Google will be joining forces with Beta-i at Lisbon Investment Summit, where it will be the host of the Google Workshop Stage – dedicated to founders’ talks, workshops and hands-on sessions on specific technologies.
We spoke with Nuno Pimenta, Industry Head Travel, Retail & Start Ups at Google, to know more about Google’s hands-on approach to help digitize the market and its involvement in the entrepreneurial community.
RT: How do you see digitalization happening in the corporate world and how is Google contributing to it?
NP: Digitalization in the corporate world is happening though at very different paces in different industries and companies. We see that Digital Sales have been one of the main drivers of this change meaning that companies where digital already represents a bigger share of their sales are speeding up. Google has been partnering with companies from all industries to help them to take the most out of their data and to accelerate their transformation efforts.
RT: What attracted Google to partner up with Beta-i and #LIS?
NP: Start Ups, Tech and Innovation are important pillars of Google’s operation in Portugal. We’ve been partnering closely with Beta-i that has been pivotal in creating the right set up for these pillars to foster in Portugal.
RT: What will Google bring to LIS?
NP: With the Google Talks, we will (again) this year bring some of the most successful founders and CEOs of startups to share their stories and how they made it. We believe their stories are truly inspirational for both founders of new companies and experienced leaders of big corporates. Additionally, we will have very interesting sessions on Cloud and how this technology is changing the way companies operate in many aspects.
RT: Why should corporates attend LIS?
NP: Innovation (and threats) are coming from everywhere and leaders of big corporates need to pay much closer attention to this. Lisbon Investment Summit is one of the most important events in Portugal to get a good sense of what areas are being disrupted and to find new potential partners for the future.
Marvin Liao worked at Yahoo! for 10 years and has been investing for 5 years in one of the top Silicon Valley VCs, 500 Startups. With Observador he talked about unicorns, Trump and the Portuguese.
He was an executive at Yahoo! for more than 10 years and he’s a partner and investor in 500 Startups, one of Silicon Valley’s leading accelerators and venture capital firms, since 2014. Marvin Liao spoke with Observador as he was passing through Romania, in a video call that goes from “unicorns [companies valued at more than one billion dollars] without real business models,” a bubble that will burst and not only in the technology industry, to the Portuguese and the Lisbon ecosystem, but also Trump, Facebook and data protection. “I see a lot of money going into very bad deals and I do not understand that. I do not understand the evaluations that many of the companies in a more advanced state have”, he said.
Marvin Liao is scheduled to come to Lisbon in June, where he will once again participate in the Lisbon Investment Summit, a two-day event organized by Beta-ithat brings together investors and startups from around the world. Marvin knows what he will find: an ecosystem “richer than it was in the past,” with “mature” companies and that is “unbelievably friendly for startups.” But he does not fail to point the finger at what he considers to be the problems of the Portuguese: “work ethics,” “lack of sense of urgency” and ambition. Marvin Liao accompanies and is part of the boards of directors of several portfolio projects of 500 Startups, which includes the Portuguese Talkdesk, and invests mainly in projects in the area of digital media, marketing cloud, e-commerce and mobile platforms.
Mentor on a number of acceleration programs in Europe, Israel and the United States, Marvin says that what he is most looking for in the startups he invests in is “founders with great ambitions, such as Tiago [Paiva] from Talkdesk.” For five years he has been investing in 500 Startups, a very early startup venture capital fund that has invested in more than 2,200 companies in 74 countries. On 6 and 7 June, it will be present at the Lisbon Investment Summit, one of the main events of entrepreneurship that last year included more than 600 startups, 200 investors, 100 speakers and 400 companies from more than 50 countries.
You said in an interview with Beta-i in 2017 that there was “a lot of bullshit product worship.” Are we still at this stage or have we moved on to another cult?
There are so many cults, aren’t there? I think you still feel it [this cult], especially in Europe. I often talk about marketing and sales and still think they are undervalued areas. But this also depends on the ecosystem we are talking about. Sales and marketing are still very, very devalued in Europe in general, and not so much in the USA. But they are also still undervalued in the north-american market.
You also said that in recent years there was a lot of money channeled into the ecosystem and that there were projects that should not even have received investment. What startups were these?
I have spoken in general and there is still a lot of money in the ecosystem. Let me give you the North American market as an example: in the US, at the earliest stage of startups, the seed, it doesn’t circulate much money in the ecosystem, but when you look at what happens in later stages, in growth, the reality is that you have a series of unicorns, which I can not understand. Many of these unicorns do not even have a real business model, do not even have good economic indicators and are even overinvested. This makes no sense to businesses. I think there is a lot of money to flood these companies because the capital markets are very volatile and companies prefer to remain private rather than submit to the reality of the exchanges.
These companies are valued at multi-million dollar values, not because they are worth that, but rather because investors have nowhere to allocate money?
I think that is a big part of it. But it is also true that money has become a commodity for many investors and I think this theme gets into a bigger talk about the economy. What is happening is that since interest rates are so low, there is a lot of money being channeled to private equity and the startup ecosystem, in a hunt for returns – the returns that we cannot reach in other markets. If you think of asset classes from a macro-economic perspective, such as commodities or currencies … I also think that innovation – like technology, venture capital – is one of the biggest assets and, even though a lot of money has been channeled there, it remains a very, very small asset.
We’re still in a bubble, then. Do you agree?
Yes, I really think we’re in a bubble, but I do not think it’s just a technological bubble. There is a bubble in all asset classes. If you look at the valuations of all companies, even the ones that are listed in the markets, you realize that they are growing. There is so much demand for returns everywhere that to me, everything is a bubble.
And when is it going to bust? Because it’s going to burst, isn’t it?
Yes. And it’s going to be brutal and bad. I hope we have at least another year or two to get as much money as we can because I think it’s going to be really ugly.
Can it happen in two years?
It is hard to say. That’s the trillion dollar issue. If I knew, we probably would not be having this conversation here, I would have been retired on the beach. I do not know, but the reality is that there is still a lot of money available, there is still a lot of money that is looking for returns and I question the structures of many businesses. Many countries, many companies in general. It is a concern. So it’s going to bust sometime, yeah. I do not know if it’s going to be a year or a week from now, because if we think about it, the economy is very cyclical… And we’ve been recovering since 2010, I think it’s the period that has lasted the most, around 8 years. It’s a long time.
Will the side effects of this bubble be worse than the ones we experienced after Lehman Brothers bankruptcy?
What’s interesting about this is that we look a lot at the 500 companies [the S&P index] and realize that they are very well capitalized. I think business is not growing, but they’re sitting on lots of money and that’s interesting. I think what is happening, at least in the US market, is that we have very low interest rates and, although we do not like our government these days, the truth is that it has been very friendly to companies, has made many changes and when you look at the North American market it is perceived to be very robust. But when you talk to people and when you read the news everyone seems to be very convinced that a great recession or depression will come very soon.
What I think is that, as a general rule, the consensus among people is wrong, so part of me… I look at the signs and I perceive that they are bad, but I also question myself… Because there is a school of thought that says that when you believe that one thing will happen, it happens, but there is another that says that when everyone believes that something is going to happen, it begins to move in another direction to avoid it and it does not happen. There is a reflection of volatility about this. So it may not be as bad as people judge. I do not know.
Yes, but I worry from a macroeconomic point of view. I see a lot of money going into very bad deals and I do not understand it.
What bad deals are these?
I do not understand the assessments that many of the companies in a more advanced state have.
Can you give me examples?
The problem is with many of the unicorns we’ve talked about. But I also have to be careful here because they all have, in their pool of investors, a lot of friends of mine and I do not want to make enemies [laughs]. Many venture capitalists invested, in my opinion, in overvalued companies.
You spoke of the current US government. What were the most significant changes to the startup and technology community made by the Trump administration?
I do not know if any. Trump is not a fan of the [US West Coast], and as you know, Silicon Valley and all of California in general, is very anti-Trump and so… If you think about all the policies he’s promoted, like anti-immigration, you realize that they are a threat to technology as a whole. But on the other hand, there are other company friendly moves who have allowed a series of mergers and acquisitions, and tax changes have benefited many large corporations overall.
Is not this related to the protectionism that Trump wants for the American economy?
In some respects. I am not sure that the Trump administration has so many political strategies, but one we are going to see without a doubt is the commercial war against China. And one of the few things I agree with: the Chinese government’s economic policy has not necessarily been good for Americans or anyone. It is something that has been happening for a long time and nobody faces them. That part I even understand, but I do not like anything else.
What dangers are facing the startups ecosystem now?
There has been a great change in the way we see things. Today, one looks at Facebook, at Google and it is realized that there is a retaliation against technology in general, particularly in the US, but I think everywhere. I also think the flood of money in Silicon Valley is very negative overall for the culture. And this is a kind of bubble in San Francisco. And it’s very negative. I think almost all of us have been operating in a bubble for a long time … I think there are a lot of Ubers in technology in general, and that the uberization bubble has already burst. Now, we are beginning to realize that technology is a force of good, but that it can also be a force of evil. In the Bay Area, there was a bubble that blinded us to many of the negative things technology has brought.
He spoke on Facebook, which since the Cambridge Analytica bust has been involved in several scandals and now wants to be a platform more focused on privacy. Will you get to that point?
I think they will. They are super smart, have lots of money and lots of resources to move in that direction. Honestly, they are learning a lot from China. Look at WeChat, which has everything combined in one app. I think they are going to move in that direction, they are very well positioned and they have very intelligent people working in the company. The reality is that you look at them and you do not believe they behave in a certain way, but when you start thinking about Facebook as an ecosystem … I use it every day, whether you like it or not. I do not know how the younger generations are looking at Facebook, but I think it’s well positioned. Many young girls use Instagram and WhatsApp.
Is Facebook becoming the WeChat of the West?
Yes, I think so. I think WeChat is doing very well and it makes sense.
But that would mean that they would have control and monopoly on so many things … Is not it troubling to have so much data in one company?
Yes, but Google also has all this data and Amazon too. There is a great book I recommend to everyone in the world, Data and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World” [Bruce Schneier], this is already happening. Nor do we need to start talking about what governments already know about us. Yes, we should have worried, but this has already happened. It’s not happening, it’s already happened.
And should we just accept? What should we do?
I think we should be using VPN more often, we need to be very careful with what we put online. The truth is that many of them already have this information. It’s a scary world and I think there will be retaliation from people.
He said that the uberization bubble burst. What about social networks?
No, I think social networks have become useful. All people use them, it’s like the air you breathe, so I do not know if they’ll ever end. The truth is that if we think about them a lot we realize that they are basically the online version of something that is very similar to what we already did. Of course we already want to socialize, but the difference is that on Facebook we do it virtually and if we look at Twitter …. All of these are reflections of things that humans naturally do. If it is Facebook that will be in the future it is difficult to say, but there will be something, some platform.
What are the new trends now? What are you looking for in your investments?
I still look at many things like cloud or software as a service, because I think all this is still very early on. It may have been available for about 20 years, but if you think about how many people use this software, we realize it’s a relatively low number. I also look a lot at biotechnology, digital health.
Has the new European data protection regulation been a good measure or is it a barrier?
It’s a mixture of the two. There is a scary level of lack of privacy. I think the backbone is very good, but I think it also has other unintended consequences. It will make small business life harder. The only companies that will be able to comply with the RGPD are the big ones. The big advantage is in companies that have money and resources, but it’s going to be a big challenge for startups. All laws begin with good intentions, but there are also many unintended consequences. One is that ironically this will only help the big ones.
Is Europe still very different from the North America?
I do not know if the US is an example. There are many wonderful things and other horrible things: we have a health system of trickery and teaching health too. I’m not sure if we’ll be an example. But I also do not know if Europe will be. Europe also has havoc. There is damage everywhere. I am not sure that any country has discovered the formula.
You’ve been to Lisbon a few times. Have you seen differences in the ecosystem?
Yes, no doubt he is now richer than he was in the past. We’ve seen a lot of mature companies roll out B-Series and C-series investment rounds, and if you do, Talkdesk is doing very well. It is one of the companies in our portfolio and it is incredible. We start to see some companies like this and also the maturity of the ecosystem in general … I think this is good and they have an ecosystem incredibly friendly to startups.
And what do we do wrong?
There is still an ethical problem at work. I do not think it is as serious as in other parts of Europe. Portugal is still very interesting, I like the ecosystem, but I do not think people work what they need to work. Maybe that’s my American side talking about, but I think that work ethics is a problem and that there is still a sense of urgency.
Do the Portuguese lack a sense of urgency?
I think it’s still a problem. And I also think companies are not thinking as big as they should and have examples, like Talkdesk. Talkdesk should be a model for Portuguese companies – big ambitions, big ones – and I still do not see them.
Is Talkdesk different because it benefits from being in the US right from the start?
I think it helps, but half of the team is in Lisbon and another half in the USA. I think this should be the model of the future.
Having events like the Web Summit is important for Lisbon if affirming itself as a hotspot of the technological community in Europe?
Yes, I think it helps. These events are a good way to galvanize the community and bring new things. I think the Web Summit is very good for Portugal as a technological ecosystem, especially because of all the new contacts: new investors and new startups that are now in Portugal. For the country, I think it was money well spent. It was a good investment and has been very useful for Portugal.
What is most important to you when investing?
Involved in a very early stage – the seed and the pre-seed – and as a rule I like to see a product working already, some initial data on the consumers. And I like to see founders with great ambitions, like Tiago [Paiva] from Talkdesk. I’m looking for people like Tiago.
Is the secret always in the founders?
At this stage of the companies yes, in other states, later on, it is very different.
Has 500 Startups already recovered from the sexual harassment scandal involving former CEO Dave McClure?
This has happened for over a year and a half. We are a very different company now, but the truth is that Dave was just one of the co-founders, he was not so involved in the day to day. I think we have recovered, yes, we are raising our fifth fund now, we continued to invest in our portfolio and we continued on. I do not know if there is such a big change in the culture of the company, because the truth is that as an organization we have done nothing wrong. Personally, I’m very upset about everything that happened and also for being found guilty of something that neither I nor my team did.
But Dave’s case was revealed at a time when there were other cases on Uber, Google, etc.
I think many of the things that happened were terrible and that people should be punished for it. This forced that there was more perception on this subject and a cultural change. If you look at many of the venture capital funds, all the big ones have a woman in the right direction now. I am not saying that the problems have all been solved, I am saying that now we see that there is a greater perception about this and that there has been a cultural change happening in the last two years. If you look at all the scandals that happened in Hollywood on Wall Street, I do not think that has caused these industries to change.
I know you’re addicted to buying books. What book would you recommend to Portuguese entrepreneurs?
The Lisbon Investment Summit 2016 is getting closer and to tell you the truth, with so much that’s going on, so many awesome speakers who are coming to Lisbon, I can’t really tell who from our team invited Sumon Sadhu, top investor and founder of Muse.ai, to speak at #LIS16. I just remember sitting in the office the other day while Isabel Salgueiro and Inès Dartiguenave from Beta-i were telling me that I had to interview him because he had a very interesting investment philosophy as he only believed in working on things that will make a deep and meaningful impact on the world – often going against permission.
That short description was more than enough to get me excited about this interview. So, I took this suggestion and had a 40 min chat with Sumon where I pretty much just listened and felt like Jon Snow (I really knew nothing about artificial intelligence, big data or how to extend humanity’s lifespan). Sumon really has an exciting story full of minor funny details that make you wonder if anything in life is often due to chance.
The man who moved from a promising career in science in the UK to be an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, because Paul Graham from Y Combinator misunderstood his business idea, has really a lot to tell. But, I’ll let him explain it through his own words in the interview below.
Why did you become an entrepreneur?
Because it was the only thing that allowed me to express my ambition. So, I was originally a scientist, and one of the things when you have an ambition and you’re a scientist trained in biochemistry, you normally want to publish a paper or cure a disease. And that’s a very noble goal, but the reality of being a scientist is that even though you have big ideas and big aspirations, which keeps attracting people to science, is that the end result doesn’t come with the same freedom as if you’re an entrepreneur. If you’re an entrepreneur you can imagine something that you want to do or something that you want to change, and there is no one but yourself to stop you from really doing it. So, being an entrepreneur comes down to taking things that you imagine and bring them to the world, without asking for permission.
How was it like having your first startup, Snaptalent, and going through Y Combinator?
At Snaptalent we were essentially students at Imperial College London and we observed the way that the world worked had sort of changed in terms of behaviour of young people online. And when Snaptalent came about, Paul Graham from Y Combinator reached out over the summer and the email he sent me essentially changed my life because it created a new opportunity. The idea we applied to Y Combinator with was very different from the idea that we did Y Combinator with. So Snaptalent was prompted by a conversation we had in East London. Paul Graham likes to reason about ideas and he misinterpreted something that we were saying. He ended up saying: “What if you guys built the adsense for jobs?”. So, we then explored that and built a prototype and brought that idea to market. Moving from the UK to having a fully funded company in Silicon Valley gave us the permission to do something – Paul Graham kind of gave us the permission and legitimacy to believe in yourselves and go after this. I dropped out of my Phd and we built Snaptalent through the duration of Y Combinator and started advertising. We made 30k during this period and we ended up raising 1.5 million dollars after YC. But it was a remarkable transition of us not believing in our ability in Europe and then being told like ‘you guys should do this and I give you permission’. For me this is the interesting relationship of permission with being able do something.
You ended up shutting down Snaptalent. What were the main lessons learned?
Well, first, it’s really important for you to understand your co-founders in crisis, as well as in success, because people’s response in crisis is often different from their response in success. So, that’s the first thing. For us as a team when the chips were really hard we wanted to go in different directions. Another lesson is around market timing. Some things cannot be changed and market timing is one of those things. You can’t build a product that it’s too ahead of its market. There’s just too much friction to bringing something like that to existence. For example, building Snaptalent in 2016 would be very different to building it in 2008. In 2016 most of the impressions on the web can be purchased on an auction basis, there’s also increasing amounts of data about users. And so the funny story with Snaptalent is that in 2013 I became an advisor to a company called Worked For, which is now the top recruitment solution based out of France, and they were literally saying ‘we learned about what you did with Snaptalent and we want to bring this back into the market’. So, market timing is absolutely critical and it’s just one of those things you cannot change as an entrepreneur.
What about Quid? How did you end up joining them?
It was right after Snaptalent. I had actually been advising the guys from Quid because we were friends from Oxford University. That’s the big thing about my career, it has been very held to relationships. Bob Gudson, the founder of Quid, was actually the first person from the student entrepreneurship societies we created in the UK, to move to the Valley. He was head hunted by Max Levchin, the founder of Paypal, to join his incubator, which had companies like Yelp or Slide. I had known Bob for while, we were friends and we would help each other out with our ventures, so when we had to shut down Snaptalent I asked Bob if I could help out with Quid. I also needed to get a new Visa because in the US your Visa is tied to your company, so if your company runs out of business you have to go back to your country. So, at the time, the important thing for me was to stick around in the US and for that I needed to join another company. I told this to Bob, ‘listen, can you hold onto my registration and I’ll help you with what you’re working on?’. But obviously I also had something pretty significant for me to contribute in the development of Quid because of what I knew in terms of my background in science. Back at Imperial I was studying the evolution of the malaria parasites and the way you do that is you look at data for each of the different stages of the malaria parasite infection and the key part of looking at this data was looking at networks of information. So, with Quid I understood how to analyse networks from my scientific background and I also knew about how to analyse venture. And as it turns out Quid was trying to put those things together. I was in a unique position to help in tuning algorithms and figure out how users could use these insights and bring it to market.
What essentially is Quid? How does it analyse all those amounts of data?
So, the human brain is really good at understanding connections. For example, if we were to map the startups in Lisbon some of them would be fashion startups, others would be softwares for developers or computer vision companies, and so the way the brain works is it groups information together in clusters and then is able to visualise the arrangement between them. So, if I gave you a thousand pages printed out about the Lisbon companies you would manually read each one of them and you would then group together those who were very similar into piles and you would end up with sort of maps. And Quid just automates that. Quid reads information and then groups it into a map, that allows you to understand the connections between that information. If you want to read all the news about the Portuguese economy and you have a 2 day deadline for a talk you’re doing, you could have Quid do that for you and then present back the mapping of all that information for you. Quid automates the reading and the summarisation around any topic, and that automates the way humans do research.
Right now you’re starting a new company based in Lisbon and San Francisco. Can you tell us more about Muse.ai?
Yeah, sure. The company is called Muse.ai and it focusses on the problem of video. There is an increasing amount of video content on the internet and artificial intelligence can help you understand the content inside a video, like you can understand speech, vision, objects, motion, sound. So, artificial intelligence has reached the point where we can comprehend video to a similar level of comprehension of the human brain. At Muse, we’re building new ways of discovering video content by leveraging artificial intelligence. At the moment we’re focussing how to to analyse video and then later we’ll also see how to create new experiences around that. In the future you’ll be sitting in front of your TV watching a football game and you’ll say ‘show me all the goals by Messi’ and the TV will just take you straight to those highlights, through voice powered video search. And there’s always opportunities to create around how people can interact with video content.
Why build a startup in Lisbon?
My co-founder, António Roldão, is a friend of mine from Imperial College and he’s Portuguese. So, we decided to build an AI Lab in Lisbon because Lisbon has two main advantages. The first one is that the Portuguese are really good problem solvers, they are very pragmatic, and they’re open to exploration. And I think that another characteristic of the Portuguese is that they’re very honest and when you solve very hard engineering problems you need to be honest. The second advantage is that we noticed that there’s a real hunger to do something big, mainly because there’s been hard economic times but in general there’s a real optimism in doing something great. And I guess it’s also a matter of location. It’s the combination of weather, and food, and people.
And as an investor, in which industries are you particularly interested in?
I invest in a very mission oriented fashion. I’m genuinely interested 4 main types of advancement for humanity as a whole. We live in a really complex world so, can we build tools that augment our intelligence? The intersection of artificial intelligence, big data, as well as systems to sort of visualise information and be close to the human brain, like extend its capabilities, are absolutely fascinating. So, that’s the first focus. The second focus is on life extension. You know, I’m a biochemist so I have a fascination for how our bodies work and how that impacts our well-being. There are many ways in which we can build systems to extend our lifespan or sort of improve our well-being, and if we can do that we can spend more time on this planet doing better things. I’m really interested in novel mechanisms to prevent disease and ways in which we can change environmental stimulus to prevent disease in the first place. For example, what you eat has an impact on your overall lifespan and so that’s the reason for my investment in Zesty, which has gone to raise 17 million dollars. They changed what people eat at work, which is a place where people spend a lot of time. So, when you do that at scale it’s actually impacting the nutrition habits of people and that has a direct impact in their lifespan. But there are also ways of doing that indirectly. For example, I’m an investor in a company called Benchling, backed by Andreessen and Horowitz. Benchling is an extraordinary company that everyone should know about. It makes life science more efficient and it’s being used by some of the world’s top scientists as well as pharmaceutical companies. Like, there’s a great technology called Crispa, and it’s a gene editing technology so, it’s like if you wanted to turn the genes of a bird and convert it into a dinosaur. And this allows us to manipulate the genome, it can be used for a lot of negative things but also for quite positive therapeutical effects. This gene editing technology requires a lot of skill to come up with the right ways of manipulating the genome and so Benchling software helps scientists design experiments with this Crispa technology in a really efficient way. And that is really transforming the way some companies do genetic engineering as well as manage their life science experiments. I mean if you can accelerate science you can then lead to the creation of new technologies that extend the human lifespan, because it has an extraordinary net effect.
The third main theme is companies that are able to improve or accelerate digital economies. A couple of examples in that area is my investment in ClearTax, which is optimising tax return in India. Like something really great happens when you digitise the transactions that are going through an economy, it becomes more efficient. Most recently I got involved with a company called Bonsai, from Y Combinator, and Bonsai created a software to allow anyone to work anywhere in the world. So, if you’re an american company and you want to hire a Portuguese freelancer and you don’t have a Portuguese entity, you can hire them. You can hire freelancers from any part of the world. So, in the same way Transferwise makes currency conversion easier between countries, they do the same thing for labour. I’m really just interested in things that can change economies, because if you transform an economy you can create jobs and efficiencies that didn’t exist before, and as a consequence that has a net impact for humanity.
The fourth big theme is that I love companies that are building national empires. An example of a national empire is like Alibaba, a giant company that made the Chinese economy more efficient, attract the best talent in China, and then was able to create such a powerful company that they were able to go global. These national empires are companies who have grown so big within their original market that when they go global they just scare others, because they’re so big. So my goal has always been to invest in the next Alibaba. My investments in Mobius Motors in Africa, in Clear Tax in India and Chaldal in Bangladesh, are for this reason, because these companies have a chance of building a monopoly. They’re just extraordinary companies at scale.
What are your main contributions as an early stage investor? What can entrepreneurs expect from you?
Well, I actually have a methodology. I work with entrepreneurs who are in phase 0, which is typically the first 1000 decisions that a company has to make. So, within these first 1000 thousand decisions are some of the most valuable contributions you can make. The first thing is choosing an idea and making sure market timing is correct, to get the entrepreneur straight on. They also need to be the right type of entrepreneur in terms of psychological profile. They have to be irrationally ambitious and want to pursue something with deep intensity, they have to be very talented, and feel like they could walk through walls. They need to focus and be precise when they chase the opportunity,a and that’s the first thing I help with. The second thing is getting that narrative straight to help them fundraise, and typically I would join those rounds but they need to convince other investors that they’re capable of pursuing the mission they’ve articulated. And the third thing I provide value with, is that being an ambitious entrepreneur is actually a psychological game, you have to keep your head straight. You need to have courage but also be encouraged. For example, I’m a very ambitious person so I like to surround myself with ambitious people so, naturally there’s an affinity between these ambitious people, the excitement and they’re sort of motivated in high times and low times. They can always call me for that psychological council. I have all my entrepreneurs on whatsapp. If they ever need anything like an email introduction, or advice on strategy I’ll always there to help and they we all go back to work. And then the fourth thing is that I’m really good at strategy and sort of understanding how a market may unfold, like what’s the chess game you have to play to get to the end goal. My main goal in general is to help entrepreneurs understand if they’re heading in the right direction and if they’re not feeling good about their work I try to help see how I can make them feel better. And because I’m an entrepreneur myself I can be very tactical but also pragmatic. For example, looking at product and understanding if the flow is intuitive or not, or editing a pitch-deck and telling them how the narrative should be better. And once you make these things right then the entrepreneur takes over and is ready to go out. So, it’s making things that are imperfect perfect.
“It sucks to be the CEO of a startup that’s doing super well” said Stewart Butterfield’s, Slack CEO, earlier this year at the Startup Grind Global Conference, on the growth his company is witnessing – “the stakes just get higher and higher”.
It might sound awkward at first but in fact it doesn’t seem an easy job to be leading a startup that is often called the fastest-growing business app ever.
It all started by developing a flash-based online game called Glitch before pivoting toward communications, launching Slack on February 2014. Two years after, they have 2.3 million daily active users and in the last two months they added the same number of users they achieved in their entire first year.
Now that’s growth on steroids.
At this speed, it’s hard to guess which are the next milestones to be met (can Slack one day reduce the role of email to an irrelevant one?) but with this kind of hyper growth the pressure deeply increases and every challenge can get harder if you don’t have all the right people working with you.
Erin Griffith, Fortune writer, sat down with Stewart at the 99U Conference to talk about the challenges they’re facing right now, being their biggest struggle “to find the right people” – the team started with 14 elements, they’re 130 nowadays and they predict to be 250-280 until the end of the year.
“Every practice that we develop for how to manage becomes obsolete in 60 days.”
Here is the entire 20-min talk on how they scaled and their next challenges.
And yes, you can also be amazed by this infographic, shared by Slack weeks ago, on their two-year anniversary: