Have clear principles and values. Know why and for whom you do what you do. The fact that Stone, since day one, was clear about its goal and how to achieve the desired results was crucial for its growth and for the team never be led astray.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Augusto Lins.
Augusto Lins is one of the co-founders and now president of Stone. He has been working in the financial and payments sector for over 20 years. Before joining Stone, he held executive positions at Redecard, Banco Itaú-Unibanco, Hipercard and Fininvest. After starting his career as an entrepreneur, he entered the finance and investment sector in the early 1990s. Over the years, Augusto has held various positions abroad in commercial and business development areas for NM Rothschild, ING Bank and Barings. Augusto Lins is an electronics engineer graduated from UFRJ, with an MBA from Boston University and OPM from Harvard University.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have always had an inquisitive mind, always trying to understand why things work the way they do. When I was a kid, I liked to take apart TV sets and other electronic devices at home. When I got my first computer, I soon learned how to program it. I also have always had an urge to endeavor. A sense of restlessness that did not allow me to stay still. When I was 7, my father worked at IDB (Inter-American Development Bank), and to help me channel my energy towards something productive, he used to take me to his office every morning so I could polish the shoes of the executives. Then, I worked as an office boy for some years before finishing school. I used to walk across Rio de Janeiro’s streets delivering documents and paying bills at the bank. Although I often found myself in a pickle, I loved it.
Back then, I also liked music, I worked as a DJ, and when I had to choose a career, I picked Electric Engineering and Electronics, because I thought it would give me more skills. I enhanced my knowledge on computers and realized engineering was the proper science to solve problems, solve people’s problems. After my graduation, I began a startup with some friends and decided to improve my knowledge on this topic, which was when I found my calling to serve the client. And that has had a mark on everything I have done in my life, I have always liked to visit clients, understand and improve my knowledge of their business.
After my startup, I migrated to the financial market, lived some years overseas, worked for investment banks and retail banks. I have always believed in learning new things, and I encourage everyone who works with us at Stone to study, read and listen to more experienced people. Throughout my experience in the financial market, my job was related to clients, whether in the commercial area, prospecting new business, new markets or in customer relationships.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I have always sought challenges and innovation. When I saw the internet was growing and online shopping increasing, between 2010–2011, I decided to study this market. I began studying online payment methods and the use of gateways and payment facilitators. It was when I met the people who would become my partners at Stone. They were responsible for creating Braspag, a company that reached 80% of the online payment market in Brazil with outstanding work. And at that time, they were framing Stone to serve the small Brazilian entrepreneur, who did not receive a good service from big banks. I saw it as the moment to take some risks and venture out in a different business. It would be my journey towards playing the leading role in the transformations in course in the financial and payment market. That is how I joined the project.
It was overwhelming to meet a group of people who were developing an original company, with off-center and unorthodox ideas. That surprised me, and so I decided to bet on a business in which I believed and that enabled learning. So, rather than being the experienced person who is there to add value, I went there to learn with a team whose members were, most times, half my age.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your
After some time, when we learned what clients needed and the essence of the company, we defined three clear-cut qualities to set us apart from the competition: quality relationship with the client, the commercial strength with an innovative distribution model and proprietary technology. We also decided to leave the commercial structure in-house, and so we became the first company to put their own people selling payment terminals on the streets. The first team gave rise to a unique and innovative distribution structure with hubs and Stone regional offices across Brazil, adding up to more than two thousand people who spend their days visiting every retail segment, regardless of size and geography. Just as the “encantadores”, they have a special name, “agents.” They take upon themselves the responsibility to visiting clients, keeping the relationship stable and solving any urgent matter with patience and good humor.
In Maresias, a beach in São Paulo’s coast, one of the agents responsible for the region was resting at home on a Sunday when, at 10 pm, he got a call. It was Paulinho, who owned a bar in his jurisdiction. “The terminal fell on the floor, and it’s broken! I’m letting you know so you can bring me a new one tomorrow”, he said. The bar would lose sales that evening for not being able to receive card payments. The agent replied while jumping off the sofa: “Wait for me, I’m almost there”. The client did not understand. He knew Stone’s agent lived 50 km away, and the trip would take an hour. But by 11pm he was there with the new equipment.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Before Stone, the payment market in Brazil was very concentrated and verticalized. Only two major competitors controlled the sector, one with almost 60% market share, the other with close to 40%.
The clients were complaining that big banks offered them services without explaining clearly the rules of the contract and were not committed to finding a solution if a problem emerged. As a result, entrepreneurs saw these institutions more as obstacles than as partners — one more challenge for their to-do list that would consume their time, preventing them from thinking about what really matters to the business: serve the client.
Stone was born with the goal to empower small and medium-sized entrepreneurs. And we use good service to do it. Today, we answer our calls within just 5 seconds and we resolve 90% of demands on the first call. On the frontline we have our salespeople (our agents) fully committed to serving well.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My calling is to serve the client. I employ 20% to 30% of my time, every day, to talk to clients. Why? To know if they are suffering, to understand their issues, to know how their lives are going. Based on that, we map every situation and adjust our day-to-day routine.
I also want to be a role model so the whole company understands that everyone must talk to the client. At Stone, everyone is asked to talk to the client, the fraud prevention team, the data guys, the financial group, because it is fundamental that everyone understands the client journey and identifies opportunities to innovate, to improve the service and to solve problems. At the end of the day, my purpose is to improve the life of the client further and further.
You are a successful business leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
I usually say I am the Chief Problem Officer, the guy who is always looking for and resolving problems. Either internal or external ones. And if there is none, I seek out for a problem. So, I call clients every day, I speak with our collaborators every day to try to understand what is going on. I believe that was a milestone, a learning during the pandemic, because I am constantly in touch with everyone, looking for information. What thrills me is the possibility to be by the customers’ side, to serve them and help them with their achievements and solve problems that sometimes they did not even know they had. By doing so I am thankful to be able to generate an impact that can change our country.
The leader, nowadays, is at the team’s disposal. So, this change must take place in people’s minds, and in an environment where leaders must instigate new experiences, tolerate mistakes, and ensure people are taking risks to be at their best. Leaders must bear the company’s culture in their souls, spreading its vision and values, inspiring and engaging people to live by the same principles and pointing out attitudes that are not in accordance with the behavior one is expected to have.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
In our book “5 seconds — Serving clients the Stone way”, we talk about the main mistakes we have made. Among them, when the volume of non-paying clients increased, we decided to outsource our collections services that were supposed to be improved to our clients. They received an email from the collections company that had bought the portfolio, outlining that their name would be placed in a bad credit bureau. It was a very serious situation. We regret that intensively. It was a great opportunity for learning. After all, our most precious asset is our relationship with the clients, which is always humane and careful. We apologized and took all necessary steps, so it would not happen again.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
At the beginning of the 2000s, Brazil’s financial market, including the payment market, was extremely concentrated and verticalized, which limited the choices of the clients. The acquirers were settled in their dominant position, thus offering a service that small and medium-sized businesses saw as not transparent, with low quality of service, limited innovation and high costs.
At the same time, the world was entering a fast digital transformation process based on technologic evolution. Companies born into the new millennium worried about offering a better experience for users, easier to surf and access whatever they wanted. For electronic commerce, a part of this experience concerned allowing customers to easily choose a product, but just as important, to offer easy payment methods. An online brand could have its reputation questioned if it did not offer a simple, fast and safe way to finish transactions. Payment and branding became synonyms. There was space to innovate when we placed the client in the center of the business for the first time.
At that time, there were just two major acquirers authorized to operate: Visanet, now Cielo, then controlled by Banco do Brasil, Bradesco and Banco Real (now Santander); and Redecard (now Rede), controlled by Banco Itaú. The duopoly was frustrating for entrepreneurs, who had to wait too long for their problems to be solved.
To balance the forces between shop owners and banks, as well as empowering entrepreneurs, it would be necessary to create a company able to compete as equal, but that treated clients better, offering better services, close service and attention to their demands. However, the rules in force back then would not allow a new acquirer to debut.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
Being an entrepreneur is a lot of work, being an entrepreneur is being passionate about something, having stamina, being bold, because you must choose paths and, sometimes, if a path does not work out, you must follow plan B and dive in again. And there is no depression, no one crying. In this sense, management and leadership are key to accommodate long-term challenges and day-to-day pressures. Stone encourages ongoing development to achieve leadership. And this is a process that rewards whoever has high performance, regardless of the position.
To be a leader you must embrace the opportunity to solve a problem, venture a project, go after new knowledge and demonstrate total commitment with the company. For everyone starting with us, we recommend reading “Winning”, written by Jack Welch, one of history’s greatest managers. It is also a learning process that includes knowing who has already taken this path, receiving orientation from more experienced people and being always open to feedback.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
At Stone we have a strong passion for undertaking endeavors and helping entrepreneurs. The entrepreneur is our reason for being. A person who is always moving forward, and we understand that, sometimes, to help him or her, we must leave our comfort zone, which is a positive thing, since it encourages us to learn. Our company is a place for learning. People can sometimes find it quite challenging, because we are in a disruptive context, but certainly they will see more value both for their personal life and for society. The history of Stone was built over a basic principle that radically set us apart from other financial institutions: to listen to the client above all, serving him or her in the best way we can.
We understand what we do at Stone as a mission, not a job. And the main difference is when we understand what we do as a mission, purpose is what moves us. At Stone our biggest goal is to serve entrepreneurs.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks for your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
- Start small. Before making aggressive expansion moves, try out, take ideas out of the paper and find out what works for the business. Take one step at a time until you gain confidence, and put together a team that likes to learn, in theory and in practice.
- Startup mindset. Keep a small company mindset with a lot of discipline, humbleness, focus on costs and hiring good people.
- Have clear principles and values. Know why and for whom you do what you do. The fact that Stone, since day one, was clear about its goal and how to achieve the desired results was crucial for its growth and for the team never be led astray.
- Humility. What makes Stone employees keep getting better and creating a strong team is humility. Our people are open to learn with whoever is near them, to find new solutions, to recognize their flaws and to give space to others to stand out according to their results.
- Adjust the course without indulging yourself. The only certainty that comes along with doing something is that mistakes will be made. And growth will only stand a chance when failures are faced with courage. We must be paranoid, never cease to go after problems and work to solve them.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Focus on the client
Listen to the client before trying to solve his or her problem. Commit yourself to serving him or her. Go out on the street, talk, study. Entrepreneurs must come up with solutions for demands that exist in real life, not only in their imagination. Solve the problem. When the client shows something is wrong, the team must be fast and have autonomy to solve that matter asap. Transparence is also key: recognize the mistake and apologize for it.
When you dream big, it is very important to have allies, partners, investors and collaborators who share the same beliefs and values as you. For us it is important to look around and trust people. More important than “position” or “status” is to achieve an outstanding result obtained by remarkable people who try to be better every day. There is no room for “superheroes”. We believe in the power of asking for help and complementing one another. It is very common the exchange of experiences among teams during the creation of a project or a solution, for instance. And in this relationship, there is only space for straightforwardness, because that is the only way to build long-term relationships.
To understand why culture is such a crucial part of Stone it is necessary to learn that, since day 1, our purpose is to help Brazilian entrepreneurs to become your biggest business partner. And this is a challenging task, which appeals to the people who believe in the company values and make them dive in into the purpose of learning every day. Stone’s journey is interwoven with the history of every team that were once with us, as well as of those who are with us now. Those are people with an entrepreneurial soul; committed, disciplined and dedicated people. Our professionals have got the endurance to keep on changing the market, the company and, above all, themselves.
4. Lifelong learning
You must study all the time, for the rest of your life. Why? Because things are changing. If you fail to update yourself, you will be left behind, because things are happening. So, you must go after professionalization. However, there are also soft skills, which means understanding the new model of management because that model of leadership in which you become a leader, and from the moment you are the boss, you have a team.
By automating tasks and using technology to process the huge amount of information companies must handle today, you will help get rid of mistakes, hence allowing people more time to do what only they can do: embrace clients’ needs, work with empathy and solve complex dilemmas.
Make data work for your client. Having properly organized and interpreted information enables you to understand your clients better, to foresee demands, to decide which service to offer, who, when and how, and to hire the best people more assertively.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Right in the beginning of my career, when I founded a startup, I understood companies go bankrupt due to lack of clients: they either do not bring enough clients or, when they do, they lose them. So, the first step before making any decision and defining the product is to listen to your clients, understand their needs, develop what they desire or need and deliver a solution according to the real demand. Moreover, it is fundamental to keep up to date to follow the fast technological evolution: studying, developing new systems, eliminating old codes, integrating new tools and identifying opportunities for improvement all the time.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
We only live once. I believe setting apart professional and personal lives is an illusion. We encourage people to live a good life all the time, according to what they believe in and finding pleasure in their duty, savoring every moment.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
At Stone we employ actions to encourage education and entrepreneurship. We invest in education because we believe it is the best tool for social development. The problem of lack of opportunities must be solved with a long-term attitude. We support projects of excellence concerning the basic education and technical education, so the new generations do not need to overcome so many obstacles. We fight so all Brazilians can have good education since their childhood, with access to content and tools to develop themselves.
We also invest to improve the knowledge of our people and our clients, for whom we offer entrepreneurial training and education via digital content. Moreover, we foster entrepreneurship within Stone, in every area and position. We believe that if there is someone capable of changing Brazil that person is an entrepreneur — inside and outside the company. We look for intelligent, strong and honest people, because we believe these are the necessary qualities for a person to endeavor in the company, to get adapted to new settings and to work without a guideline. Because the only thing we can be sure about in the financial market is that everything is going to change. We do not hire for a position we want someone exceptional to join us in a challenge: be with us in the long run and venture out into the business.
We are and always will be driven by our clients’ interests, above all. We carry out our purpose to help small and medium-sized businesses to prosper, giving raise to even more opportunities for the sake of Brazil. That is why we are committed to the development of these entrepreneurs.
We want more companies to join us in our effort to change Brazil. The rise of startups in the market is a positive sign that our work is fulfilling its mission: there are more people working towards changing the world for the better.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Someone I wish I could have met in the U.S. would be Steve Jobs. I’d tell him how Stone has contributed to the democratization of payment and financial services in Brazil. I would also like to debate about our view in education, since we believe this is the best tool for reducing inequality and to foster social development; I would also like to discuss his view on how to use technology to help SMBs to sell more, manage their businesses better and grow. And finally, I’d like to hear from him his views on our society post-Covid, with new habits and more digitization.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!