A company or idea must represent a life purpose for the founder. If what you’re building is just a solution for a problem in a big market that you don’t really care about and money is your cold end goal, forget about it. You won’t survive. When the shit hits the fan, it is your purpose that will get you out of the bed to find the best solutions for the worst problems. That purpose is what will prompt people to follow you because leadership is about lighting a fire in other people’s hearts. During hard times, they will look for purpose in your eyes, your voice and your work.
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 Guilherme Cerqueira.
Guilherme Cerqueira is the founder and CEO of Worthix, an Atlanta-based technology startup. He has over 19 years of experience in marketing research, is a successful serial entrepreneur, and a member of multiple accelerators and associations, such as 500 Startups, ATDC, ESOMAR, and Endeavor. Guilherme earned his psychology degree from Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro and holds degrees and certifications from renowned international institutions such as INSEAD, Stanford, and Harvard Business School.
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 started my first “business” when I was 16. It was an after-school theater class for children. I set it up in the clubhouse of my subdivision and it was actually quite successful. I also produced underground parties for teenagers all throughout high school. It was absolutely crazy, but a lot of fun. My first real company started when I was 18. My older brother had just graduated in computer science, and he invited me to start a tech company with him! He knew he could build the tech, but he needed someone to package and sell it, and I’ve been good at that all my life. After a lot of initial pivoting, we eventually created one of the world’s first survey technology platforms. In 2015, I decided to start Worthix to revolutionize the way companies and customers communicate with each other. Static surveys simply weren’t made for a dynamic market. We’re changing that.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
When I was the CEO at my first company, the survey technology company, I noticed that a lot of our clients were skeptical of whether their Customer Satisfaction and Net Promoter System (trademark by Satmetrix and Bain & Co) programs could truly explain customers’ decisions, sales, churn and loyalty. So I started on a journey to find a solution that could better explain customers’ decisions. I built a team of economists and researchers and began testing out different scientific methodologies to try and explain the “why behind the buy.” I was hitting a dead-end and at the end of my rope, when one day my kid, who was eight at the time, asked me a simple question: “Dad, how do I make money?” It was in trying to find the answer to this question, in simple terms that an 8-year-old could understand — it’s about making the right decisions to lead to the best outcomes and create the most value that align most with what you care about.
Because of this question, I had the idea that sparked the creation of Worthix — understanding that as humans, we are faced with multiple decisions along the course of our lives; some big and some small. We tend to make these decisions by weighing out the cost vs. benefit of the options we are given. In purchase decisions, we decide whether or not a product or service is worth the time/money/effort we have to put forward in order to gain that benefit. If it is in fact worth it, regardless of the price, we will buy it. This is what Worthix was built to explain: what makes a product or service “worth it” to its customers — or not!
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
I have so many people to be thankful for and so many inspirations, and I’m sure this list will keep growing every single day. One thing that I learned throughout my journey is that help is everywhere. It really depends on how committed you are to something and how much you’re willing to sacrifice your ego, take risks and look for help. People like to help people, especially when they see the passion behind your reasons. When I moved to the U.S., I didn’t know anyone, anywhere. No friends, no family. Now, I have two top universities as partners, a great portfolio of clients, a wonderful team, and respected investors. It’s all about putting yourself out there, sharing your dreams with passion, and working hard one step at a time. But if I were to pick the ones who helped me start, I would have to say my brothers/business partners. In my previous venture, I was lucky enough to have two of my brothers and one close friend as my business partners. When I chose to step out on my own with Worthix, not only did they offer me their full emotional and intellectual support, but they also became my first investors. That type of trust and camaraderie is hard to find in this world, and I am eternally grateful to have had them by my side.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
It’s very encouraging when I hear C-level executives at Fortune 500 companies stating that they’ve never seen anything like Worthix before and wondering where this technology has been all their lives.
Most companies start off comparing us with traditional, static surveys. We are also met with a degree of skepticism and disbelief that an A.I. with an only two-minute dialogue would be able to gather such a complete and holistic view of the customer’s decision-making process for so many different regions and customer realities. I remember once, a C-level executive at a renowned global bank signed a contract without consulting the executive team that would be responsible for implementing and using Worthix on a daily basis. When introduced to the platform, one Senior Manager on the consumer insights team was extremely skeptical over the technology. In fact, he was so irked by it that he asked procurement to suspend payment until he could see preliminary results. When the time came to present results, we were halfway through the presentation when he interrupted the meeting and said: “Sorry to interrupt, but we need to show these results to all of our team leaders; from marketing, products, and customer experience all the way to operations. This is essentially a movie of what’s going on everywhere. It’s almost like qualitative research at quantitative precision and scale.” In fact, our team still describes Worthix as “Qualitative Research at scale,” based on this manager’s description of the platform. And, of course, they ended up paying the invoice on time.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I do my best to pay it forward. I am really passionate about using my position in programs like Endeavor, 500 Startups, and ATDC to mentor the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. I’ve learned a lot from my years of experience building companies from the ground up, and it’s a privilege to be able to share this knowledge with other people starting off on the same path. Whether it’s just having a short conversation with someone or giving more extensive insight on how to navigate the rocky terrain of entrepreneurship, I’m always happy to do what I can to help future leaders, especially ones from emerging markets, like my own country.
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?
- My childhood played a very important part in my life as an entrepreneur. I come from a big family. I have 11 siblings and in such a large group, especially if you’re not one of the oldest kids, you either learn how to build partnerships, alliances, sales, and strategies, or you never get the chance to eat a piece of the cake, or have a turn on the one bike we all shared. All that is to say that my people skills are probably my strongest skills, and growing up with my siblings was the best school of all.
- Understanding that there is no such thing as a company — a company is an imaginary entity that we use to symbolize a group of individuals that share a common goal and that very often disagree. And in order to get people with different backgrounds, realities and needs to rally behind the same cause, you have to have a very deep understanding of people.
- My parents also played an important role in my career, and from them I learned two other important skills that are also related to people. From my father I learned about empathetic communication. He can talk to anyone, from a highly educated C-level or a homeless person on the street, and make them feel they are heard and cared for. He naturally changes his vocabulary and even his tone of voice to make sure the other person feels unique. And his secret is very simple: when he is giving his time to someone, he truly cares about that person. From my mother, I learned about chasing big dreams and not setting limits to how far I can go
- Last but not least, serve and follow! If you truly serve and take care of your clients and the people you work with, they will want to serve you and take care of you, too. No matter the company, that’s the best culture you can 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?
When I started my first tech company in Brazil, I already dreamed about having a global business. But from a young age, a lot of well-intended, more experienced people used to tell me: “Be a winner in your city first, then in your state, then in your country, and then you try another country.”
This “baby steps” mentality may sound reasonable at first, but it can be a death sentence if you’re in a market that is not mature enough. If I could go back in time, I would have spent more time finding out where the big money was, and started there. It’s much better to make mistakes and learn in big markets than to assume that the lessons learned in small and/or immature markets apply to the market as a whole.
And the same thing works for fundraising. If you’re struggling to find financial resources in a familiar region, remember that money is the fifth largest commodity on the planet following air, water, fire and earth. Don’t give up, adjust your strategy, learn your lessons, and reach out to investors all over the planet until you find one that shares your vision, and is willing to buy into your dreams for a fair price.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
In the early days of my first company, I had to do a lot of work travel. But, we were so broke that we couldn’t afford my plane fare. I used to take the midnight bus and change and brush my teeth at the bus station before my early morning meetings.
I remember once, on my way home after a business trip, my card was declined at the desk. We had just received a check in the mail, but since it was after banking hours, it would only clear the next day. I ended up spending the night on a bench at the bus station and waited to buy my ticket the next day.
Needless to say, that was a hard night.
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?
I have never had a plan B. That doesn’t mean you won’t learn or quickly react to your failures. If plan A fails, I’ll make another plan A that you believe enough to chase it with all your heart.
Not having a buffer to fall back on has given me no choice other than to push forward. Succeeding isn’t an option — it’s a matter of survival. When I had the idea of Worthix, we sold everything, packed our family and moved to another country. What was Worthix at that time? It was merely an idea in a PowerPoint presentation.
But if I wanted people to believe in me, and know that I believed in what I was doing, I had to show that I was willing to bet everything on it. And guess what? Things went sideways more than once. Chances are that if I had kept a safety net back in my country, the option of giving up would have consumed the thoughts and energy that in the end I used to face my fears and fight back with all I had.
Another really important thing is to commit to other people. As you’re building your team, you have to commit to them. A lot of my drive comes from not being able to let my team down. They deserve me at my best.
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”?
Having a support system in place is by far the most important thing. I have chosen (romantic and business) partners, teams and investors that are willing to take on a life of uncertainties and surprises alongside me. Pick companions for your journey who are strong but flexible, and willing to pivot or walk the extra mile of even more unexpected risks if/when the need arises.
Accept that entrepreneurship is a very lonely journey and that at the end of the day, the buck will stop with you. You don’t get to play the blame game if things go south. There will be wins, and there will be losses. Don’t overly punish yourself for the losses or overly congratulate yourself for the wins. Be grateful for your losses, learn, adapt, celebrate victories of all sizes, and sooner than later get back to “moving forward.”
There are a lot of studies saying that success is heavily influenced by luck. But in order to be “lucky,” you have to be ready to take the chances at the right place, and at the right time. And that requires a lot of hard work and sacrifices. Although no one makes the right call 100% of the time, calculating all the possible outcomes and making sure the consequences of a potentially bad decision will not be fatal to your business is essential.
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?
It really depends on the industry you’re playing. In general, I would say, plan to bootstrap as much as you can but don’t let your “hustler ego” destroy your potential impact just so you can say that you never raised capital. Focus on your end goal and use the best resources to get there.
In my opinion, venture capital is best used to accelerate growth, not to create an opportunity. Too much money can actually be a problem. With more money comes more pressure, more people, more questions for things you have no clue on how to answer, and more time spent designing processes and implementing systems that you might not need yet.
When considering funding, you first need to make sure your product is solving a real problem, and that it has enough traction to prove you can go bigger from there. If you are able to create a recurring demand for your product in the market, even if it is small, that means it has potential to grow. This is the moment to consider boosting your operation with additional resources.
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.
I guess too many entrepreneurs have already said things like: find a big problem in a big market, create a solution with an amazing team and work hard until it fits in a way that it scales a lot. This is all fundamentally true and that’s why most pitch decks basically cover this thesis. However, I’ll try to go one step further here.
1 — A company or idea must represent a life purpose for the founder. If what you’re building is just a solution for a problem in a big market that you don’t really care about and money is your cold end goal, forget about it. You won’t survive. When the shit hits the fan, it is your purpose that will get you out of the bed to find the best solutions for the worst problems. That purpose is what will prompt people to follow you because leadership is about lighting a fire in other people’s hearts. During hard times, they will look for purpose in your eyes, your voice and your work.
2 — Love the problem. Be passionate about solving your customer’s problem. You can be passionate about your ideas, but you must understand that they’re just a path to deliver value to your customers. Being passionate about your idea instead of about the problem you’re trying to solve can transform the founder themselves into the company’s biggest barrier. This is a hard one because it’s part of our nature to love our ideas.
3 — Don’t serve your investors — serve your customers. The best money in the world is money coming from customers. Investors’ money is simply a valuable resource to help you find the best way to serve a market need and get customers’ money in return. And if your investors don’t see that and they are trying to play your business to serve their funds’ KPIs, you’re with the wrong investors. In order to have a real business, you must have money coming from customers in a way that is scalable and sustainable.
4 — You don’t know what you don’t know, so be humble. Accepting that you don’t know everything doesn’t mean you’re not great at the things you do know. It just means that you’re more focused on really solving the problem than serving your ego by positioning yourself as the master of every problem. The real masters of solving problems are the ones solving it, not the ones solving it alone. Always consider the possibility that you may be missing something. Find people that are better than you. Find people that are different from you. Combine their knowledge with yours, share the merit and be vocally grateful to everyone who helped you.
5 — Your job and the job of every team leader is to facilitate conversations, alignments and empower people to make their own decisions. And that’s probably one of the hardest parts of growing a business. Build a team of highly skilled people while bringing as much diversity as possible. Diversity for me is not a hype, it’s a unique business differential. If you have a perfect blend of minds, your business will always be ahead of your competitors no matter how many times they try to copy you. But be ready to test the limits of your mediation skills. With a lot of diversity comes a lot of discussions, a lot of ideas, and a lot of thoughts — it’s beautiful, it’s powerful, but it can be exhausting sometimes.
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?
I have already addressed one of them above, which is falling in love with your product idea and not the problem they’re trying to solve to someone.
The second most common is that a lot of folks get caught up in the romantic side of entrepreneurship. They are seduced with the idea of becoming the next Elon Musk, or creating the “Netflix of ___insert industry here___”. What they forget is all the failures that came prior to success.
If you’re not prepared to fail multiple times, and get right back at it again and again, then entrepreneurship is the wrong life choice for you. Because entrepreneurship is not just a career, it is your life. I don’t know a single founder who became successful working 9–5, 5 days a week. If you can’t, or are not willing to put in the kind of work required to build a business from the ground up, then consider a different path.
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?
Finding this balance is still one of my biggest challenges. What has helped me personally is a long, early morning bike ride. It centers my thoughts, and provides me with a moment of internal dialogue and reflection before I switch into business-mode. It’s not easy, I don’t know if there’s a one size fits all answer here. I would say I’m still learning, as are most of my entrepreneur friends.
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. 🙂
I believe that education is the best way to create long-lasting, sustainable, good. I have this dream of creating a school for entrepreneurs in under-developed nations. In so many countries around the world, there is so much hardship that hustling and having no plan B becomes part of your DNA. It’s not only poverty and a lack of access to resources, there’s corruption and red-tape as well. When I see founders emerging from these economies, I think to myself that if they can make it there, they can truly make it anywhere. But it’s 1 in a million that succeed, or even less! There is still a lot to be done in terms of assistance and investment in the brilliant, creative minds that exist across the globe that may never have the opportunity to break through adversity and succeed.
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.
Jorge Paulo Lehman is from Brazil, like me. I remember when I was a kid, his company (AmBev), acquired the brewing company my grandfather worked for his entire life (Cervejaria Brahma). I watched that company grow into one of the largest corporations in the world, and I’m still proud when I think about the Brazilian-owned company (3G Capital) that has so many household names like Budweiser, Burger King, Heinz and Kraft under its umbrella.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
LinkedIn is the best place to connect with me!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!