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.

Definition of success

Throughout the years I learned that people will only listen to what you have to say if your reputation—or the perception they have of said reputation—matches what they consider to be within the scope of their definition of success.

I believe there are some things that are universally accepted as being part of achieving success but many things that people think define a successful person are highly dependent on external factors like beliefs, geography, age, and access to opportunities.

In my own experience, my definition of success matched that of the “American Dream” as crazy as that may sound. I’m not even from the United States, I didn’t really speak English until the 2010s, and the first time I visited the country was in 2014.

It was hard for me to realize I needed to find my own definition of success if I ever wanted to get out of that constant feeling of being an underachiever.

I noticed that I was often comparing myself to people in the startup scene that were clearly more achieving than I was (or I will ever be) and feeling terrible in consequence because I knew I couldn’t possibly get to their level even if I worked 20-hours workdays.

I don’t remember the day it happened when I turned that sensation of feeling less into inspiration for wanting to achieve more. I stopped comparing myself to others and I started competing against myself only.

That didn’t mean I didn’t have role models anymore or that I didn’t check out on other founders from time to time. What it means is that I have a direction of where I want to be in my life and sometimes that direction coincides with where other people are, so I follow them to try to learn from them, but I no longer feel disappointed that I’m so far behind and I am fine with the thought of me potentially never getting there in my lifetime.

I learned that success means different things for many people. Mine keeps morphing but I noticed that a few things are always around: family, health, happiness, and money.

Financial freedom, a.k.a. having money, is one of those things that everyone pursues and it’s often used as a synonym of being successful.

I want financial freedom and I always wanted it—I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with it—but it quickly becomes worthless if you have to sacrifice your health, family or happiness in order to get it. See the point?

I believe being well–off financially is a byproduct of doing other things well in life, maybe by starting a business you are passionate about, maybe by doing a job really well because you love it. Maybe our focus should be on finding that passion instead of blindly following money while we wreck other things in our life that are obviously more important.

There’s a saying that really touched me that was brought to me thanks to @naval:

A healthy man wants 10,000 things, a sick man only wants one thing.

Confucius?

This saying is 2,500 years old. I don’t think there’s a better reminder than this to sit down and reconsider your priorities regularly.

My rule of thumb for hiring

At the time of this writing, we are a team of 24 people working at Toky. We are a small team and we try to keep it that way. We optimize for happiness and impact and you don’t need a huge team for that.

The playbook we created is simple and obvious, and it basically consists of evaluating three aspects of the candidate: good person, good communication skills, and intelligence.

Good person

No one likes working with douchebags, no matter how brilliant they are.

Being a good person means for me that they are not selfish, that they can be empathetic towards others, that they won’t selfishly prioritize themselves above everyone else to get where they want to be.

What has worked for me is asking questions that can lead you to see things that may not be compatible with your culture. Open-ended questions like “what makes you happy” are good for this purpose as they can lead the way into more profound questions that will let you understand better about their personality and values.

This one is probably the hardest thing to evaluate because it can be easily faked in an interview.

Good communication skills

Along the way you are always going to encounter problems of all kinds, and it is fundamental that you can communicate yourselves out of them when it happens.

A good sign a person is good at communicating is when they ask hard questions during the interview, or when they can openly talk about failures they have experienced in the past and how they got themselves out of them.

Seeing traits of introversion is not necessarily a bad sign either—people can be reserved and still be able to communicate well with their peers—but being too reserved can be an issue if everyone else in your team is an extrovert.

A person that can articulate in simple words what’s on their mind, that can tell me I’m wrong when I’m wrong, that can openly accept feedback and give feedback back in a constructive way, is what I look for every time.

Intelligence

This one is not about raw IQ measurements or how well they did on their last exam, in fact, I don’t even believe good grades are a sign of intelligence, but that’s a conversation for another time.

Building a product like Toky is not only very hard on the technical side, but the environment is also constantly changing that we need to adapt ourselves and the product regularly if we want to continue on business.

Dealing with change, with shifting priorities, with needing to acquire new technical skills when it is required, is something not a lot of people are comfortable with.

The kind of intelligence I’m talking about here doesn’t have a specific name. It’s probably an intersection between the resourcefulness mathematical intelligence gives you and the ability to successfully adapt to change that emotional intelligence can bring.

What’s clear is that our customers and industry will continue mutating and the only option we have is to adapt or perish. Everyone at Toky knows this and we welcome change every time it comes knocking at our door.

This set of rules brought to our team the most amazing people that I feel very fortunate to be working with.

It’s definitely not a comprehensive list but hopefully good enough to give you an idea of the kind of values we cherish that made us the kind of company we are today.

Late 2018, a smaller team but just as happy as we are today doing what we love.