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Lessons on Life & Business

Interview with Victor Santos, Founder & CEO, Airfox

Victor's passion is building and supporting innovative solutions for the underserved using technology as a medium for impact and a catalyst for positive change. I prefer to focus on mission-driven products and double-bottom-line companies that create real impact for their users and stakeholders. I believe that blockchain technology and asset tokenization will democratize and decentralize financial services; as a result, cryptocurrency will create more egalitarian access to capital for those who genuinely need it around the world. 

1. What is the most valuable career advice you can give to people just starting out?

Entrepreneurship is not an easy road, but it is vital for the progression of society. Starting your own company is extremely difficult. There is very little down time, as you’re constantly being pulled in every direction, so make sure your mission aligns with your personal values. Your work is going to be central to who you are as a human being—don’t take that lightly. For those fresh out of college, I recommend joining a value-aligned startup that has a strong organizational structure to learn the intricacies of what starting a company really takes.

What keeps me going? Having social impact built into my business model allows me to embrace my career with meaning. Additionally, on a tactical level, leaders must understand their market and its competitors to build a solid business plan, so it’s best to anchor your business in a field that is genuinely interesting and important to you.

2. What is the biggest challenge facing leaders today?

In the midst of digital chaos, leaders can easily lose sight of their beliefs and the reasons why they wanted to start a company to begin with. Today, we’re “connected” almost all the time. We are constantly bombarded with limitless opportunity, and thus develop a fear of missing out. A lot of negativity also comes blasting at you from various attention-seeking platforms such as Twitter or YouTube. As a leader, you must be somewhat numb to the noisy outside world, which shifts attention away from the tasks at hand. For an idea to succeed, leaders must be focused in a world where focus is sparse.

3. How do you ensure your organization and its activities are aligned with your “core values”?

Values start with the leader and impact everything and everyone within an organization. If a leader does not embody the company’s values, then the company will be steered off its tracks. Core values drive everyday operations and serve as a company’s compass. This is especially true for startups.

At Airfox, we consider ourselves the A-team: authentic, audacious, analytical, altruistic, and adaptable. These values define the work we do, what we look for when hiring, reappear during performance reviews, and guide who we want to partner with. To quote venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, “Hire for strength rather than lack of weakness.” Those strengths have to feed your company’s mission. Impressive resumes don’t mean anything if you can’t buy into what a company believes. Every time I face a big company decision, I look to our core values for guidance.

4. Where do the great ideas come from in your organization? Do you encourage junior members to be creative and share business ideas with senior management?

At Airfox, our management structure is fairly bottom up. When you’re the founder of a company, it can be difficult to pass tasks to others. Entrepreneurs invest countless hours into their vision of the company and are hesitant to let others take on responsibilities. Learning to guide and trust was a big learning curve for me. In the beginning, I found myself constantly micromanaging because I wanted things done in a particular way. As the company grew, I learned that when we hired the right people people committed to our core values, then I could be confident in their work. I came to realize that I could no longer have my foot in every door, and started to trust that my team still brings the best ideas to the table.

Additionally, if a founder is constantly micromanaging, then employees aren’t owning anything. Employees know the founder will just end up changing their work to what she or he wants. This can create a toxic work culture because employees don’t believe their contributions have impact or value. To fix this, leaders must clearly communicate their vision of the company with employees and consistently reiterate, so it’s never forgotten. But you must also free them to support it with their own talents. The job of a good leader is to provide employees with the roadmap. Understand that everyone operates differently, but trust that as long as the whole team knows where the company needs to go, they will get you there.

5. Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe someone who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?

My most influential mentors are my parents. As Brazilian immigrants, they came to the U.S. in pursuit of a better life. Entrepreneurs by nature, they created businesses to provide for me. Growing up, I would help out with my dad’s granite business, which gave me first-hand knowledge of what it takes to run a company and made me mature faster than most kids my age. My dad is very extroverted and has the “big” ideas, while mom is more analytical and cautious. I ended up inheriting both of these attributes, which have helped me scale Airfox to what it is today. My parents’ drive to expand the opportunities available to me definitely influenced my decision to become a social entrepreneur.

The managing partner at One Way Ventures, venture capitalist Semyon Dukach, is also a huge influence. He supported my launch of Airfox, and his expertise was and still is invaluable. Even when I don’t agree with him, he always has my best interest at heart. And for lack of a better phrase, he was my rock in the early stages of Airfox. Any time I needed confirmation of an idea or wanted to talk a decision though, Semyon was there. He saw and understood my passion to build this company early on, and his support has been vital.

6. Tell me about a time you struggled with work-life balance. How did you solve the problem?

Launching a startup is all-consuming. As a CEO, work-life balance is nonexistent. And each stage of company growth comes with more responsibility. Entrepreneurs can easily become so engulfed with seeing their companies succeed that they neglect family and friends. When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I got a wake-up call that put everything into perspective for me. I needed to take a step back and reassess my situation because I was losing important personal relationships. Make time for the people in your life because there is nothing more important. Prioritize. Jobs come and go, but family is forever.

7. Have you made unpopular decisions like firing employees and reducing compensation levels? What do you do to keep employee motivation enact after such actions?

Unpopular decision are unavoidable with startups. When raising money, we had to let go of a large part of the team. At the time, it was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do. And along with the layoffs, I had to cut my remaining team’s salary by half. Morale dropped tremendously and some people quit. But I found that by being completely honest and transparent, a good portion of the staff wanted to stay. When you’re honest with people and you’ve hired the right people to begin with, they will stick it out. It did not come without costs. To keep employees motivated in times of uncertainty, leaders need to provide incentives. In my case, I offered everyone who stayed more equity in the company.

8. As leaders do you create work environments that are more competitive or collaborative in nature?

Collaboration should be a leader’s main focus. Internal competition in startups leads to a toxic work environment. However, I do spend time examining competing companies to understand the evolving market, find things they do well, and sometimes implement their successes into my business model.

9. How do you get buy in from senior management and board on your business ideas?

The power dynamic for senior management and my board is very different. The board has the money and a lot more experience. Entrepreneurs must be confident with their boards, but not overly optimistic. There is a huge bias with founders that everything will work out in the end. Leaders must constantly think about the other side. Anticipating the board’s questions and being objective are paramount. Analyzing your options objectively can be difficult, but it will ultimately lead you to the best answer.

On the other hand, leaders must empower senior management. Make sure your team understands the company vision, but let them find their path to success. In other words, entrepreneurs must allow employees to take ownership. If employees feel that you trust them as a leader, they will completely buy-in and go to war for you.

10. How to increase employee productivity? Do you invest in their wellbeing?

In most instances, people genuinely want to get better at what they do. Professional growth is personally fulfilling. At Airfox, we have weekly coaching and one-on-one meetings with managers. Having an honest and genuine connection with your manager is one of the best ways for employees to improve. By encouraging transparency and creating an environment of open communication, employees will feel that you support them, which will increase their confidence and productivity. 

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