How did WeLivv get started?
I launched my first company Acena really young. I actually dropped out of college to do it. To be honest, I don’t think my parents had any great expectations — I remember them telling me to go back to school after it hadn’t worked out after just a month or two. Of course, I didn’t have any experience with startups, but I took my $500 to start the company and gave it all of my energy to make sure it wasn’t a failure. After 11 years, I sold Acena and immediately launched my second startup: an ecommerce company in the home goods space. It was through that second company that WeLivv was eventually born.
After selling your company, what motivated you to jump back in the game as a founder?
I actually didn’t take a break between companies. I went from closing the sale one day to signing a lease for the next start up the next day.
I gained a lot of experience from that first company. Over the course of 11 years, we grew to have 70+ employees in offices in New York and Manila. When I sold the company, I sold it for what felt like a lot at the time. I was only in my mid- to late-20s and it felt like a big deal. I guess my goal was also far more conservative than what I have today for WeLivv; I was trying to build a profitable business and being able to sell was more than I could have hoped for.
How did you cope with being a first-time founder at 18 or 19 years old?
In part because I was running a 24x7 company, initially all alone, things were a bit crazy. I started by convincing a family friend to be my first customer. I remember they began outsourcing calls to me on a Friday afternoon and immediately started forwarding their calls for me to manage. It didn’t occur to me immediately that they weren’t going back to the office until Monday, so all of the customer service calls for the weekend fell on my shoulders. That remained the case as we added new clients; someone needed to be ready for the calls 24/7.
So I just simply didn’t sleep. I remember having to buy extra phones with loud ringers. I slept on the floor with my head surrounded by phones, almost like a halo, so I could jump up and answer an incoming call. I even had a cordless phone I’d keep by the shower (which was routinely interrupted). I realized this was not sustainable, but I kept at it until we had the right amount of revenue to get employees to cover the night shift and until we staffed the phones 24 hours a day.
Any key takeaways or lessons did you gain from that experience?
I laugh when I say this, but there’s often a big difference between reality and first-time founders’ expectations in terms of cost and time frames. I was actually talking to an investor about this not too long ago. The investor asked me if I would have done anything different if I had known what exactly it would have taken to build the current business (such as money, time, mental stress, etc). My answer was simple:
I probably wouldn’t have done it. It simply wouldn't have seemed doable.
We figured difficult things out one at a time over and over. But knowing all of the difficulties we would have faced in advance could have made it seem impossible. Knowing that you aren’t going to have it all figured out upfront is healthy.
When I first started, I had a big, master plan and so each step felt in conflict with my plan and expectations. This weighed heavily on me and it constantly felt like I was failing, even when I was making process. Now, I have a general long-term plan and north star, but I stay hyper-focused on short-term objectives: what’s getting done this quarter, etc. This lets me be much more flexible and able to predict what’s going to happen along the way. The agility you gain when you aren’t fixed on a specific path can prevent founders from feeling like they are getting it wrong over and over again, and that better enables them to go the distance.
Has anything surprised you when launching WeLivv?
The big surprise was the magnitude of the opportunity.
WeLivv was actually meant to be a part of a prior company, but as we tested the model, we realized the opportunity for this new system was far greater than we had anticipated. We realized we had thousands of designers and sourced millions of project images in a way that uniquely positioned us to tag the products within each image at the SKU level. So we developed a model that would completely redesign the online search and shopping user experience. We tested the idea as much as possible (given the technology at the time), all with the purpose of proving this new model. We were building something to challenge the Amazons and Googles of the world and to change the status quo. It took about a year and a half and we were losing a lot of money at the company. I found myself digging deeper and deeper into a financial hole, but we eventually proved the model. To jump from trying to build a profitable company to realizing you can do this better than the leaders is a big realization, and that was a surprise to us.
What’s your relationship with the risk?
Honestly, I can’t imagine doing this for the first time in the position I’m in now personally, specifically having a home, a wife, kids, and putting them all on the line with all of the uncertainty that comes with building a startup from scratch.
When I started my first company, an old friend of mine — Pete Giokas — asked me where I found the guts to do this. I remember thinking “what guts?” I wasn’t getting a lot out of school, I had a dead-end job, I was living at home, so at the time, there was nothing on the line. It wasn’t much later in my career when I had a family depending on me, that I realized how much founders put on the line. Luckily, I’ve gained enough experience to be confident to make the decisions I need to, even when there’s risk involved.
I’ve also been constantly told that we were trying to do something that was impossible and that would absolutely fail. This is from close friends and people I admire and trust.
We take risks every day and sometimes it doesn’t work out, but even the things that don't work out, they are not necessarily the end of anything.
What do you think is the most important skill for a founder to have or to gain?
Mastering your mindset and emotional state. Your resilience is the most important thing. Specific skills — sales, marketing, etc — all of that is easier to do and learn than managing yourself throughout extended periods of uncertainty, setback and doubt.
What is your superpower?
Resilience. The ability to keep going no matter what. I try to see the silver lining in every situation.
In a way, failure is what got us here. We were losing money because of acquisition costs, web traffic was down due to a Google algorithm change — we were on the path from bad to worse. This made us take a step back and think of a better way to do this, which ultimately helped us discover what became the basis for WeLivv which we believe can enable us to be a dominant player in the market.
What’s your kryptonite?
Should I call my wife? ;)
It’s related to my strength — as founders, we think we can do it all and we are wrong...a lot. We take on more than we are able to handle and can spread thin at the expense of getting something done.
Outside of work, do you have any other hobbies/things you like to do?
My life right now is all about work and youth soccer. The little time I have outside of work is focused on trying to be at every one of my kids’ soccer games. It can be busy — my oldest plays in 4 different leagues (and has even played in Europe).
Describe your team culture
There are nine of us currently on the team. The original three — one of which is my brother — have been working together for over 15 years so we very much are family (2 of us literally are). As we grow, we are carrying through this culture of friends and family. It’s been natural and automatic so far, and is something I particularly enjoy.
Are you a gadget person? Anything you use in your daily life that you can’t live without?
A bit. I’m a big Apple guy and I can’t live without the newest piece of tech, so I’ll be getting the iPhone 11 as soon as it comes out.
I also have this new robotic video camera, the Soloshot3, that follows my son around while on the soccer field. It auto-records the game and self edits to capture highlights.
What’s your advice to aspiring founders?
Keep your runway as long as possible. There will always be setbacks and if there's runway you can always keep going. Constantly extend it or make sure it is as long as it can be.
Oh, and have fun.