Founders Interviews: Felipe Ávila da Costa of Infraspeak

On this edition of our monthly Founders Interviews we host Felipe Ávila da Costa, Co-founder and CEO of Infraspeak.

Infraspeak is an intelligent maintenance management platform allowing facilities owners, managers, and service providers to achieve super performance on their teams, assets, and resources — in one single platform.

*This interview has been slightly edited for reading ease.

For starters, tell me a little bit about your professional background and what led you to Infraspeak.

Starting way back, I was born in Brazil, but my family on my father’s side is all Portuguese. When I was fifteen years old my grandfather challenged me to come study here, in Portugal. I came and got into computer science, even though from early on I knew I wanted to go into business management. I sort of looked at computer science as a good path to get me there. After completing my degree, I created my first project, which was actually never formalized as a company, but was called The Usability Page, and after nine months it went down the drain. I like to say that we failed in every way imaginable, but this first-time entrepreneurial experience was quite interesting in the sense that I learned a lot about what you should not do. Meanwhile, I participated in a bunch of conferences and ended up being hired by UPTEC, at the University of Porto, where I spent five years helping other entrepreneurs launch and grow their businesses. One of the first roles I had was as a type of community manager, but I was later promoted to head the technological center where I created the startup accelerator program. During the five years more or less that I was there, I helped around 250 startups and some 400 different founders. It was an incredible experience which I learned a lot from. In fact, I tend to say that the fastest and cheapest way to learn is from the mistakes of others. After some time, I started to get the feeling that I wanted to work on something of my own, albeit without great urgency since I also quite enjoyed what I was doing. It was at that point that I met Luís Martins, my co-founder here at Infraspeak. He already had the project underway, which he had launched while at university, and came to UPTEC looking for help on how to structure his project into a business. Long story short, after a couple conversations Luís was looking for someone that could complement his profile — he was more focused on marketing and sales — and I decided to leave UPTEC to join him in taking Infraspeak to market.

Perhaps this question isn’t specifically for you, but I would like to know how Infraspeak was born.

Infraspeak was born with Luís, who was a civil engineer by trade, very much influenced by his family. His father, uncle, cousins, all worked in that industry, but the truth is that ever since the age of eight or nine Luís has always been a bit of a programmer/hacker. It was near the end of his civil engineering degree, when he had a final project to present, that he decided to combine both his passions and create a software dedicated to civil engineering. That was the seed that sprouted into what Infraspeak is today. Later, maybe for the next two years, the software continued to evolve as a side-project for Luís and it was when he had two partners using it daily that he began to feel like there might be a business opportunity there. That’s when he went to UPTEC for support and things started to pick up pace.

What is the best advice you can give about growing a startup?

I might have to give you two, since I think they relate to two very distinct phases. For whoever wants to start out, the best advice that I can give you is to just start. Get your hands dirty, make it happen, and above all make sure to talk to the market. Sometimes people are apprehensive of sharing what they have until they have something that is more solidified, and while I do think that makes sense in certain situations, 98% of the time what makes the most sense is to talk about your idea, about the solution you are creating, with the maximum amount of people possible, in order to iterate. This will let you gather feedback and start to steer what you are doing towards what the market truly demands. The question wasn’t necessarily about starting, however, but about growing a company, and there I think the best advice I can give is the importance that company culture has in that growth. In Infraspeak’s case, and other businesses that I was able to closely accompany, culture doesn’t only refer to social culture, but to a culture of continuous development, a culture that is focused on the client from the start. These are the proper roots to have when things are ready to go-to-market and you need to scale the operation. So that you have solid growth and not one that is unstructured and degrading, which would only bring forth complications. The company culture is not something you can control, it exists whether you do something for it or not, and when it grows poorly it is very difficult to correct.

This refers not only to Infraspeak but to you as an entrepreneur in general, if you could go back in time is there anything you would do differently?

I have two points of view about this. Firstly, I have trouble regretting things. I believe everything we do plays a part in who we are today, so wanting to change things selectively is something that doesn’t make much sense to me. On the other hand, I am sure that with the knowledge and experience we have today we would have done things completely differently in the past. I think we grew and are still growing at a great pace, but looking back we could’ve grown even faster. What I would’ve probably done differently is to have invested more in the right people. In other words, hire even more referenced profiles and invest even more in the people we hire, because at the end of the day it is your people that make all the difference.

Do you have some marketing tips for an early-stage startup?

Sure. I think there is so much you can do in marketing — 300 different channels that you can use — but most of the time trying to do everything at the same time is the critical mistake. It is more worth it to choose a few channels to focus on when you have limited resources and work those channels well. Actually, maybe my best advice is about more than channels and investment and whatnot, but rather about positioning. I believe that until we find the right product-market fit and the right positioning in our market, one which differentiates us from the rest, there is not much sense in making big investments regarding marketing. There is a long stage of learning and rapid change through various iterations until you can find not only your product-market fit but also your channel fit. That is when you can start investing in marketing with confidence.

What is the best part and the worst part of having a startup? Since you’ve worked with so many, I feel like you’ll have a more diverse outlook on the situation.

That really depends a lot on the person’s profile, but I think the best part is the dynamism. It is the fact that the company today isn’t the same company it was a year ago, or two years ago. The business has to constantly reinvent itself very rapidly. By the way, that also causes dynamic growth in people. It makes it so that people which joined maybe a year and a half ago in a very junior role, today are team leaders which have gathered an incredible amount of experience within a very short period of time. I think that this dynamism also makes people, including the founders themselves, flourish very quickly. Now concerning the worst part… I remember that Francisco Fonseca, who is the CEO of Anubis Networks — a relatively mature startup from Lisbon — used to say something which I very much agree with: “the life of entrepreneurs is the same as the life of regular people. The difference is that the highs are much higher, and the lows are much lower.” That issue of having many highs and many lows, even over the course of the same day, is often the hardest part. I think you need to have the stomach to hold on when things are uncertain, which they are very often, so that those successes and failures can happen naturally, especially during the earlier stages of the company. It is clear that some people are more apt for this, they can react well, turn around and fight back from the lows, looking at them as motivation and as a challenge. For others, not so much, and those lows can make them suffer and take away their motivation.

*Interview by Matilde Castro, translation by Álvaro Furtado.

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Leading early stage VC based in Lisbon, Portugal

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