in an industry that could set him up for success, and so he decided to return to school, a transition he didn’t find so difficult, he says. “It was difficult at the beginning, but all the skills I’d learnt playing football were transferrable. I knew how to work hard. The only reason it was difficult at the start wasn’t because I was studying. It was more because I wasn’t training or going to play a match.”
In 2015, enrolled at the London School of Business and Management, Julian got introduced to digital product management by executing the website for the New Student Union. But he didn’t fall in love with the field until 2 years later when he landed a product management role at Landon and Fitch, a London-based advertising firm. “In my first role, I was only managing the teams and scope, and I wanted more. At Landon and Fitch, though, I got hands-on experience with building and ideating, and that’s where everything clicked into place and I knew it was what I would continue doing. There’s something beautiful about the process of taking something from an idea, bringing it to life and seeing real people use it.”
From his product management role at Landor & Fitch in 2018, Julian went on to manage other products at Culturetool and Spark44, right until he decided to build a product of his own: Zuberi Pay.
The idea for Zuberi came to Julian as he drove through the streets of London. “I wasn’t even thinking of building a fintech. I just wanted to tackle a problem every day people had. And when I thought about what problems 90% of people had, it was cash flow, money!”
While the product was officially released for beta-testing in January 2021, Zuberi started operation right around the time COVID went mainstream in February 2020. Julian added 10 workers to a WhatsApp group and explained his idea to them: Zuberi would provide them with salary advances, for a small interest fee.
Within a few months, the number of people who’d joined the group doubled. He was providing 30 people with advances, using everyday tools like WhatsApp for communication, Excel for data collection, and Taptap Send to transfer payment. “When I thought about how much I was doing just on WhatsApp and Excel, I realised that I could learn more and expand better with an app. So I started pitching to investors.”
Months later, he’d raised about £22,000 ($28,700) from friends and family to build the first iteration of the Zuberi App. At that time, he also brought on as co-founder Nana Adomako—who worked as the Growth Manager for Taptap Send.
By December 2021, Julian quit his 9–5 as a product manager and moved to Ghana to focus on and lead the vision of Zuberi. “If you’re going to be a founder of a startup,” he says, “I think the best role is probably to be a product manager because you’re basically the CEO of the product and you get to know the ins and outs of what you’re building.”
While Zuberi is still in its early stages and available to only a select group of users, it has thousands of Ghanaians on its waitlist. “We are still sorting out regulation and yet to fully launch. We’re working with the Bank of Ghana to get Zuberi up as soon as possible so people can access its benefits.”
When asked about his fears, Julian says he has none, even though he’s earning significantly less as a CEO, compared to when he was a footballer or a product manager. “I think I could probably play again if I wanted to, but I’m not interested. I’ve found my calling. Here, I’m building value, actual value I can see in people’s lives. I might not be earning as much but I’m not high-maintenance. As long as I can provide for my family, then that’s all that really matters.”
Digital Nomads is a weekly column on TechCabal where we explore the everyday lives of Africans who leave their home countries to study or work elsewhere, and Africans who leave their conventional jobs for new professions in tech. A new episode drops every Wednesday. If you think your story fits the Digital Nomads bill, reach out to us here.