Co-founder and former CEO of ShiftForward, Chief Product Officer at Velocidi, and co-founder of Founders Founders
Photo by Joana Leitão
Behind Business (BB) - How did you get to where you are now?
Paulo - I think I already had the entrepreneurial bug in me from a very early age, since when I was 15 or 16 years old. When you have that spirit at that age you already want to do things - get a summer job to save money for instance. At that time, what I was really excited about were technological things, and in 1997 I launched the first online clothing store in Portugal, selling customised shirts, which still runs today.
Did you carry on with your entrepreneurial ventures?
Well, I left that aside for a while. I started a course in Porto, went to London and during this process I started working there in the area I wanted to. I was not only connected to software development but also ended up being attached to the business side of it as well, particularly in the field of marketing and data. Soon after I started to be more curious about those areas. During my time there I worked in a German startup, from 2006 to 2009, so I was able to catch the train to the startup world and experienced the craziness of working at a startup. I loved it! I found it fascinating. This made me acquire an excellent experience, not as a leader but also on the startup world and phases as well, which is full of ups and downs. Ended up meeting awesome people from various countries - Spain, Italy, France, England, Germany. I liked it and said to myself that I would want to repeat that experience, eventually, in another circumstance.
Why did you come back?
At that time I wanted to go to a warmer place, with sunny weather. So I thought of several cities, like Barcelona, Berlin, Porto ... and Porto won, more for the sake of proximity to the people, family, etc. I continued working for European companies to help them designing technological solutions for marketing. Since I was relatively well paid, I could afford to work two days, and then I was available in the remaining ones. As the business grew and as I saw more people asking for software development, I decided to start a business. As my partner and I were already spending a lot of time developing things for others, we decided to build our own products as well - products that could scale quickly. We began to think of solutions that had technological value.
"I am inspired by the people who take on their time - which I think it is always the scarcer resource we have - and they manage to put it at the service of the society. People who like and encourage volunteering, supporting others, are the ones who inspire me the most because they are using their most valuable coin, time and giving it for free to society. These are the most inspiring people."
Why do you mention 'We' instead of 'I' at that early stage?
It's always a team, you never do this kind of things alone, trying to innovate and to be an entrepreneur. There is always someone that embark with you on that trip, especially when it comes to developing innovative software (which is not a 9 to 5 job by the way). In the beginning, the office was my living room, and the conversations in this environment naturally end up being about "what are we going to do as a company", "how are we going to do it", "what business are we going to create”, and so on.
Do you think that in the beginning, it is better to have a strong friendship based relationship between the co-founders to ensure the success of the company? Or is it better just to have a purely business relationship?
I think a friendship relationship helps to get started because there is a degree of confidence that helps you move forward and helps you talk openly with each other. However, I find it complicated in some situations. You have to be able to separate what is business and what is friendship, and like in everything in life, there is always a good and a bad side. I think this has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. That being said, there are times when, for certain businesses, it makes sense to do it in a certain way and in others where it makes sense to take another approach. It depends a lot on the business and on the people - there are no rules.
What is harder to manage: money, people or time?
I think the time is harder. Although living in a bubble nowadays, technological companies think that managing money is more complicated. I think it is not the case. I do believe that managing time is more complicated. You can always get more money; you have to be able to convince the investor to finance you, that's for sure, but you can not buy any more time. And when I say this, it's not in a philosophical way - if your startup is looking for funding to grow, and it only does it after five years, for example - you'll have to tell a story very well told to explain why, just now, you are looking for the first investment to grow. A 5-year startup is not eligible for various European funds, it starts right there. Any investor will find it strange. Unless it is no longer a startup, and it has already a structure and a portfolio of clients... but at startup is always looking for a scalable business model. Time, here, is critical, it is a very scarce resource. The day you start the company, the clock begins to work, as if it is the “biological startup clock”.
So, what you are saying, is that it is easy to reach to the investors?
It is easy to reach to the investors, yes, no doubts about it.
Even in Portugal?
Of course, and I do not think “in Portugal” from the perspective that they have to be Portuguese investors, but you're in Portugal, and you have access to the European market. Your story, your idea, has to be well told, as with any other. The investor always avoids losing excellent business opportunities, wherever it may be. Therefore, Portugal is at the same level when compared with any other European country. Concerning legislation, taxes, and about the movement of capital, it is quite straightforward when talking about a state in the European Union. Portugal has many advantages that are quickly sold to any investor. At FoundersFounders we have several cases of investors knocking on the door to ask if we know of new opportunities to recommend them.
How do you define success?
Individual success is being at peace with yourself and enjoying what you do. If you want to talk about to the financial side of it, success is having enough so that that stops to be a concern, and you can focus on what you like to do. But, you do not have to be an entrepreneur to achieve that. Actually, being an entrepreneur might be the most challenging path to get there; at least it is the most troublesome. But, perhaps, it is the most interesting. From the company's point of view, success is straightforward: it is to be financially sustainable - but sustainable at other levels as well; be ethically viable, sustainable in the way it treats people and clients, and so on. This is the only way financial sustainability makes sense.
If we transpose that to a context of a particular Asian country, where Buddhist culture prevails, doing business unethically will bring bad karma. That will affect you in the long run.
I totally agree with that although I do not believe much in the topic of karma. We can always find ways to make more money... the next question is how will this help you and the society around you. Maybe, if you have more money, it would not make much difference for you, but for others, it would make a huge deal. Not treating people well will always be a short side approach and a shot in your own foot; you do not know when you will be that person, the one who will be mistreated. I believe more in this "kind of karma", in the sense that sooner or later, if you do not treat people well, there will be reciprocity, and you will end up being isolated. And you deserved it.
Who inspires you?
Many people inspire me in different ways. My father, for example, on issues such as resilience, business-wise and his ability to always “keep the wheel spinning”. In regards to expertise, I am inspired by Steve Blank in the area of marketing and sales. I find it phenomenal how he manages to translate and convey complex concepts in such simple ways. I'm also inspired by everyone who does a lot with minimal resources. I am inspired by the people who take on their time - which I think it is always the scarcer resource we have and manage to put it the service of the society. People who like and encourage volunteering, supporting others, are the ones who inspire me the most because they are using their most valuable coin, time and giving it for free to society. These are the most inspiring people.
Is there a book you would advise to start the wave of entrepreneurship?
Yes, I would recommend “Crossing the Chasm”, by Geoffrey Moore. I think everyone who is thinking about doing something has to read this book.
What was the failure that you most cherish, now looking back?
There was a situation in my life that I think it was the most complicated for me by the time I was in college. I wanted to study and be in the college at the same time. As a consequence, due to the lack of time, in the second year of college, I think I was not approved in any course. I went to London with the idea that it would be easier to reconcile the two things - and in fact, it is because the society’s openness for the ones that have a job while studying is far higher than in Portugal. In my first year in London I didn’t manage to enter in the course I wanted so I started thinking, "Will this (taking a course in the university) ever work for me? I had already been in Porto for two years, now I have to waste one year more... “ But, in the following year, I applied again and got accepted! However, I was always with that awful thought in my head "This never ends… I will not be able to finish this.". It was hard, not only due to the fact I was working and studying at the same time but also because of the freedom we get both from a city like London and the college itself. In Portugal, I was accustomed to having classes in a rigorous schedule, and then there I was, free to choose to do whatever I wanted. I could choose to attend the classes or not ... and I was not going.
It made you think...
I think when I was in the last year there were times when I did not believe I was going to finish. I made the whole movie in my head that I could not finish it, I couldn't do it… you know. The failures were all happening in cascade: to give up my Engineering course in Porto, then not knowing if I would enter in the course in London... There were stages when I was very distressed and could not walk forward. The day I received the last grade from the previous exam... it was one of the most magnificent reliefs of my life. I thought to myself, "It's over, I can do stuff now.." I was feeling a great deal of weight back then, the fact that I went to London after convincing my parents that I was going to move to London to take that course... It was too much at once, and I was feeling that weight over my shoulders, so I thought “what if I couldn't finish it, what was I doing there?”
Did you grow up with those moments in your life?
Without a doubt, I grew tremendously.
Now, imagine that you are in the future and you have two teleportation devices, for bidirectional travel. Where are you going to place them?
I would place one in Porto and another in London. I think I would be disillusioned because... London to me are the people I met, as in Porto. However, unlike Porto, in London people move a lot because it is a city in which the most normal thing to do is to get there, stay and work for a few years and then go away. Some of the people who are very important to me are still there, but there are also many people who are there anymore, just like me. They are already making their living in their home country or even in another one so ... Each of us has his/her reason to be in a place where he/she is. Anyway, I would continue to choose London because it is still a hub for me, a meeting place. I hope legislative changes due to Brexit will not affect our mobility to and from the UK... but I do think they will change, unfortunately. If they not change, it will still be an incredible place.