It doesn’t have to be new

When thinking of a startup idea you don’t need to be inventing something entirely new or innovative to be successful. In fact, most of the things we use today as consumers were not invented by the companies that sell them but by someone else. Those companies succeeding with these products what they did right was to iterate on existing ideas and they ended up creating what we consider today as innovation.

Sometimes the market is big enough that there’s room for several products competing for your attention with little distinction between them. In the case of Toky, this is true as well but we did manage to find small differentiators that make us more appealing to certain people or companies than our competitors’ products.

How many CRM software can you name? Or email service providers, or blogging platforms, or calendar software? In these categories, you have clear winners like Salesforce, or GSuite, or WordPress, or Google Calendar and yet there are hundreds of competitors here having enough success to keep the lights on despite competing with the likes of Google or Salesforce.

When your intention is not to create a billion-dollar company or if you are not in a hurry to figure out how to get there, maybe you can start small, remain profitable, and keep things sustainable for as long as needed, and for that, you really don’t need to create something completely new or revolutionary. You just need time to let luck find you working.

Playing to your strengths

Your superpower is work that you enjoy doing that doesn’t feel like work to you and that other people struggle to get it done. This is where you can thrive and really separate yourself from the rest.

I noticed there are a few things that come naturally to me that I always enjoyed doing and that I was fortunate to be able to monetize—programming for example. It started out as a hobby and it naturally progressed as a career that brought me so many great opportunities I’m very thankful for.

Programming is my strength and I love doing it, but as I grew older I started to hear more and more that programmers are “just builders” and that I should evolve towards being an architect since those are the ones leading the builders and indicating to them what to do.

This analogy sounded rational and it also matched what I was seeing in the market: programmers get hired in bunches for specific tasks while managers and PMs (Program or Product Managers) were more critical, called the shots, stayed longer, and also made more money than the programmers.

So naturally, I wanted to move upwards in the industry and I started contemplating the idea of acquiring those managerial skills that are so glamorous. I started reading about what a PM does, what knowledge should be acquired to do that job, and how to progress from being a “simple programmer” to being a PM. The only problem was that the more I read about it the more I disliked it.

To me, it sounded like a bunch of meetings, unnecessary presentations, office politics, and a lot of document-writing no one actually cared to read.

I tried going with it anyway, read more about the job and I saw that a background in programming could make a PM better at their job but I couldn’t get over the realization that I would be quitting programming in order to become a great PM.

Contemplating the idea of giving up the skills to create software, all those years of writing code, learning to deploy it, DevOps, Networking, SysAdmin, all those things that out of necessity most programmers learn, was just too much for me.

I didn’t foresee the job of a manager as something I would have enjoyed doing for years. I don’t like being mediocre at the things I do so I planned to be a PM for at least 10 years but having worked with several of them before I just knew I couldn’t do it.

There are two schools of thought about competency levels: improve your weaknesses and play to your strengths. I chose the latter.

I have weaknesses that I need to correct in order to become better at the things I consider to be my strengths. I’m working on those, but for the foreseeable future, I will no longer become average at a lot of things in detriment of being great at a few things.

This post is not a rant against PMs by any means. I think their job is extremely important for the success of a project. I had great experiences working with them and I learned to respect and admire a few that I got the chance to meet outside of strictly work environments. This post is about my personal realization that I would have made a bad PM considering the things I enjoy are not aligned with what they do day-to-day in order to succeed in their jobs.

Having a purpose

I don’t know how to operate without the thing that I’m doing having a reason to be done. This way of thinking served me well over the years to help my career remain on track towards an always improving goal.

I think giving people a purpose and meaning it helps them be more productive and achieve more. It gives them a sense of belonging and that the effort they are doing is for a bigger cause. The effect is often that they get significantly better at everything.

The purpose has to be sincere. Smart people know when you are faking it and you have to really want them to succeed even if that means they may leave you someday to go pursue greater opportunities.

One of the hardest jobs I have as the CEO of Toky is to keep people motivated and wanting to continue fighting for our cause. I can’t fake enthusiasm so the only way I can convey it to the team is by finding a way of never running out of it. This, of course, hasn’t been an easy task as I felt let down, doubted myself, and got tired on numerous occasions over the years but the practice of remembering what’s our purpose helped me continue fighting.

The awesome team that made Toky successful that Oscar (my co-founder) and I were able to assemble stayed with us because we all genuinely believe in the cause. We all have the same purpose and it’s 100% sincere.

We oftentimes talk about the future and what’s next and how the things we do and learn today by solving the hard problems of building Toky will make us better professionals.

We want Toky to be the platform our team uses to succeed in life and although that means we may have to say goodbye to one of us eventually, we realize this is part of the natural cycle of life and that is my job to make Toky continuously motivating and challenging to keep our team happy so that we can compete for their talent.

Compounding effort

A tiny improvement you do today that you are able to sustain continuously over a long period of time will have an effect so big in size that it will be hard to recognize it started so small.

Writing is one of those things I’m trying to compound. Each post you read here in five minutes took me, on average, two hours to write. It really is hard for me but the potential benefits of being able to share ideas in an easy to digest way are very well worth it even if I need to do this for ten years until I am able to see results.

I know the effect is real and that it works.

Twenty years ago it was my interest in science and computers, ten years ago it was telephony, and ten years from now I’m still not sure but I’m working on it. I’m probably not going to become a writer but writing is a tool I will need for sure so here I am trying to make it work.

If you are unsure about that thing you did ten years ago that put you where you are today, be that in a good place or otherwise, I recommend you give a read to a book called Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. It’s a great book that helped me find an explanation about why some things happen the way they do.

The idea of making these tiny efforts today is to put yourself in the position to be lucky in the future. We can’t predict it but we have a fair level of control over how prepared we are going to arrive at it. That’s the single biggest reason to do the effort today.

We may fail at the end, but it won’t be for lack of trying.

On rejection

The right attitude towards rejection is a character builder and despite all of its negative connotations, it’s not always a bad thing. You have to go through it to understand it.

As part of Toky, I felt it numerous times—more than 10 times—and I know this because I used to count them. Some of them hurt a lot that incapacitated me for a few days and some passed quickly.

The ones that hurt the most came from YCombinator. We applied four times between 2015 and 2017 and got rejected immediately the first two, and in the last two, we were invited to the in-person interview in Mountain View but with the same result at the end.

A few minutes before the interview

Despite the outcome, every single thing that came after these events were unquestionably good because we didn’t see rejection as a failure and we learned to understand that getting rejected was an unavoidable part of being a founder.

The last time it happened was in November 2017. The interview was at around 4 pm and it lasted 10 minutes as usual, but while waiting for the acceptance call we walked over 10 kilometers because our minds couldn’t think of anything else.

At around 8 pm PDT we received the rejection email. It was a nightmare. We spent the rest of the night lamenting ourselves for having failed once again.

Part of the rejection email Jonathan Levy wrote to us

We talked about it and tried to rationalize the reasons behind this decision with us and with the team. We went to bed early and we mourned privately the rest of the night because we knew that the next day was a new day and that we owed to our team and to ourselves to get back on our feet and go back to making Toky get to the next level.

This night was almost three years ago and it triggered a much bigger and important event for Toky that was not going to happen if it wasn’t for our exposure to challenges, failure, and even suffering.

I hope my perspective makes you change yours for the better and makes you start seeing rejection as something that is not always bad. Sometimes, it’s just the previous step to something great coming your way.

During this time was when I also realized that not being in Silicon Valley was not necessarily a death sentence as long as you accepted this as a fact. This realization inspired this blog post.

Creating new habits

Back in March, I decided I was going to resume writing for this blog because I wanted to get better at it. I felt that losing the habit of constantly writing my thoughts made me lose the ability to communicate effectively.

With the COVID pandemic raging, I allocated every Saturday morning to writing and I sat in front of my computer, some times literally for hours before I was able to come up with something to write about. I was determined to create the habit of writing even if that meant forcing it to happen.

I don’t know if this is the right way of doing it or not, but it is working for me. I feel like every Saturday when I sit down to write, the ideas and words flow more and more easily as time passes.

This has been my technique for creating “good” habits all my life. I forced myself to make things I initially rarely enjoyed until they became a habit and stopped being a pain.

The second step of this endeavor is to study how professional writers write, how they express their voices in a way that doesn’t seem copied or regurgitated from someone else’s writing, how do they make the experience of reading them feel fresh.

It’s going to be a long journey for sure, maybe it’ll take years until I become any good. No one is reading me right now but that’s fine because I am already feeling the improvements and that’s enough feedback for me to continue down this path. Anything that is good in life takes effort.

I am determined to come out of this pandemic better than when I entered it.

On comparing yourself to others

The world can be an unfair place where you don’t always get what you deserve and where you don’t get points just for trying.

I’m sure that at least once in your life you had the feeling that you worked harder than someone else and yet you didn’t get that thing you wanted despite deserving it more. It’s a strong feeling that can create resentment towards people or life if you don’t learn to understand why it happens.

There are a lot of unfair advantages that people are born with that are not even considered when it comes to comparing people’s achievements in life. A person born into a wealthier family has access to better opportunities than another person without that fortune but when weighting their life achievements this is never acknowledged making it an apples-to-oranges kind of comparison in detriment of the self-esteem of the less fortunate person who probably had to fight much harder to get where they got.

The people that had to work hard only to get to the point where other people started life deserve more recognition and more praise. We live in a society that doesn’t care about your struggles and will judge you in a biased way putting you—as a lightweight fighter—in the same ring to fight the sorts of Mike Tysons and then shame you when you lose.

This entire situation can make you feel like you already lost without even having started making you not even want to try but it is important that you fight this feeling and find the motivation to work hard, not to prove society wrong, but to prove yourself you are capable of achieving great things.

We might not become the next Elon Musk, but it cannot be for lack of trying. Even if we don’t get there the journey will very much be worth it.

There were times when I felt unfit for running my own business and for leading the people working with me. I looked for answers online and everyone here seemed much more prepared than I was, with much more experience and having gotten in my position 10 years earlier than me. I didn’t realize back then that I was comparing the peak of their careers against mine that was just getting started. You probably are too.

Remember these thoughts when you feel bad about your own career or when reading TechCrunch or Forbes makes you feel like an underachiever. Don’t let the unfair world discourage you and keep on giving a good fight.

The power of software

Learning computer programming changed my life.

I remember I wanted to become a programmer after watching Hackers (so cliché) in the late 90s and later I felt even stronger about it after The Net, a movie with the same thematic but much less “technical”. I’m not making this up when I say my career choice came from watching two Hollywood films 🤷‍♂️.

I don’t remember exactly the time when I watched those movies—it was around 1998 more or less—but I do remember the sudden spike in interest about computers I had that remained uninterrupted since that time, 22 years ago.

In those years, my family was not financially well and we couldn’t afford a computer so I had to wait five years to have a second hand Intel 486 DX2 with 500 MB hard drive, and 32 MB of RAM running Windows 98. In was already 2003 and my first computer was a relic.

I recall it was so old that even Windows 98 ran slow on it not to mention I couldn’t play the newest games my friends were playing so I was stuck with it playing DOS-only games.

That same year, a classmate of mine lent me a Quick Basic book his brother was using at university that I read from cover to cover that same year spending hours and hours writing silly programs that book thought me. I was having the time of my life with that computer and that book.

In 2007 I bought my first laptop—a Dell Vostro 1500—and a year later, in 2008, I was finally able to afford to have an Internet connection at home. It was such an event that I even took a picture of that laptop with Google open to perpetuate that moment in time forever.

My shitty first computer and that book forced me to learn how to code. No Internet access and no games made my only option for entertainment to watch boring TV or to try to do something more interesting out of that boredom. Fortunately, that book was there at the right time and it thought me a skill I was able to monetize later to better my life.

It’s interesting to look back in time connecting the dots to see that something that looked like a misfortune, not to be able to afford a computer, was actually a good thing that made me discover my love for computer programming and computers in general, a profession that I ended up choosing to pursue as a career for the rest of my life.

I’m sharing this story because I believe that everyone should contemplate the idea of learning how to code, but especially the ones coming from unprivileged countries, with no access to good education or struggling financially.

Programming can teach how to think structurally, abstract yourself from a problem, give you a shot at reaching audiences bigger than you can imagine and it has the potential of altering your life for the better in a relatively short period of time.

It takes a long time to be truly good at something so you better start today. The demand for programmers is only growing and 5 years from now you will wish you had started today.

Work/Life balance

I believe the overall idea of having a balance between work and life is sane and makes sense. In the general sense of what it means, I advocate for it and pursue it for my own life actively, but I also think people want to take it a bit too far quite too often.

In the context of creating your own startup, if you think working hard is optional and that you can keep your normal office hours strictly between 9 to 5, then you’ll set yourself for a big surprise. This is definitely possible to achieve in the long run but pretending it is possible when you are just starting up is just fooling yourself.

Let me try to make you view it from my perspective and let’s agree on the following:

  1. Time is precious. You only have a finite amount of it and you want to use it wisely.
  2. You are building a tech startup that is more likely to fail than not.

If you agree to the statements above then you may agree with my points below.

I would work the hardest I can for the longest I can because I want to know if my startup will succeed or not. I would like to know it sooner rather than later to minimize not only the negative financial impact on my life but most importantly, the negative time impact of potentially be working on the wrong things.

I don’t know how you can get there if you only work 9 to 5, no weekends, and taking your usual vacations in the middle. Maybe there is a way and I just have not found it.

I know sustaining this intense rhythm for too long will have negative consequences and that’s why it is important to know yourself fully before doing anything. You have to know your limits, when to push harder, when to rest, and sometimes when to quit.

I’m not a competitor in the contest of “who works the hardest” either and to be honest, I wish I could work less and still get to achieve the goals I set for myself in life.

I tried working fewer hours and it didn’t work out just like the time when I tried to sleep less so that I could have more hours to work. In the end, I had 19 hours a day of a cloudy mind that couldn’t think straight and that was significantly less creative than my well-rested mind.

There are public figures on the Internet that are very vocal about working hard and smart, like Sam Altman, and those who say that working long hours is wrong at any stage, like DHH and Jason Fried. I think all of them make very good points.

Given my circumstances in life, where I live, where I come from, my socioeconomic background, and where I want to be in the future, for me at least, working the hardest I can while I can has not been optional.

I know this opinion won’t sit well with everybody, and after all, people’s ultimate goal is happiness and there are several paths that lead to it. At the end of the day, you have to follow the one that you feel is right for you and a random guy like me on the Internet should not have a saying in there ;).

Doing the hard things

It feels counterintuitive and probably against nature to choose to do the harder things when you have the option to go for the easier ones when the perceived reward feels similar. We as humans have this natural inclination towards the path of least resistance and it makes evolutionary sense that we are programmed to behave this way but I doubt that in business is the right thing to do.

Let’s say we have a business idea and we want to create a product. The next steps to analyze the feasibility of the said product usually are the designing of a business plan, monetization strategies, marketing, etc. but what oftentimes is never analyzed is the entry barrier or how easy would it be for the competition to come to steal your customers if they decide your market is sexy enough.

If you find yourself seeing that a guy is having huge success selling piña-coladas on a beach and everyone is buying from him, you can almost effortlessly go do the same thing and compete for his customers. The market for piña-coladas is big but the product is so easy to replicate you may be able to attain success fast but it is equally likely that the success will be short-living. Easy come easy go.

The software industry is no different.

Maybe you noticed that every business needs to be able to send bulk emails to their customers and decided to enter the market for emailing services since it looks easy to write a few scripts and an HTML templating system to go on and compete with Mailchimp, no?

It’s possible that you will find an audience willing to pay you for your service since the market is so big but it’s going to be hard to differentiate yourself from others and customer-churn will be an issue from day one. That low hanging fruit you saw and wanted to grab was also seen by a thousand other people.

With Toky, we went through a similar situation. Almost all businesses need to offer a voice communication channel to their customers and we exist because of that. A thousand other people saw the same thing and probably wanted to grab that low hanging fruit too until they realized that doing telephony right is very very hard.

There are quite a lot of other things that may be important to discuss regarding this topic, as the potential for your business to attract talent, something that can only happen if people find what you do meaningful enough to come to work with you. Sam Altman wrote a very compelling essay on this topic that explains this point better than I can.

All in all, choosing to go for the easiest-to-create product may not always be the right choice. You are not more likely to fail if you go through with that other project that is harder, in fact, it will probably increase your chances of making it all things considered.