Start-up Escapades inside Brazil’s Tech Scene
First I want to introduce myself as the director of XDODE.COM. I have the support of an admin assistant on a fixed-term contract basis and run my business from my home office. You can learn about my whole team here: xdode.com/overview/
I recently went to Brazil as part of a UNISA delegation of academics and researchers. My personal goal was to meet up with peers in the technology space and connect with venture capitalists and angel donors in order to support me in the commercialisation of my product innovation: xChange Marketplace for Professional Services.
I had been working on the XDODE innovation for almost six months before that. I am very grateful that UNISA has shared my vision, and has supported me with a R100,000.00 grant to plan, design, develop and take xChange to market.
Highlights from the trip
A highlight was one of the first talks I attended at Inova Unicamp, at Unicamp’s Science Park where Professor Einstein gave us an overview of the various intellectual property right issues related to commercialising an idea whilst you are still at university.
The Brazilian job market for developers is oversaturated with highly qualified individuals; In South Africa we have the opposite problem – We have a shortage of talented developers, making the rate for software developers quite high.
One Brazilian student even offered to work as an intern for R15 000/month for 40 hours, if I ever need a hand getting my product off the ground. Similar talent in South Africa would cost me at least R25 000/month.
But I also realised that our societies and economy were not too different: Brazil is a highly unequal developing economy. I was able to empathise and understand many of the challenges and pain points from the user stories I gathered there, as part of the research for my product innovation.
Despite the language barriers I was able to get through some Portuguese memorised on the first night of the trip and tried to include this in my product pitch:
Olá, meu nome é Xola dos Santos e sou o diretor da XDODE. Esta é a minha equipe, sediada na Cidade do Cabo. Sou diretor da XDODE, um empresário em série (este é o meu segundo negócio) e trabalho na Stellenbosch Business School. xChange Marketplace: Por que precisamos deste software?Xola dos Santos, Director of XDODE (PTY) LTD
Learning a new language was definitely a highlight. I started with the essential “magic words” before advancing onto more complex sentences. Hardly anyone spoke English so it’s a good idea to brush up on your Portuguese if you intend on visiting.
I noticed a lot of people conduct business on WhatsApp in São Paulo. My website collected a total of 59 contacts (prospects, angel donors and venture capitalists) during the trip. People were more eager to engage and make plans on WhatsApp then via email.
I am a student studying an IT and Finance BCOM, so naturally I connected with the other tech startup students on campus, who invited me to Halloween parties, socialised at the Open Street Festival and made nerdy software jokes. It was great to be in a community of people who see the promise of tech, in the same age group and from a different culture.
Key lessons learnt
Before going to Brazil my product concept was very short-sighted and did not seek to leverage emerging technologies. The product innovation is xChange, an online business directory where competing suppliers (freelancers and business) can create profiles and bid for tenders and proposals from companies seeking services and products.
1. Future-proof your innovations by using bleeding-edge technologies
Going to the trip helped me develop a completely new conceptual model for xChange. Many of the students and investors were impressed by the concept and business model but strongly suggested that I architecture the product so that it accommodates Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence Models, smart-contracts and other Web 3.0 technologies. This was challenging to even talk about at first (because of the language barriers) but my conversations with the mentors and senior UNISA colleagues really helped clear things up.
2. Don’t neglect the commercial side of your business
Another lesson learnt was to focus on the technology infrastructure and the commercial side of the business. I am a nerd so I was first consumed with using particular technologies and did not factor in the social and commercial dynamics and impact of my innovation.
3. Social purpose: The product must solve a real-world issue
Through conversation I realised that developing xChange “a digital Yellow-Pages of tenders and company proposals” would empower black organisations struggling to grow, through providing access to consolidated market information. xChange innovation is more than a tech product: It’s a tool to advance equality.
4. Apply entrepreneurship practically
Leadership and entrepreneur training as it is currently taught in universities is highly theoretical. The immersive experience where I got to put on a nice watch, memorise a sales pitch, network, run a stand containing marketing collaterals, approach and hook potential users and funders really made me realise the practicalities of being a tech entrepreneur and the long road ahead.
Being involved in a week-long immersion programme for innovation really challenged me to have a more strategic view of my business, sometimes one has to work on and not “in” a business – another key lesson learnt was to simultaneously prospect for new customers and users and look out for strategic relationships.
I also picked up a few sales tricks: You only really have 7 seconds to catch someone’s attention so having great salesmanship and a strong pitch really comes in handy; I developed an approach where I asked people who visited my stand more about their own businesses and used that to ascertain how we could build a mutually-beneficial relationship.
So I am definitely more mindful as the number one salesperson and evangelist for XDODE (PTY) LTD. I realised that for too long I was focusing on the technical side of the business – and not enough on the commercial side. I had some cash projections but most people were not interested in that – it’s like they wanted to invest in me. So throughout the conference I kept optimising my sales pitch to speak to the hearts and the minds of my audience.
5. Outsource work you don’t specialise in
The visit made me realise that if you have a big vision, especially one as complex as a digital product innovation, you need a strong, committed and diverse team to support you. Knowing programming languages is not enough – I was really challenged to get an intimate understanding of the commercial side of my business.
Businesses should outsource work that they do not specialise in, focus on maintaining key accounts and relationship, focus on their core business, so I am going to try and be more hands-off in leading and organising a team around the medium and long term goals of my product innovation.
Before I went to the trade show I was a jack of all trades. After the tradeshow I realised the importance of forming a team so that I can take this project to the next level. My new focus is now on organising and leading a team to develop the xChange product. I have re-architected the UML Diagrams for the product to include the following, based on the feedback from other delegates and students on campus:
- Include Machine Learning
- Data is gold: Try using MongoDB instead of SQL to allow for flexibility and scalability in the data model.
- Social Purpose: The product must deal with a real-world issue that is a common pain and has a large enough customer base, across cultures and geographies.
I have now registered on the HyperiondDev programme in order to accelerate my go-to-market and product launch dates.
Final comments on my experience in São Paulo, Brazil
The visit sparked a drive to organise the XDODE team to take our product to market, offered me an opportunity to talk to experts about the SWOT of my business and improve my presentation and oratory skills. The tour guide was very insightful and helpful as well. I was impressed by the high-performance culture on Unicampus start-up scene.
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