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Oct 12, 2017 | Jessica Ogilvie

Safia Abdalla was just 13 years old when she started teaching herself to code. Living with her family in Chicago at the time, she came across a documentary one summer about early computing. It covered the dot-com boom of the late ‘90s — a bit before Abdalla’s time — but something in her clicked.

“13-year-old me thought, ‘Oh, I should learn to code and how to build a search engine,” Abdalla says now. “So I taught myself. Of course, you can’t just build a search engine solo, but I was totally immersed and engaged in the process.”

Now 21 years old and a senior at Northwestern University, Abdalla has grown into a pioneer for the next generation of technology. A public advocate for open-sourcing, she’s also the founder of Zarf, a subscription site that allows readers to access their favorite writers and articles while simultaneously paying writers for their original work in an equitable way.

Pay Me

The idea for Zarf came to her about two years ago. At the time, she was doing a lot of writing for both online and print publications, and a lot of technical speaking. What she quickly realized, though, was that the compensation for that type of work wasn’t what it should be. “I was producing a lot of free content that was getting a lot of engagement,” she says, “but it wasn’t hitting my bank account.”

Frustrated, Abdalla began to think about ways that she could solve the problem. She realized that the answer might lie in creating a space where the value of writers’ work spoke for itself; readers pay for access to their favorite writers’ stories, and writers are free to focus on their work while the site’s administrators deal with the day-to-day.

Meanwhile, readers are also guaranteed privacy, security, and an ad-free reading environment.

“What you’re reading is not being tracked to show ads or have products marketed to you,” says Abdalla. “Writers can create work that they get paid for, and readers can read stories in a way that doesn’t compromise their privacy.”

The One and Only

One of Abdalla’s biggest challenges so far has been rolling solo in the development process. “It’s a completely bootstrapped business,” she says. “I am the sole tech developer.”

That means that as she works through bugs and features, and as she tries to put the product in front of more people and ratchet up the sales end, she’s all but on her own. And while her software development skills are strong, she says that the business side was a sharp learning curve.

“I’m really good at building a product,” she says, “But marketing a product, doing sales pitches — kind of managing all that work in one head can be a little overwhelming.”

The Biggest Fan

Zarf is currently in beta, but Abdalla plans to get it out full swing before the holiday season. She hopes to run it on a larger scale one day, and even though it’s been tough, she adds that the lessons she’s learned along the way with regards to entrepreneurship have been “an incredible growth opportunity.”

Meanwhile, one of Abdalla’s biggest champions is someone who was there from the beginning — her mom.

“She’s like, constantly asking me how many new customers I have,” says Abdalla. “My mother is really excited for it.”