2016 Startup Internship Award Winner Supported by the Rosalind (WG’76) and Roy (WG’76) Neff Entrepreneurial Internship Fund
My experience at SmartMEI, in São Paulo, this past summer gave me a new perspective about being a co-founder at a startup. I arrived at their small office thinking that my roles had already been 100% defined in the emails that we exchanged, but as the weeks passed, this certitude slowly faded away. With new problems arising every day, I often had to shift roles and learn new technologies on the fly. As an example, I had initially been hired to take care of the marketing sector of the company, but with the delay in the launch of their last product – a debit card for entrepreneurs – I had to stay away from marketing for the first month and focus on designing their new website.
While I had some previous experience designing websites in the past, I had no idea how to use WordPress. I spent my afternoons in the office building their new site, making a bunch of mistakes and fixing them as fast as I could. My boss was very demanding and I often had to go back to square one before he was satisfied. He taught me an important lesson in leadership: be nice. He always asked me stuff with a big smile on his face and tried to make sure that all the 5 people in the office had a good relationship. He spent the whole day cracking jokes and even when he had some serious stuff to say, he would do so in a very friendly fashion.
My boss was in charge of customer support and operations. Despite the fact that he’s a Stanford MBA graduate, it was he who would reply to confused customers and do mechanical tasks that you just wouldn’t believe. Customers thought the whole app was automated, but in fact my boss was doing all the manual work behind the scenes to save development resources. That was the epitome of “fake until you make it”. He had spent the past year doing so and, because of that, knew exactly who his customers were, what they wanted, and what their problems were. As an entrepreneur, you MUST understand your customers better than anyone else and a good way to do that is by directly talking to them, every single day.
It’s pretty easy to think that startups are all glamour. That’s not true. Everyone in the office worked on the launch of the debit card for 2 months before any customers saw it. After countless bugs and failed tests, the debit card was launched to the email list of the company. 170 orders just in the first day. Voila! Beer (yeah, 18 is the legal drinking age where I’m from), speeches, and a BUNCH of clients to reply to. It’s like when you build a very complex lego and you’re proud of it. Same feeling.
170 is not a HUGE number, but what’s the use of unsustainable growth? A building is only as strong as its foundation. The main philosophy of the company was a very simple one: test first, grow later. SmartMEI built their product thinking that it could potentially resonate with the market but the founders didn’t get attached to this idea. They launched the product to a small, loyal base of clients, identified the problems with the debit card and got the feedback they needed. It’s only after this relatively small base of customers is happy with the product that they’ll invest in growth. I learned that, actually, growing too soon is the #1 reason why startups fail.
A lot of people think that you need to work 100h/week to achieve great things, but that was not how we saw that. The working schedule was around 9AM to 7PM and no one was in a hurry. There was just a very clear sense of direction – “there are no pressing deadlines and we’re not running out of investment money any time soon”, in my boss’s own words. Life is short and time can’t be bought back.
How did you find the position? (i.e., cold calling, MBACM, PennLink, etc.)
Emailed a Brazilian Wharton Alum. Talked to him over Skype. I wanted a startup but his company was already too big. He referred me to a bunch of startups he had recently invested in. I chose the youngest one.
What was your motivation for working at a startup this summer? (i.e., industry experience, experience to leverage for own start-up, career changer, etc.)
I don’t see myself doing anything else but entrepreneurship, so I thought interning at a very early-stage startup was a good way to gain some experience that would help me in the future.
What advice would you give to students interested in working at a startup this summer?
Be open to roles that you did not expect. Depending on how early your startup is, you’re probably going to have to wear different hats. It’s not like an investment bank, where you know exactly what you’re going to do.