Founders Interviews: Martino Correia and Ricardo Cabral of Spotlite

“It’s the challenge of growing something that attracts me.”

Spotlite is one of the six startups that partook in the second edition of the Indico Founders Program powered by Google for Startups. Spotlite is an infrastructure and vegetation monitoring system based on satellite imagery data, with a view to assessing structural health and project safety.

Co-founders Martino Correia and Ricardo Cabral share their insight on how a project can depart from its initial idea and the growing pains — and successes — that come with that.

*This interview has been slightly edited and adapted for reading ease.

Can you start by telling us a bit about your background and the path that led you to Spotlite?

Martino: We started in a field that’s a bit removed from what we currently do. We studied Archaeology and have worked together even before the company started. We worked at the research centre here at University of Coimbra, in the archaeology and heritage fields. Afterwards, I did a Masters in Media and Heritage, and so we went a bit down that path. We started developing digital solutions for archaeology and heritage. We worked on that for a few years and then, in 2017, it led us to start a business that originally was focused on that field and got incubated here at IPN [Instituto Pedro Nunes]. That’s when we started developing something that brought us to Spotlite as we know it today — a solution for monitoring archaeological sites through satellite data. Particularly because there was a very specific situation in Baixo Alentejo, where there’s a huge problem of destruction of archaeological sites due to intensive agriculture, and we saw an opportunity to use satellite data to minimise that impact. The means and technicians that are currently available are not enough to cover such a vast area. So, it makes more sense to monitor through satellite data. We applied to the ESA Business Incubation Centre and got accepted and that’s when our connection to space began. As we developed the project, we realised the sort of technology we were using and developing would be useful not just in archaeology but also in a lot of other markets as well. There was a great business potential there and we decided to test other interesting uses for our product and we realised that particularly linear infrastructure — motorways, railroads, etc — would be a great fit. Bit by bit we started moving away from the initial product that we created specifically for archaeology and focused instead on infrastructure, so that’s where we’re at.

Ricardo: But in reality there isn’t that much of a difference between that first iteration of the platform; the technology for monitoring archaeological sites was very similar. Linear infrastructure has the same problems: vast areas where there aren’t enough resources to be permanently monitoring on the ground. It’s very interesting, from a cost perspective, because the bigger the infrastructure, the more cost-effective it is to monitor through satellite data. Obviously, it’s not the same industry, but what we built originally is still at the core of what we do today.

What was the most crucial moment so far, in the history of Spotlite?

M: The most crucial moment was deciding to start the company (laughs).

R: It’s been a long process, the company is now 5 years old. But to pinpoint a single moment, that would be when we convinced the first investors, namely Indico, to come onboard what we were developing. Because that allowed us to focus the whole team and start guiding all the effort towards developing this particular product.

M: It was definitely a turning point. There’s a ‘before’ and ‘after’ investment.

Can you talk a little bit about your experience at the Indico Founders Program?

R: We have a colleague here at IPN that told us right at the beginning — and he was right — that it would be like doing a condensed MBA. That’s what it’s been like; it’s been hundreds of hours of training. The most important part to me were the talks with Founders and ex-Founders who shared their experience going through what we’re going through now. Those were very important learning experiences because they allowed us to avoid certain mistakes. Also, the sheer diversity of topics covered during the program, which gave us a very solid foundation of knowledge regarding all the possible ways to grow the company and prepared us very well for the next phases.

What business growth or marketing tips would you give to someone who’s starting a startup?

M: In our case, marketing is very specific because we’re a B2B with very long sales cycles. Our clients are big rather than plenty. But I would say being careful about the timing. There are no second chances; if the product isn’t quite ready on that first contact with a potential client, you might not get another chance. You need to study the timings to make contacts.

R: A more generic tip which I’ve been following as well and has been working for me, and I also think is quite interesting, is studying all the ‘postmortem’s. Meaning, an analytic take on failure stories, where the founders analyse the reasons why things didn’t work, and there could be many. This is why I was saying the contact with other founders through the Founders Program was very interesting, because some of them already had the experience of something not working out and we had the chance to ask them questions and understand their perspective.

Learning through others’ mistakes.

R: That’s very important because mistakes are intersectional. Success factors aren’t — sometimes things happen because there is a specific set of circumstances on a startup that just aren’t possible on another one. We can’t follow a ‘success model’, but we can avoid a ‘failure model’, because generally the failures are intersectional. So, my tip is to read all those postmortem stories, because sometimes you find yourself going down that path that has already happen to someone and you can still fix it.

Lastly, what’s the best part and the toughest part of having a startup?

M: The best part is working on a product that you have an affinity with. The work excites us. It’s the challenge of growing something that attracts me. The toughest part is the responsibility; it’s just not our future depending on our work, it’s the future of other people as well. When I say people, I mean not just employees but also investors, and everyone else who has become associated with our project along the way. That [responsibility] can weigh on you.

R: A good thing to me would be the daily dynamic and the novelty. In a startup, there is never a repeatable day. Day to night, there are always new things happening and for someone who doesn’t like monotony I think it’s the ideal place to be. We haven’t had a monotonous moment in over a year… or since we started, maybe. Obviously, there’s a lot of unpredictability; we don’t really know if things are going to go well or when, or if they’re going to go wrong. You need to learn how to deal with that uncertainty, but I wouldn’t consider that a bad thing. The toughest thing I think is when the startup starts to grow — the founders and the initial team are used to, on an early stage, always knowing what’s going on and are able to coordinate everything. When the company starts growing, it becomes impossible to do that. You need to delegate responsibility and there’s a feeling of lack of control or powerlessness in terms of controlling if things are being done as we originally planned.

M: It requires a lot of adapting.

R: Yes, it requires adapting so that it can go on working and so that we can also find new ways of organising everything. There’s always that feeling of lack of control, which is natural, but it needs to be balanced out by trusting the people who are joining your team.

Interview and translation by Matilde Castro

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Leading early stage VC based in Lisbon, Portugal

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