“If we can do it, everyone else can do it.” from Diego Piacentini, referring to Amazon. We were having dinner in Seattle and we were talking about Amazon and their competitors, and it was illuminating for me to see how Amazon thinks of itself and how they know that the only way to stay ahead is to constantly experiment and create new things. They know that as soon as they do something that works, it is only a matter of time before many others will copy it.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexander Torrenegra.
Alex Torrenegra is a Colombian-American entrepreneur, inventor, and investor who has founded multiple companies including Voice123, Bunny Studio, and most recently, Torre — the largest professional network of full-time remote jobs in the world. He is also one of the “shark” investors on Sony’s reality television series, Shark Tank Latin America, and was named to MIT’s Innovators Under 35 list.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was born and raised in Bogota, the capital city of Colombia. We didn’t have enough money to buy a car, much less a computer, but finally, when I was 14 I figured that I could apply for a loan, buy a computer, and then use it to offer data-entry for students to pay for it. And then I became an incurable tech head. At 17, I left college to focus on the business, it was growing. And by the time I was 19, I already had 25 people in my company. This year I visited the U.S. for the first time as a tourist and I fell in love with all of the technology and innovation that was happening here. I also wanted to innovate. I wanted to be a part of the creation of the internet and thus I decided to stay.
Now I wasn’t the most attractive guy back in the day by far, but I was lucky to meet my wife, Tania Zapata, and not only is she really intelligent and attractive, but she can see potential and I guess she saw potential in me. Tania was a DJ working at a local radio station and also a freelance voice actress. She wanted to grow her voiceover business by getting into doing TV commercials and movies, but devious talent agents nearly got the better of us. In the end, Tania and I decided to try things our way. After all, I knew how to build websites and Tania knew how to build connections in the voiceover industry, and we decided to create the first online platform for casting voice actors. We’d bypass all the middlemen and make it as easy as one, two, three. Little did we know then that Voice123 was to become the largest platform of its kind. Our goal was to bring meritocracy to the equation and it worked. We bootstrapped that company to hundreds of millions of dollars in projects. To this day, Voice123 continues to grow every year. Interestingly, a significant portion of its success was machine learning. We used it so we could replicate and automate the work that talent agents and casting directors used to do, but do it much faster and without bias.
We moved to San Francisco in 2008 and wanted to try something new. We thought of building a platform that would make it easier for companies and creative people to work together. The result was Bunny Studio. Bunny Studio uses artificial intelligence to assemble teams of creative people in real-time. They work on projects that may last from a couple of minutes to a couple of days for enterprise clients. I like to call it “mission-critical creative outsourcing.” We also bootstrapped Bunny Studio and we are expected to hit 20 million dollars in revenue this year with healthy margins.
Then it was time for another change, and this brings me to now. From my experience with Voice123 and Bunny Studio, I learned a few things. First, remote jobs are growing at a remarkable rate. Last year for the first time more people searched for remote jobs than engineering jobs. Second, ‘liquid work’ — and with that, I mean freelancing, consulting, and gig economy platform jobs such as Uber — is also growing. Within a decade, it’s expected that one in two adults are going to be part of the liquid workforce. Third, LinkedIn — as large as it is, only has one in six people of working age, and out of those only 20% are active. That means there are 4 billion people out there that don’t have a professional digital profile that helps them find better work. And finally, artificial intelligence can help people find much better jobs by not only matching candidates and opportunities but also matching candidates and teams. The natural consequence of this is that there will soon be a new type of online platform, one for automated smart recruiting, or as we like to call it, “Programmatic Recruiting.”
So I decided to rise to the occasion and build the first of its kind — THE global platform that will power the future of work. I started by building an amazing team of former entrepreneurs and overachievers. I got them together and I asked them a “first principles” question: If recruiting were invented today, what would it be like? And then we started building the answer. To begin with, we killed the resume. Instead, we use structured profiles with thousands of data points about each person, profiles that really showcase who we are as professionals, and we use them to match candidates with jobs and the team they work with. And for that, we use multiple factors including, of course, the education and job experience if the person, but also including factors such as hard skills, soft skills, skills the person wants to develop more, skills the person doesn’t want to develop more, interests, aspirations, personality traits, verifications, recommendations, professional culture, learning preferences, and much more. We also have page-rank algorithms for people. We also do automated referrals and many, many more things. For companies and talent seekers, the experience is “automagical.” They end up hiring people that stay for longer and are happier with the company. It’s a Netflix-like kind of experience. For candidates, the experience is much better too. Today, 99% of people that applied to a job don’t get hired for that job, and they don’t know why. We open that black box. For each feature, we show them how and why they rank there. We also give them tips on how to improve and soon we’ll be able to point them to educational programs so they can improve their employability.
That’s Torre, and that’s just the beginning. The road ahead is full of risks and there is a high chance we are not going to be able to make it, but of course, we are banking on the fact that we will. It’s a moonshot and it’s going to have a moon landing.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
We live in a world where we are used to getting information very quickly for anything we want thanks to the internet. Today, if we want to learn more information on a topic, it only takes a few seconds to identify the best book, article, video, or influencer that we need to pay attention to in order to educate ourselves. Before the internet, you had to go to the library and it would take days to find just a fraction of that information. Similarly, if you want to travel anywhere in the world it only takes a few minutes to identify the best route to take.
However, if I were to ask you who the best software developer to hire for your team would be, or the best executive assistant, or the best piano teacher, or which is the best job for you to start doing tomorrow, not only would it take you a significant amount of time to find the answer but the answer is not going to be the definitive answer. Most talent out there goes unnoticed because it is never exposed to the right opportunities. Our goal is to help people find the best job for them in real-time without having to invest a significant amount of effort. We also want companies to be able to find the best team members in real-time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the things we are building is called the Professional Genome, which includes a lot of information about a person. Part of the data looks at the extent to which people are willing to recommend others in their professional network. We have run multiple experiments to determine how to best capture that data and one of the things that we did is allow people to rate the professional experience they have with other people.
We were testing the reaction of people when they learned that they have been rated on a scale from 1 to 10 based on the question: Would you recommend this person as a professional colleague? We did some really detailed prototyping where we led people to believe that someone, they knew had answered that question. Although it was an experiment and therefore not real, we wanted to make it feel as real as possible. In one of the sessions we had a woman sitting next to us and we had her check her email to see a message saying someone she knew had just referred her as a professional with a rating of 9 out of 10. We knew that this woman knew the other person because we had done some research online.
When the woman saw the message, we noticed that she appeared angry and she took the phone and made a call right away to the person, and as soon as they answered she immediately questioned why she had received a 9 out of 10 instead of 10 out of 10. You are supposed to stay quiet in these research sessions and let things happen but of course as soon as we heard that we had to stop her and let her know the other person didn’t know anything about this and that it was a fake prototype.
As a leader, if I get rated a 7 out of 10 or 8 out of 10 by my team for me that would be a really good number, as there is always room for improvement in my eyes. We realized though that for some people, a number that was less than perfect was not good. The key takeaway was that people don’t like to rate other people, and when they do it they feel bad giving them low scores. That is why we noticed that in the case of a company like Uber or Lyft, even the worst drivers have relatively good scores. We learned that people don’t mind rating products, restaurants, or movies poorly, but when it comes to other people the lesson was that we need to develop something that allows colleagues to provide positive comments, but never something that is negative or explicitly puts a number on the head of someone.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
I have had many, many mentors. I learned the value of mentors later in life, only after I was 30 or so. It was great discovering there were other people willing to share some of their time to help me. Potentially one of the coolest moments is when through Endeavor, which is an entrepreneurship platform that helps connect people with mentors, we got ahold of Diego Piacentini, who was the number two executive at Amazon for a significant amount of time and led the international growth of the company, taking it to 50 different countries. I was very nervous. After all, this is one of the guys that reports directly to Jeff Bezos. I had never talked to a person of that caliber. When we got on the phone and started the conversation, after the first couple of phrases he says it is the first time that he is mentoring a business through Endeavor where his team happens to actually know my company. That, to me, was amazing that our brand, what we had created, had made it to being known by people of that caliber. It made us feel really good and it helped us get reenergized to build things on a global scale that can impact a lot of people and become known by the best of the best.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
It is true that disruption has numerous positive connotations, and also some negative ones as well. For example, what we are doing at Torre on one side is automating the work of the recruiter, but on the other hand we are using automation to identify the most fulfilling work. What is important is that the net value of what is being created is higher than what existed before. Disruption for me is getting more value on a massive scale. For that to happen, things need to change in a big way, and some things may not necessarily change for good. However, the hope is that most of the change has an impact that is so positive, the net result is a positive one.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
I don’t have three, but I can give you two of the best words of advice:
- “If we can do it, everyone else can do it.” from Diego Piacentini, referring to Amazon. We were having dinner in Seattle and we were talking about Amazon and their competitors, and it was illuminating for me to see how Amazon thinks of itself and how they know that the only way to stay ahead is to constantly experiment and create new things. They know that as soon as they do something that works, it is only a matter of time before many others will copy it.
- “Why 100%?” I was talking to a mentor and I was explaining how for one of my previous companies we were planning for growth the following year. He saw a document that said we were projecting a growth of 100% and he asked me “why 100%?” and I went on for 3 to 4 minutes trying to explain all of the projects that we had and I started to see that he had this kind of smirk on his face. He let me finish and when I was done, he said “I didn’t ask why you were going to grow so much, I asked why are you going to grow so little.” I felt that it was like a punch in the stomach that helped me realize that I was dreaming way too small.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
I think Torre is what’s next. This company is so ambitious and has the potential to have such an impact that it is unlikely that something else comes along for me right now. There are many, many ‘next’ moments for Torre.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by ‘women disruptors’ that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Because society has gotten used to seeing most innovation and leadership positions being filled by males, women’s voices are often silenced and women are discriminated against in a way that males don’t have to face. Unconscious bias towards women and minorities is a big problem across many industries. We are trying to improve this when it comes to recruiting and hiring but it is not easy and requires persistence on many fronts.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
There is a book called Platform Revolution that is really good. It provides data-driven insights and research on what it takes to build a two-sided marketplace/platform that connects consumers with producers. Even though I have been creating such businesses since 1999 and this book did not come along until 2016, I was able to learn dozens if not hundreds of ideas and abstractions.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My quote is from HAL 9000 of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It occurs when a reporter is asking HAL, the AI computer in the movie, about the goal of its existence. HAL responds by saying: “I am putting myself to the fullest possible use, which is all I think that any conscious entity can ever hope to do.” I think it is a beautiful sentence and I decided to make it my motto.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Up until a few months ago, it was remote work. I think remote work heavily increases the chances of people finding work that is fulfilling and does not lead to work-life balance, but what we like to call work-life integration. The pandemic is driving remote work, and that is allowing me to pick a new, potentially more ambitious goal, and that is everything related to AI in recruiting. AI is already determining who gets many jobs, and this is just the beginning. More and more, AI is going to be deciding our career paths and future, and it is very important for the creators of that AI to be mindful of the consequences of their work. That is why I believe the use of AI in recruiting should be transparent. People should be told how it is being used and should be able to understand how they rank compared to other applicants, and there should be systems in place to automatically detect bias and help companies correct it. In fact, I am currently drafting a manifesto about this, and we are hoping to get many company CEOs to sign it.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!