TL:DR: check which teachings you already mastered and which ones will be a part of your to-do list to become a better startup leader in 2023:
1. First, find the right community for you;
2. Only hire employees that have an ownership mentality;
3. Listen to your customer, then choose a focus;
4. Fewer benchmarks, more internal improvements
5. Accept the bust cycle and adapt to survive
6. Focus on what moves the needle
7. Build resilience with a focus on mission and purpose
If we jotted down every insight we got from the episodes of the Latitud Podcast, this post would become a bible. (Don't worry, we're working on that.)
We know that the end of the year is a time for wrapping things up quickly and nicely, to prepare for the year to come. 2022 wasn't an easy year – and we all know that the next year will probably repeat the beat.
That's why we revisited the episodes published in the last 12 months and collected some lessons given from founders to other founders. We've taken lessons from James Currier (NFX), Pierpaolo Barbieri (Ualá), José Bonilla (Chiper), Stelleo Tolda (Mercado Libre), Ana Martins and Julio Vasconcellos (Atlantico), Marlene Garayzar (Stori), Santiago Suarez (Addi), Oso Trava (Cracks Fund), and Daniel Vogel (Bitso).
From finding a community to building resilience, you can check which teachings you already mastered and which ones will be a part of your to-do list to become a better startup leader. After the New Year Eve's celebration, please.
You might not have realized this yet, but your life is driven by Network Effects.
And what are they? Network Effects are a key ingredient behind the success of companies like Meta, Uber, and Amazon. Companies powered by network effects become more valuable as more people use their products and services.
Now, what does that have to do with your life? We got the answer from the best source possible: James Currier, partner at the venture capital firm NFX. Just the folks who coined that term, you know, no big deal.
Companies think about which network effects could be leveraged to help them grow. Just like that, you also need to select the right network for your objectives.
Find the people who light you up. Find the product ideas that light you up. Find the sectors that you feel like you can make an impact in and that really resonate with who you are.
James gives an example that you might have heard about before. It's called Silicon Valley. "30 years ago, this internet thing, this software thing, this startup thing, it wasn't a thing. The only people who were doing it were people who genuinely wanted to build a product. Who genuinely had this personality type that was seeing the future but felt alone."
They would eventually move to Silicon Valley to find their people. Saar Gur, a general partner at CRV and an investor in companies such as DoorDash, said that the most important decision he ever made was moving there in 2003. James was living in the Valley at that same time and said this was also one of the most important decisions in his life.
Choosing the right cities to live in, the right industries to be in, and the right people to join your party has a huge impact on your trajectory. And why is that?
When you move to a city, you're going to get embedded into relationships and endeavors through serendipity. "Choosing that network carefully, it will have a multiplicative and compounding effect over the many years that you're going to be in that network", James says. That's been true since the beginning of time, when humans started cities.
Now the tech world is spreading out. There are other networks that you can join, from Discord servers, Twitter threads, and Reddit communities to specialized newsletters (like ours truly, focused on LatAm founders). But we should not underestimate the serendipity of physical location: there's something magical about the personal touch of humans when we talk about building a relationship.
"You're still going to want to break bread and actually develop experiences with other people so that your friendships go to that level of trust so that you know the inside information. When there's a great investment opportunity or you want to hire a great person, you need to be on the inside of networks."
Still, don't panic and book the next flight to Silicon Valley: good networks are getting more and more distributed. You can now find them right here, in Latin America. One of them might be even closer than you think… 👀
A part of the network is the people you choose to work with every single day. Choosing the right employees is key to the success of any company – but especially when you're just starting and need a few people to handle a lot of challenges.
A lot of founders heard by the Latitud Podcast agreed on a single characteristic you should look for when building your dream team: ownership mentality.
And what exactly does that mean? Pierpaolo Barbieri, the founder and CEO of the fintech Ualá, defines ownership mentality as being part of a philosophy of fixing a problem by working together, or co-creation.
"If we didn't cocreate, people wouldn't wanna be at Ualá, because they wouldn't be able to share the mission. They would just be service people to the business lead, who tells them what to do. That's just not the philosophy of the company. And that's why we push products every week."
José Jair Bonilla, from the e-commerce platform Chiper, shares the two things that can help you identify employees with an ownership mentality. "One: they are always questioning the business and how it works. The second one is the willingness to help others and to make them better, the commitment to dedicate time to people and give them everything you have."
But having employees that think like owners won't make a difference if you're not open to receiving their advice. Take it again from Pierpaolo, who is also a historian.
"You need to be surrounded by people that are better than you and have more knowledge. And that requires the humility to understand that being the founder and CEO doesn't mean that you're the best person to think about payments, credit, and merchant acquirers. And you need to get people that use that same philosophy when hiring."
Having the right people isn't a guarantee for success: they need to listen to the customers, and then build the solutions they want. As Pierpaolo says in his episode, product is the best marketing.
"An essential part of our marketing is listening to our users. Everyone in the organization does customer service in Ualá, including its founder. I do it myself. My chief-of-staff from McKinsey, my ex-Goldman Sachs CFO, they all do customer service. Why? Because I do it, and that sets the tone for the rest of the organization."
But you might face a problem later on: customers want a lot of things, and your startup might not have the firepower to tackle all their pains at once. How to focus when there are so many opportunities?
Chiper also puts listening to their customers as part of the startup's culture – and faced exactly that problem. José defends that you must focus for years on being good at one thing.
In Chiper's case, that was helping merchants purchase the products that they need for their stores. Of course, companies have a bunch of other problems to solve. But there's still lots of room to grow only in the purchase segment – e.g. improving selection, pricing, and delivery times.
"We have to focus all of our efforts on the services that they value the most and really deliver excellent to them", José says. Here is the framework Chiper uses to evaluate its efforts in customer acquisition:
It's only human to compare our results with our peers. But in 2023, look less to the outside and more to the inside. Stelleo Tolda did just that in the early days of the giant Mercado Libre.
The co-founders convinced people to advertise products on the internet in the early 2000s. To track the success of their strategy, they had a whiteboard to write down daily transaction results.
It's true that they also put their competitor's bids on the board and then rank everyone. But Stelleo was more interested in the evolution of Mercado Libre day after day.
"Many days we weren't the number one player. Often we were second player, sometimes third, never fourth. I think the most important thing for me was that every day we were selling more than the previous day. The feeling of becoming a true believer came from seeing how these numbers were increased day after day, week after week, month after month."
In its early days, Mercado Libre attracted even the American giant eBay, who bought a share in the company (sold in 2016). What made Meli different from its competitors to the point of even buying some of its competitors?
According to Stelleo, the track to follow for differentiation in the e-commerce industry was clear to Mercado Libre:
MercadoPago was born to increase trust in transactions, for example. "We had a long-term vision and weren't focused on making a quick buck. We realized the opportunity to build something was enormous and took advantage of that."
2021 was the year of money, power, and fame for startups. And we won't be seeing numbers like this in the near future according to Julio Vasconcellos, founder of the Brazilian e-commerce Peixe Urbano and Atlantico's managing partner.
2022 was the year of a classic becoming a trend once again: having a clear path to profitability. Crazy stuff.
You shouldn't be surprised by the change in market humor. The economy as a whole is made of boom and bust cycles and that has a direct impact on financing for startups and their consumers.
We were in a bull market. Now we're officially in bear territory. "Founders have to accept the reality that we say in the last couple of years, or even in the last decade, was an exception", Julio says.
Experienced startup founders have been through a lot of boom and bust cycles and know that the highs are really high and the lows are really low.
It's hard to predict at which point of the cycle we're at. But you should always be prepared to adapt and survive. One role, one focus: stay in the game.
How to do that? Learn the basics of startup finance and add more runway so that your business doesn't reach its end. And we mean a big, big runway.
Most founders are only adding 6 more months of survival, Ana Martins and Julio say, citing Atlantico's research. That's just a marginal change if you're already at the end of the road. Having at least two years of runway in total is the prudent choice, and more if you're able to.
"Founders should be thinking of not only trimming the fat that's been building up over these last couple of years of abundance. But also how to go into the muscle, and in some cases even cut down to the bone, to be able to survive."
Want a silver lining? You actually make the dumbest decisions when you have money to spare – that's taken from Brian's dad. There's no future in being a pessimist, for sure. But you still have to be a realist.
It's time to go old school: get money from your customer base and, whenever you're not able to, look for cash extensions by asking for advances on payments to inject cash into your balance sheet.
We have another goal here aligned with the bear market times. Yes, we know that everything is urgent when you're an early stage founder, and that you're the one buying pizzas for everyone after the hackathons.
But as soon as you see the opportunity for breathing, transition from executing everything to executing only what will really move the needle for your business.
Two fintech founders learned that lesson when they needed it the most: Marlene Garayzar (Stori) became a mother to her second son, and Santiago Suarez (Addi) became a dad.
Instead of eliminating habits, Marlene created a new one after being forced into efficiency. Stori finally started celebrating new milestones this year – such as reaching a million customers and becoming Mexico's 9th unicorn. "Before, we were so focused on just delivering, acquisitions, and OKRs."
Stori started back in 2018. Marlene's first baby was less than a year old. Now he's five years old, and Marlene has a second newborn baby.
"This business is a passion that I have, but at the same time, it's been challenging. I've been raising my own family and I consider Stori another baby in a way. As a woman, that makes me feel very proud. This can be done as long as you get organized. It's not easy, but it's doable."
Santiago shared his own practice to have a better schedule: choose 3 decisions per month that will move the needle. "The fewer things you do, the better. That means you're empowering your team to do more. Having Tomás has actually made me more disciplined about what I engage in, what I let go, and who I empower."
Still not convinced? Santiago knows how much you care about every little thing – because he was just like that with the chairs in Addi's Brazilian office.
"No one is ever going to come to us and say, 'we'd like to give you a multibillion-dollar valuation because you did a great job choosing chairs.' It's irrelevant. Not a source of equity value. When you're disciplined, you choose things that move the needle and you make trade-offs in life."
Finally, none of these goals will work if you aren't resilient enough to see them through.
We know how hard it is to keep going when everything is going against you. These changing market conditions are piling up with well-known problems, from bureaucracy to sparing time to talk to investors, being a better leader, and having a more profitable business on top of it all.
To thrive despite everything, the startup founders we've heard during this year were unanimous: remember why you started and who you're doing it for. Your mission and your purpose.
That's what Oso Trava is all about. Besides being an entrepreneur and an investor, he's also the author of the book Do What Matters (Haz Lo Que Importa).
Back when Oso was an entrepreneur, getting shit done was his thing. But there was a problem: he never stopped to smell the roses. He spent years being a stranger to his family and himself. He only stopped his anger and sadness journey when his wife asked him, "Why do you hate your life?"
The question made the founder embark on a personal growth journey, which led him to develop a process of discovering where you are, where you want to be, and why it all matters. It's a motivation driven by "the big battle" (la gran batalla).
Other Latin American entrepreneurs shared the importance of mission and purpose during hard times on the Latitud Podcast. For example, imagine being the founder of a cryptocurrency company and dealing with another price shock.
Daniel Vogel is facing this challenge right now – and told us how he keeps going. "One of the things that allowed being the CEO of a crypto company to not be difficult was to go back to purpose. To really think about why the hell did I wanna go on this journey in the first place, almost a decade ago", Daniel shares. "That's what I use with my team, to energize them. That's what I use with myself, to energize myself. And that's what I use to energize my investors, family, friends, etc."