Founders Interviews: Leonardo Varella-Cid of InnovationCast
On this edition of Founders Interviews we hosted Leonardo Varella-Cid, Co-founder and CEO of InnovationCast, a collaborative innovation management software that helps companies engage people to co-create ideas and bring them to life.
*This interview has been slightly edited for reading ease.
First, can you tell us about your professional background and the path that led you to InnovationCast?
So actually, it depends on how far you back you want to go. But I would say that the beginnings of the relationships that led to InnovationCast started back in university. The three of us co-founders were friends at university and we had a research background around innovation. To provide some context, what we do is, we have a B2B SaaS platform and we help companies engage people to co-create ideas and bring them to life — launch new products, new services, business model innovation, etc. Going back to university, we were doing research on topics like corporate communities of practice and organizational learning.
We started doing some small projects together, and later on we got together and we built what we now refer to as a project-based company. I’ve skipped a number of years here, but with this project-based company we were doing consulting and custom development for solutions to help companies collaborate. Cutting a long story short, we understood that having been challenged by some of some big companies to look at collaboration for innovation, we began to understand that this could be a product, because there was a few solutions out there, but nothing that would address this issue from end to end. So, the first version of our product was actually an add-on to another platform, and then later we understood that we wanted to be a pure product-based company.
What has been the most crucial moment in the history of the company so far?
Well, I’d say that the most crucial moment was actually becoming a product-based company. Previously we were a service or project based company, but I think we became the startup that we are today when we became a pure product-based company. It’s when you understand, “okay, we’re building something for multiple companies to use to change the way the people engage around something that is difficult for companies to deal with”. Actually, you know, we make it simple, fast and even fun. And so I would say that was the most crucial moment. I mean, there are a lot of them, it’s difficult to choose one, right? There’s also, you know, the times that we meet, the conversations that we have the, things like that. I have a lot of fun memories about the journey itself, but I would say that as a company, that’s one of the most important ones.
Was it difficult to understand that you should move from a service-based company to a product-based company, or was that an easy realization?
No, it was not, it was not an easy realization. I mean, it began to make sense little by little. Actually, I think one of the things that also helped, was going into Indico’s acceleration program, it then began to make sense very quickly. We also had great alpha customers and they really helped us become a product-based company. I mean, there are a lot of difficult things in building a startup, but I would say the process of change was difficult, the realization not so much. We wanted to be a product-based company, we wanted to have something to put out into the world, and we had to make it work. So, the realization was easy, making it happen was a whole other story.
Do you have any advice for someone who is just starting out on their entrepreneurial journey?
Yes, I do have some advice that I would’ve liked to have heard before. Firstly, validate assumptions, its very simple. Its important to balance the confidence that we have as startup founders and the confidence that we have that we will change the world, these strong beliefs, with the intellectual vulnerability that we need in order to learn. So that’s why I’m saying validate assumptions. Build to learn. Building to learn concerns everything: team wise, product wise, everything we do, it’s important to try and keep in mind that even though we try have strong beliefs and want to change the world, we also have to have the ability to be wrong and to learn from that. So, I would say, validate your assumptions as quickly as possible, like validate means, launch early, measure, learn, try different things, experiment. It’s actually part of what we do for our customers, you know, it’s “how do we create the ability to experiment and to accelerate ideas that can come from any part of the company and make it our mission to do so at startup speed in a medium to large enterprise”. So I would say that’s one thing that I would have liked to have learned quicker.
If you could go back in time, is there anything you’d do differently?
Yes, for sure. But which one, there were so many different mistakes. Honestly, it’s difficult to say, because the challenges that we go through are also what lead us to where we are. You never know, maybe if we had changed some things we wouldn’t have learned the hard lessons that we had to learn to be where we are at now. This is because we had to go through a lot, and had to overcome adversity, all of which builds character. I think that also applies to startups in general. Knowing what I know now, we would have likely built to become a product-based company earlier, but we might not have improved along the way like we ended up doing so.
What has been the role of Indico on InnovationCast’s journey?
A very good one, where to begin? Well, first of all, confidence. I think it was very good to see people that we admire, like Cristina and Stephan, understanding what we’re trying to do. People that we admire and that have been there and gotten it done. Of course this goes for any startup raising capital, but for us it was even before we raised. The conversations that we had, the fact that Christina completely understood the product and how we’re causing impact and change. So that was one thing, it’s like a vote of confidence.
The second thing is the thought-provoking conversations we had. We were very lucky to have had some of the conversations that we had, some of them unplanned, at Indico’s office. Those conversations ended up triggering a lot of things. So again, going back to adversity, we were all going through the same hurdles. Even with completely different projects, we all faced similar challenges and we learned not only from what other companies did, but also from having the conversations we had with each other. Its introspective in a sense, we think about what we’re doing more since we have to verbalize it, it becomes like an exercise of reflection.
To conclude, what has been the most challenging part of growing a startup? And the most fun part?
In my opinion, the most challenging parts of growing a startup are also the most fun. Its very interesting that when companies are at the very beginning, we talk about the difficulties we have and what could’ve happened if we’d done this or that. If you talk to companies that are at a later stage or near exiting, you often talk about what were the most fun times. So I don’t know if I can tell you exactly what are the most challenging and what are the most fun parts, because they would be the same ones. Like, going global was amazing, it was one of those things that was a big challenge and huge fun. It’s like, we have this product, we’re a small company, and we’re going for the biggest companies with the most customers globally. That’s a huge hurdle, or achievement, depending how you look at it.
To think global from the get-go is very, very important. That’s a challenge in itself, but again, it’s also the most fun. When you see yourself competing with what are perceived as the market leaders and then you convert some of their flagship customers, it’s like you’re playing the big game while you’re small and still winning.