James Ruffin is 20 years old and chasing a unicorn, but he is far from immature for his age.
“One of the biggest things that I’ve definitely had on my plate is to obtain a unicorn,” Ruffin said, adding that a “unicorn” in the tech industry is a company that achieves a billion-dollar evaluation.
If the past is any indicator, bright things are ahead for Ruffin.
If not from his volunteering and overall presence in the community, Forsyth County residents might know of Ruffin through his company, Dylyon.
“[I] created Dylyon, which was the first on-demand delivery service here in the county, which was fantastic,” he said. “Literally, I started the company from a website I taught myself how to code.”
Ruffin said Dylyon got started originally in 2015 before taking a break and coming out stronger in January 2016, meaning the founder was still in his teens.
It wasn’t his first business venture. That honor goes to a landscaping business he started at age 14.
“I was 14 years old and I had 30-year-olds working for me, cutting grass,” Ruffin said. “I couldn’t even drive, so we had to be strategic with it.”
Dion Johnson, an entrepreneur who has worked with Ruffin in the past, said he gave Ruffin some advice and tips along the way.
“He was a very convincing kid and, obviously, very ambitious, and he had some great ideas,” Johnson said. “We’re living in a day and age where anybody can get rich with a good idea, a silly idea, but you have to have the discipline and focus in order to scale it and then also understand the focus of a team.”
Johnson said he is impressed with Ruffin’s drive at such a young age.
“I think what James is doing is great,” Johnson said. “He’s an innovator, and I think that if he can have the proper discipline and focus, he could possibly pioneer an industry in a tech space one day. I think it’s amazing. I think it’s ground-breaking what he’s doing.”
Today, Ruffin has equity in more than 15 companies.
Dylyon has since merged with MyTown2Go, a similar service that is rapidly expanding.
Ruffin has another foot in the restaurant industry with Vocem, which he described as a combination of an Amazon Alexa and the tablet devices at some restaurants.
“It is the restaurant industry’s first voice-activated recognition, ordering device that’s backed by artificial intelligence,” he said. “So in layman’s terms, what that means is basically when you go to a restaurant it’s a small, decorative speaker that sits on your table.”
Customers can speak into the device to make orders, change music at the table and other uses.
Ruffin said growing up in affluent Forsyth County forced him to be more competitive, and he believes the decision of his mother, also an entrepreneur, to move to the area and put him in the school system made a big difference in his life’s journey.
“I’m in school with my friends and they have nice cars and nice watches, and when they turn 16 they’re getting nice cars and all that stuff, and it forced me to level up,” he said. “She put me in an environment where I couldn’t just settle. She put me in an environment where I had to strive.”
Ruffin was recently selected for a business incubator in Silicon Valley, where he will attempt to get funding and develop his company, but he said the long-term goal is to make Forsyth County Vocem’s headquarters.
Being busy with the businesses can sometimes be a struggle between Ruffin’s economic side and being a young man.
“It’s time-consuming. It’s tough because I feel a lot that I’m trying to live up to an expectation, but really there’s not an expectation in front of me,” he said. “I battle between [wanting] to be with friends and [wanting] to hang out and [wanting] to do stuff, but also I want to care for my future. I want to do the things today so I don’t have to worry about my future.”
Ruffin hopes one day to take what he calls his “gift of gab“ and become a motivational speaker to help others achieve their goals and has another goal perhaps more impressive than getting the unicorn.
“I want to retire when I’m 27 years old,” he said. “So, I’ve got seven years, and I’ve been fortunate enough to achieve so much so far.”