What We’ve Done and Learned in Four Months

Rocinha photo

Credit: Zac Fabian/Rusted Reel Productions

I’m anxious, exhausted, and doubtful one hour, and excited, fulfilled, and hopeful the next. Never has my mood oscillated so much as now while running a business in one of the world’s most challenging environments. I feel that with every advance, there’s a burden of more being on the line.

Even before I plunged into this endeavor, the voice of reason in my head coached me into accepting the monumental challenge of building an enterprise with little experience in an industry and place I know so little about. The voice admonished me that I then couldn’t fathom how much would go wrong and how terrible and helpless it’d make me feel. In that sense Elon Musk is prophetic: “Being an entrepreneur is like eating glass and staring into the abyss of death.” I resigned myself to that fact as a fateful necessity like the sensation of being strapped snugly to a roller coaster and hearing that cranking sound in slowing intervals as you round the highest crest.

In spite of this, I don’t know how I could be more fulfilled. It’s exhilarating to “eat what you kill” and be ultimately responsible for your victories and defeats. Whether they’re delusions of grandeur or righteous thoughts, the fairy-tale success scenarios constantly play out in my head. Sure, there’s recognition, wealth, and influence, but there’s an even greater narrative of setting on a path to somehow meaningfully and positively alter the trajectory of the universe. That possibility is the pinnacle of self-actuation and the ultimate motivation.

Our Progress

As difficult as it has been, we’ve made concrete progress that we’re proud of:

  • As we recently started selling World Cup accommodations, we grossed four times more in August and September than what we grossed in June and July.
  • We’ve built our guest capacity to up to 50 people across 9 different properties, and now we’re temporarily holding off on building inventory as we focus on marketing for the World Cup.
  • We’ve (Now I can say “we” instead of “I.”) built the team and brought on both Carlos and Graham, who are helping out virtually outside of their primary commitments.
  • Agora Partnerships‘ Latin American impact accelerator (somewhat like a business incubator for for-profit social enterprises) admitted us into their 2014 cohort.
  • We’ve gotten 100% positive reviews from verified guests on Airbnb.

Lessons Learned

In the past four months, we’ve been surprised and humbled by some of the things we’ve learned that are in many ways applicable to other social enterprises and businesses in Brazil and beyond:

  • In almost every instance in which we’ve asked homeowners/hosts to make important investments out of their own pockets to upgrade their homes for guests, they’ve done so quickly and without much resistance. This was unexpected in that in some cases we’ve recommended nearly $1,000 in upgrades, representing a month or more of income, yet hosts obliged knowing their investments would pay off in the long-run.
  • Believe it or not, our hosts are more apprehensive about guests threatening their property and safety as opposed to the other way around. A key part of my job is assuaging hosts’ fears about guests damaging and stealing their property, engaging in illegal activity for which the host will be liable, and being disrespectful of their family and neighbors.
  • Especially as a new business trying to figure out who our customer are and want they want, we need to “do things that don’t scale,” according to the sage startup guru Paul Graham. We’ve learned lots of important things through time-intensive interaction with customers, which I surely won’t be able to do when we have 500 properties and dozens of new guests coming every day. Going out to lunch, the beach, and parties with customers helps me really understand their motivations and how to structure our offerings for people like them. It can also be pretty fun since our guests tend to self-select into a pretty adventurous, unconventional, and open-minded group.
  • At the same time, when customers are too demanding, we need to just say, “No.” Otherwise, we risk over-customizing our service to them and simply spreading time and money too thin.
  • Online marketing is a marathon, not a sprint. We’re dependent on online channels to direct bookings, but since we don’t have a marketing budget (Hooray for bootstrapping!), we have to constantly develop unpaid channels like SEO, social media, and PR. These all build on themselves over time, but it’s generally a slow start and gradual momentum from there.
  • Just because an organization is big and well-known doesn’t mean we can rely on them. Even big companies screw up the details, so we have to keep buffers and plan contingencies when small things with big consequences go wrong.
  • Advisers are great as a sounding board, but we need emotional support and encouragement just as much. Being a solo founder can be rough and lonely, but my friends, parents, and fellow entrepreneurs in Brazil have been pillars of support.

Undoubtedly, we’re going to make many more serious mistakes as we grow, and while they’ll sting in the moment, we’re ready to learn.


2 thoughts on “What We’ve Done and Learned in Four Months

  1. Keep it up man!! Great to see you having some wins. You’re an inspiration for what’s possible in the face of so much external doubt. Let me know if i can ever help!

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