Behind Business - Where does your humanism come from?
Ricardo Nunes - We can approach that topic speaking about where I was born. I’m from Abrantes, central Portugal, as well as my partner, Paulo Fernandes. We are people who have had an education, and interaction with life, much based on human value. Not wanting to make any criticism or judgment about life in the cities, I believe that when we grow up in smaller communities, things are passed on differently. When I came to live in Lisbon, I felt a lack of closeness between people, so much so that today I can only live in the city's downtown neighbourhoods, because it is where it most closely resembles Abrantes. People tell me that I can’t get "Abrantes out of me". However, I believe that the humanism you speak is a sum of all the experiences I have had the happiness of accumulating and of the places where I've been and lived.
How did you "choose" your partner for this adventure?
Paulo and I are friends of youth. We have very similar values and ways of looking at the world very much the same. Due to the ordinary course of life, we were some time mismatched. Paulo came to Lisbon while I stayed in Coimbra. However, years later, I met Paulo again, and in a conversation, we said that one day we would have a company; we would do things our way, it would be people-oriented, and with The Human Being as its core. We were tired of seeing a business world where there is always the same way of approaching the market, based on economies of scale and payment models that do not distribute income evenly.
What did you do before founding "O Benefício"?
I've done a lot of different things. I was a road manager, I had an entertainment production company, I was travelling from one place to another. I've been 14 years on the road, working with bands. I also lived in a republic, the Real Republic Boa-Bay-Ela, in Coimbra.
"Nobody knows what it will be, but it will be amazing."
"We said that one day we would have a company; we would do things our way, it would be people-oriented, and with the Human Being as its core."
Has that experience changed you?
I became very open to society, to the world and to people. I was shy when I was younger, but I then went to live in a house where 12 people lived together, with entirely different origins, and everything changed naturally. Another funny thing that helped me grow was the approach inside the house: we only made decisions that affected the community when there was 100% consensus. In addition to the many social skills I gained, my time in the house had an impact on my entire life. I lived there for 5 years.
Do you think that your life experiences manifest in "O Benefício" nowadays?
My view about the world, about society, has clearly moved to "O Benefício". The project absorbs the sum of the experiences that Paulo and I had during our lifetime. I also had another company, more related to the music industry, but I had to end their activity.
Why the name "O Benefício"?
I had been using a word a lot, and the word was, of course, 'benefit' ('benifício', in Portuguese). I was using it for everything since it is a quite versatile word. I started using it as a hashtag. However, while working on Mindshare, my colleagues started saying that "O Benefício" should be a trademark. I wasted no time; one day, I was surfing on the web, I went to the Portuguese Institute of Industrial Property website and noticed that the brand was still available. So I registered it!
How do you move from the willingness to action?
We started having ideas for the company. Paulo brought a person to help us build the brand, Marta Teixeira from Lavandaria, we wrote the manifesto, the values of the company, etc., until the day Paulo said "Man! This has to go forward." And when we were building the brand, we quickly defined which products we wanted to have at the beginning. At first, the concept was a little bit different, but we changed the business plan, and we carried on. This is like a living being, things evolve. Then we started talking to several people to explain the concept.
Lisbon is the centre of your life, but Óbidos seems to be very attached to The Benefit. Why Óbidos?
To begin with, because of our origins, Paul and I have always been very attached to people, to earth and to nature. We started looking for areas in Portugal, around Lisbon, a place that had good access to certified producers, since this was intrinsically linked to our vision and what we wanted for our products: organic and fair trade. We have always wanted to put humanism, even in the creation of the product. One day, while I was on vacation, I found a friend of mine, Hugo Pires, who liked the idea of making limited, personalized editions of land-grown products. He introduced me to the manager of the Obidos Technological Park (OTP), Miguel Silvestre, who offered to introduce me to the park and to its philosophy. It was also in the OTP that we met Ana Lima, who also helped us to present "O Benefício" to the local producers in Óbidos. We thought it would make total sense for us to bet in Óbidos - a city full of potential, and I believe it will be stronger and stronger. So we decided to set up our headquarters in Óbidos.
… and being incubated at Startup Lisboa was due to...
I already had many connections to Startup Lisboa, in which I also have been a mentor, and I asked Miguel Fontes (current director of Startup Lisboa) if we could be incubated there. Miguel really liked our concept and gave us this opportunity, also because the mentors have that chance. We carried on with the submission of our application. After been formally accepted, we started on a "virtual incubation" concept, but we quickly came to realize that we had to have a physical incubation space. So we landed and grounded ourselves on Rua da Prata, where we have an office on the 5th Floor. We love being around. In this way, we were also executing our strategy of being connected to a more cosmopolitan hub, to this point of entry and exit to the world - Lisbon.
How did you convince the best creative talents to help you and as well as persuade the producers?
Most of the creative talents are our friends, mine and Paulo's. People give us the baseline value for their work, the so-called budget. Then we add the operational and strategic costs of the company, such as marketing, product development, etc., we combine everything and divide by 100, which is the number of units of each product. When the producer sets the price, we do not bargain. If he/she says a price, that becomes the fair price of that product, and it's that value we pay. We all win in the end.
We are inflexible in this approach; the added value must come from the quality and not by the number of units produced. We are not against globalization, but we are against the economies of scale, regarding that obsessive way of doing things, where we want everything cheaper and where it is always the producer who is the one left with the narrower margins. Coming back to the issue of access to talent, we solve that as follows: equal pay redistribution, rewarding people in a project-based system, with the fair amount of money they deserve instead of paying a salary.
This solves not only the issue of the company's structure but also help us to achieve our goal of paying collaborators what is fair. When we say we are human-centric, we also refer to this matter. We have two examples of our approach I can share. For instance, our backpack was conceptually developed by our partners, Beltimore, Rita Guerreiro and Rui Café, and we got a compensation model based on their expectations and the initial investment from O Benefício. That is, when a valid idea exists, we invest in its development as well as in its distribution. This co-creation model was also used with Subtil Loom and Angela Subtil, and that's how our laptop sleeves and multipurpose pouch were born.
But... what is the essence of O Benefício?
O Benefício is, in reality, a publisher. Our motto is "Nobody knows what it will be, but it will be amazing". A lot of people think that what I'm going to say is something unusual, but I usually say that we do are "Disruptions of Reality". We look at a reality of a specific market and say "Let's do it differently": with higher prices, more value to the producer, with a fair price for the consumer, better packaging, better image and better communication.
Is that philosophy of buying less, better and local?
Yes, exactly. This approach is excellent for the producer because he/she sells the product more expensive, with a higher perceived value to the end consumer and, in the end, we all get better off. This year is a critical year for us because we would reach the break-even point, according to our plan. The implementation of the project is going very well, and we are perfectly stable.
So, is O Benefício a startup or a for-profit company?
The financial goal of this company is to make it profitable for its founders and to make it totally sustainable in the future. We already have 16 people to whom we can ask for help for the product development phase in the most diverse projects. They are people who collaborate with us in the overall project or in a project-based style, independently and who are essential for the development of all the steps in the construction of a particular product edition. We have a healthy relationship and partnership with ISCTE, in which product development is carried out in Fablab, in an incredible and very motivating collaboration environment for all the parties involved. Obviously, all this activity requires financial investment as well, something essential for the operation of our model of collective collaboration. If we think about it, we are a startup in the sense that we are very quick to place products on the market, starting from scratch, living up to our claim, "nobody knows what it is, but it will be incredible." I believe there are very few companies that market 4 products from completely different areas within 2 years. I can say that for the launch of the laptop sleeve, between producing the product itself, defining the communication platform, updating the site, creating the videos and photos, only took 3 weeks.
Do you have to find people who share your values to have a good team?
Yes, we do believe in that. For example, right now we only work with people who share our values, when we’re making business. We’ve already worked with people and companies with whom we can't work anymore since we did not have the same vision. The affinity with the concept is essential for everything to flow in the right way. Most people prefer not to work with friends. However, we know that the most important is assuring the quality of work and, usually, friends never fail us. Friends can argue with each other because when there is friendship, there are no hurts. It has to exist a lot of personal affinities. We started to collaborate with people that approached us, and we ended up becoming friends. On example is Alfredo Matos, who became a great friend of O Benefício. I think our very positive message generates good interaction with others. It is a message of hope, and people identify themselves with that. But I can not fail to mention Nuno Gervásio who has been with us literally since the first day, and without him, it would have been impossible to develop the visual universe of O Benefício. Or Gonçalo Freitas, Nuno Miguel Dias or Alberto Quintas.
Everyone counts and everyone adds up. I can not miss mentioning people with such a human dimension like Marta Pimpão, from Oppidum our partner for our Ginja Liquor, as well as Luís Coutinho from Herdade of Tapada da Tojeira. They were two essential people for our development since they have placed great generosity and joy in our partnerships. I also want to refer Doctor Spin our communications agency, and all its team, Miguel Alpoim Ruas, Sara Diniz, Patrícia Roque, Margarida Ganso and Bruno Gomes, who has been fundamental in spreading our word. Also, the teams at Startup Lisboa and Óbidos Technology Park have been essential for O Benefício to always help to spread the news and overcome the challenges. We can only thank you. Without them, it would not have been possible to get here. Thank you very much.
Is not there a problem finding talented people for a startup?
We believe that it is difficult, and that is why our manifesto devotes part of it to the importance of talent. We are against the intensive exploitation of talent. Even today, companies maintain the same method of extraction of talent equal to the method of a factory: increased production at the lowest cost. But this track, for a creative industry like ours, which has a conceptual approach, does not work, because our concept is not to sell massively, but rather to focus on maximum quality. We know that our products are not obvious choices for everyone.
How do you expect the world to be 10 years from now?
I believe we will have to start buying less and better. If we continue doing what we have been doing until now, the planet won’t be able to stand it. I think in the future we will go back in time a bit; formerly, when we would buy a refrigerator, it lasted 30 years; now things are done to last 4. There is a conceptual problem in the market economy. To us, in the beginning, the press called us a "humanistic capitalist enterprise". Despite the existence of a paradox within the definition itself - which is not a problem of course - the very existence of it. So it's good to talk about these things. We believe in this market perception because we believe in the market economy, just as Paulo and I think it’s possible, instead of spending € 5 a bottle of ordinary olive oil, buying a € 20 for special moments. And it’s ok, it’s been like that forever. Just as people used to buy a suit to go to Mass on Sunday. I think 10 years from now there will be more companies and brands like ours. There will be more producers. It is insane that a pound of apples from South America is cheaper than a pound of apple from Óbidos. It's just ridiculous, and it makes less sense to send things in a truck to the other side of the world. There will be more marketplaces of local products. However, we are not fundamentalists, but we believe that we can contribute to a better and fairer world. For us, we are proud to be able to sell Portuguese products like the ones we currently have in our portfolio, and the partnerships developed with Oppidum, Herdade Tapada da Tojeira, Subtil Loom and Beltimore.
How do you define success?
For me, success is to have a company that practices what it believes in. Success is, for example, from the moment we got involved with the project of backpacks made from recycled seat belts, we looked at our other products and immediately stopped having plastic stoppers on the bottles of Olive Oil and Ginja Liquor, and we started having cork stoppers. For me, it is an example of success. We are contributing to what we believe to be the right path for our society. We are going the right way, that is, those who work with us are paid fairly and have products that deliver on our promise - that is a success.
Wouldn't you like to make a million euros?
Yes, of course, I would, but without changing our company's approach. It is challenging to build a strong brand and positioning, but it is effortless to destroy it; from day to day, it ceases to be your company, brand and dream.
I had the first company at age 21, but I’ve never considered myself an entrepreneur. I think I've always been a person who has followed his own dreams. I usually say that I have had, and I have an incredible life. I have had this happiness. I've had severe problems, and I've been unemployed for almost a year, so I've known some kind of pain, success and failure. I also had to leave a company of which I was a partner and currently is very successful and to close a business that could not be viable.
But you have learned immensely and can help others to grow with your experience.
Yes, I learned a lot. Both I and Paulo. But we do not allow ourselves to be fascinated by notoriety. We don’t even have an institutional photograph together, to illustrate the pair of founders. Because, for us, the most important is the product and the company philosophy.
What is it to be an entrepreneur to you?
How do you manage uncertainty?
Uncertainty is part of our product. What we do know is that in an Excel spreadsheet, everything is perfect; it always runs smoothly. And I can say that it never went as planned; there were cases where it went much better and others much worse. There is not even a median. These are experiences so disparate that there is no possibility of comparison. Being an entrepreneur has more to do with the mental availability of "I have a dream, I have an idea, and I will try to make it happen", and regarding this, Paulo and I are in tune. O Benefício materializes this promise. This is our dream, and we will put it into action, but for us, it doesn’t need to be right away, which is the typical kind of pressure in the world of startups, which is to prove it quickly. As our philosophy is to do well and slowly, we are a little bit against this approach to speed. Although, as we said earlier, we are entirely aware that we must have this agility in us and when necessary, we also know how to use this tool (see example sleeve). We are sure that O Benefício will last for many years. The third year is the year of sedimentation, according to our plan, and therefore we are speeding up a little more.
Sometimes it seems that the entrepreneur is also a poet, in the sense that a utopia becomes a reality. Is that true?
I think sometimes some people can agree on that when they look at O Benefício. Paulo and I believe that, which is a dream we have, a little utopian, but we believe in it. We also had the happiness of having three "Miguéis" in our life, Miguel Fontes of Startup Lisboa, Miguel Albuquerque of Óbidos Technological Park and Miguel Alpoim Ruas of Doctor Spin who always gave us full support. When we show what we do - when we partner with local producers, when we edit our Ginja de Óbidos special edition, when we print a poem on the bottle, when we wrap it in butter paper from our grandparents' time, which also has an illustration and a story - I think so; that sounds like poetry. Just as it is poetry to turn car belts into backpacks, which had never been done. From the organizational point of view, we like to think that we are a kind of ode to humanism since our team works like this.
We are aware that our approach may not be the right one. And do not criticize other models at all; each person has its own model and attitude. What I am saying is valid for our reality, for our approach, and for O Benefício. But we do not look at other choices, they are not really our cup of tea, and we are happy to be welcomed by people who believe in O Benefício, and for that, we are very grateful obviously.