Last week I was flattered by an invitation to be interviewed by the prestigious Argentinian foundation Fundación del Tucumán, that fosters business education and entrepreneurship in Argentina. They were interested about my experience as an entrepreneur and my lessons learned on the road. Here I share the interview, translated by Google Translator (not bad job!). You can find the original version in Spanish in this link.
“Ideas are overrated, what counts is execution”
Confirming assumptions, defying stereotypes, inspiring, suggesting and sharing. All this Diego Saez-Gil is doing in a talk about the sides A and B in the life of an entrepreneur. His itinerary anti-salaried-job: Tucumán (Argentina), Barcelona and The Big Apple. Tips, anecdotes and reflections.
Diego Saez Gil graduated with a Bachelor in Business Administration at the Universidad Nacional de Tucumán. He started working for Pluspetrol, then he jumped to Altran, and while pursuing a Master’s degree in Spain, he got hired by one of the Big4′s: PricewaterhouseCoopers. His executive career was underway, and smooth to the eye. But a trip to New York would change everything …
Early 2010. For several months, Diego had been feeling the desire to start his own company. And in a corner of the Big Apple would occur the “click” that was necessary, both figuratively and literally. ”I got involved by chance on the project of creating Off Track Planet, an online community that offers interactive travel guides, personalized and based on the new mobile technologies and social networks. I met Fred, who would be one of my partners, in a hostel in Brooklyn and started to build the business plan. After a while, I decided to do this 100% and I jumped: I sent an email quitting to PwC and dropped my NYC-Barcelona flight, “says Diego. ”I talked to my girlfriend at the time, and I called my mom. Although they didn’t understand me well, they supported me. There was a huge adrenaline and some fear, but somehow I had a feeling deep inside me, saying ‘It is the time, I’m ready’” says the 29 years old now full-time entrepreneur, and Chief Financial Officer (CFO) of his brand new start-up.
Diego will participate in Tucumán, next April, in the event Endeavor NOA, which the Foundation is sponsoring. Already planning to visit his province, he talks about his doubts and certainties, about the what’s, why’s and how’s of being an entrepreneur.
Fundación del Tucumán: What do you think about the label “entrepreneur”? What does it mean for you, essentially?
Diego Saez Gil: I like it! and I feel is very good that people started using this word in Argentina (a few years ago no one used it). What I think distinguishes the “entrepreneur”, from for example an “executive”, is that the entrepreneur starts from scratch, from nothing creates something innovative that has value to the world. For me, it has a certain epic and romanticism, like explorers or adventurers have. Still, I think there are many ways to be an entrepreneur, anyone can do it, whenever it detects an opportunity and go for it to build something new. The entrepreneur does not seek to be rich as its first objective, seeks to change the world.
FT: To be an entrepreneur, what personal qualities are most valuable or useful?
DSG: At a personal level, I think it’s important to have the ability to convey a vision and enlist everyone in that vision, inspiring them with a valid purpose, convincing them that it is achievable. An entrepreneur must be a good “storyteller”. Much of the initial work is to tell a compelling and exciting story , and enlist others in the mission. At first there is nothing more than a team, an idea and a minimum product, and with that you have to get on board employees, partners, suppliers, customers, investors, and even your family and friends to you support.
Besides this, I believe that certain personal attitudes are critical, such as persistence, positive attitude, self-motivation and self-confidence. Adversity and rejection are daily bread, which demands tremendous attitude.
FT: What about the technical and professional skills…?
DSG: I think three key areas of skills, especially at the beginning, the entrepreneur ideally should have: Product Design, Team Building and Sales. In addition, Business Development (being able to design a Business Model & Plan) and Finance are important. And of course, knowledge the industry in which you’re getting into.
FT: How is your day today as an entrepreneur? In short, what’s your schedule different from that of an analyst on one of the “Big4″ consulting firms.
DSG: My current schedule has a lot of writing and answering e-mails, coordinating and having meetings (in person or via Skype), planning with my partners or alone, organizing action and plans, evaluating progress and feedbacks, creating presentations, researching on the Internet, staying informed (via Twitter, blogs, online newspapers, etc.), going to networking events, etc … At PwC my schedule included much time in front my dear Excel sheets, or analyzing and preparing documents, and some meetings from time to time. The main difference actually is the weekly schedule at the Big4 was 9×5, and now is 24×7.
FT: Let’s do a ping-pong! in a couple of words, for an entrepreneur… what is exciting?
DSG: to create something new and big.
FT: … counterproductive?
DSG: Make red tape.
FT: … dangerous?
DSG: not survive the “death valley” (the first 1 or 2 years of a venture, in which most of them fail)
FT: … the rewards?
DSG: View others inspired by your vision.
FT: … essentials?
DSG: The passion.
FT: What do you remember, read, think or hear when the “emotional rollercoaster” tuck down? What motivates you in the inevitable moments of down …?
DSG: Uff …! I appeal to all types of inspirational material: on YouTube, blogs, books …Of course, the stories and testimonials from entrepreneurs who I admire (Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Wences Casares, Marcos Galperin), as all them went through similar challenges; also stories of individuals who overcame very adverse experiences and emerged triumphantly (like Mandela, Frankl, the Andes rugby players), and spiritual literature. I also remember challenges that I overcame in the past, to remind me that I have the strength to surmount the current challenges. And I even sometimes listen to music that inspires and motivates me, ranging from Beethoven and Fito Paez, to Green Day …You have to grab onto anything! The important thing is to never let the down stop you.
FT: To those who feel “what” would you recommend to start thinking seriously about becoming an entrepreneur?
DSG: As we are liberate ourselves from dogmas, family and social mandates, mental limitations and fears … our heart tells us what we really want to become. And then, we should listen. We have to believe again that dreams can come true. So, if you feel that you just want to create something new, move out of the comfort, take risks, lead a team, plan and execute, and be the master of your own destiny, then perhaps entrepreneurship is for you. But hey! It’s a really hard lifestyle. However, since Argentina and the world needs more entrepreneurs, I think it’s important that we all should start to take responsibility. Also the society should start appreciating the value of entrepreneurs.
FT: They say that opportunities to are all around, you just have to look thoroughly… in your case, how did the idea for Off Track Planet? What was the reasoning behind the construction, conceptually, of the website?
DSG: Totally, there are thousands of opportunities out there, and I think today is easier than ever to detect them and start. Off Track Planet’s idea came from the founders’ needs while traveling, that we thought might be better solved with the new technologies.
Freddie, my partner, had been backpacking Europe and noticed that the printed travel guides could be much more useful on-line, interactive and personalized to your travel tastes. Anna and I had also been traveling and had noticed how two phenomena had emerged that were to profoundly transform the web: the iPhone (which sparked the mobile revolution) and Facebook (which made social networks massive). Then, starting from a basic need that we had (organizing and planning our trip), we thought how we could use new disruptive technologies to best meet this need. I think that’s a good way to find ideas: find own needs or problems and think how they could be better solved with available technologies.
FT: If there is something like a 101 for an entrepreneur, what advice would you give to someone who already has his idea and is seeking “partners” to start-up (financiers, investors)?
DSG: I think the first thing to do is to put together a team of co-founders, the team is the most important thing. And then just start building! Investors and partners will show up later. ”Bootstrapping” is the best thing you can do, which means to start without external investment, reducing costs to a minimum while maintaining side incomes (to survive), and thus building the team, the product and the networks, focusing on monetization and grow early. Then go out and find investors.
FT: Now, what “safeguards” must be taken not to give away and / or left to steal the idea, the single most important asset you have until then?
DSG: Regarding protection of ideas, I think that ideas are “overrated” in general. What really matters is execution. An idea without execution is worthless … unless you have a unique scientific formula, or something like that. That’s why we almost never ask people to sign NDAs. There are people who keeps having ideas, but never performed. So my advice would be: Just launch! Test, get feedback, adapt, improve, and keep running. Seldom successful start-ups keep the original idea, often they mutate into something different from what the founders originally thought. From Google to Twitter, nearly every start-up mutated their original idea.
FT: For those who still don’t have an idea, where would you advise them to explore to find a potential venture?
DSG: I think we’re at a unique moment for start-ups related to the Internet. Apart from the high scalability and low entry barriers that we know the Web has, I think we are at a historic moment: the first 20 years of the Web has passed, in which the “foundation” of the new connected society has been built. We have finally reached really high penetration of the Internet globally, we’ve made progress in storing and processing of large amounts of data, we’ve learned about User Experience, etc … It is up to us now, the new generation of entrepreneurs, to build the “buildings” of this new reality.
FT: The mobile revolution …
DSG: It is estimated that in some few years on average each person will have 5 points of access to the web, including perhaps a couple of mobile devices, your car, your house, your TV, etc. Almost all human activities will be transformed from education, to shopping, even to go fishing!
On the other hand, it is more accessible and cheaper than ever to build Internet-related products: with two kids, from any garage in any corner of the planet, there could be the next Google or Facebook being built. Wouldn’t be great that they were from Latin America?!