Hi José! You’re Head of Partnerships at Infraspeak. Tell us a little bit about your professional background so far.
It all started in 1998, so it’s been a while! (laughs)
I started out as a consultant for a company that did process reengineering. The idea was simple; you’d visit a customer, run an analysis on all existing processes and identify redundancies that would allow time saving, usually through the implementation of digital systems and simpler processes. Then, we’d make an offer and if approved, we’d have a 5 of 6 months long project implementing the suggested measures. I gained a lot of experience from it because it allowed me, throughout a few years, to contact more than 50 companies in various sectors such as manufacturing or service providers. It was extremely useful to understand how companies worked and to learn which problems were common to all of them.
Then the world became digital. In 2003, I started leading the commercial team for a dutch company that developed website templates which, for the time, was particularly innovative and shortly after came the first company I ever founded, at the time with my father. It built 3D models of cities, much like Google Earth, which didn’t exist at the time. The idea was to build a 3D version of the Yellow Pages; a user would search for a company and then ‘fly’ to its facilities and gain access to its surroundings, the inside of the building through 360º photos and find out what that company offered through digital catalogues. It was a very innovative and interesting concept, maybe even too advanced for its time as it asked a little too much from graphic cards and internet connections. We launched a few cities in Portugal: Funchal, Lisbon, Marvão, and gained over 500 customers. The problem was that Google Earth came along and offered all of this for free, so there went our business model.
After a while I changed the scenery and moved to Angola. I was there for 4 years, on and off, working on consultancy projects with Sonangol, central and local Governments. It was very much similar to what I did at the start of my career: analyse processes, discover redundancies and implement plans of actions to make organisations more efficient.
And then came B-Guest?
Exactly. At some point, I became a little fed up with the whole travelling back and forth and since I always had a passion for the hospitality industry and stayed at many hotels, I identified some key needs. I would ask myself, as a guest, why wasn’t there a fully digital platform, like an app, that allowed guests to request room service, restaurant, spa and other services without having to go through staff members. This happened in 2012 and 2013, when platforms like Uber or Opentable and other apps, that allowed users to purchase services online easily, were starting to come up. That’s when B-Guest happened. The project started around 2013, gained traction in 2014 and in 2015, after placing second at Lisbon Challenge, raised 600,000€ in funding from Portugal Ventures, followed by 400,000€ more in 2016 and 2017. We reached more than 300 customers but then we had to change our model a little since guests wouldn’t use the application that much, regardless of the number of initiatives we launched. In 2017 we focused on developing a check-in process that was completely digital as well as integrations with all the main hotel management software.
Finally, we had a product that would generate value for our customers but since we needed additional funding to grow, we checked the market for options. At the start of 2018, we had the chance to sell B-Guest to Nonius. Nonius is a very large company and the biggest player in hospitality technology in Portugal, with a sizable operation abroad. For that reason, we found it to be a good opportunity and it meant we could take another step forward, gain additional clients and a bigger capacity for product development. I was with Nonius for one year until I thought I needed a new challenge.
At this time, I met with a few people including Felipe (Felipe Ávila da Costa, CEO), whom I knew since 2017, around the time we created the Hotel-Up consortium. This contact happened exactly around the time Infraspeak was looking for someone to structure and develop an international network of commercial partners, to sustain their international expansion.
Happy coincidence, they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse and today, here I am, 1 year after joining Infraspeak and extremely happy for being part of this amazing team!
There’s a clear pattern of entrepreneurship in your career so far. How important was that to you and what attracts you the most in the process?
I’ve always liked to have autonomy and to be able to do things the way I want and whenever I want to. Obviously, according to the macro guidelines we set and while being responsible for the results that brings. I enjoy working based on goals, not being ‘stuck’ to schedules, places or too dependent on third party instructions. That’s why I think my preference for entrepreneurship was born with me. I’m indifferent to whether the project is mine or not. I believe you can be an entrepreneur for companies where you’re not the CEO. My family also had a few businesses of their own so I think that stems a little from that as well.
One of the things I really like about Infraspeak, beyond the challenge itself, is the autonomy it allows me. The freedom to work the way I feel like and the pressure to achieve results. That’s something I enjoy quite a lot.
Overall, I feel work-life balance is extremely important to me. Even though I enjoy working in smaller, innovative projects that usually take a lot of your time and energy, I value my personal life a lot. There has to be a balance between what I do professionally and all my other activities. I’m definitely not a workaholic. The autonomy I gain from Infraspeak allows me to reach that balance so I know I’m in the right place.
You mentioned your other activities. Tell us about them. A little bird told us that you enjoyed surfing but I think they were judging the book by the cover!
Actually, a lot of people ask me if I surf but no, I don’t! (laughs) It might be due to the way I dress, I’m not sure.
I started playing tennis when I was 9 and I played competitive for 5 years. I was number 4 when I was 12 and number 2 in pairs but I gave it up when I turned 14. While I was practicing 5 hours a day, my friends were at the beach and having fun. I couldn’t resist it, even though I regretted it years later.
Ultimately I turned to other things. I tried rowing and football. When I was 30, I went back to tennis and did 3 more years competitively. Today, I go to the gym as often as I can and I padel occasionally. It’s not tennis, but it’s the closest I have right now. Physical activity is extremely important for my physical and mental well being.
I’m also a pretty competitive person but when I played tennis, I used to get a little too nervous before tournaments. I think that’s still a factor today every time I have to somehow put myself out there. However, when I get in the zone, there’s this positive adrenaline that usually brings out the best in me so I think being a little nervous can be positive.
Besides that, I love cinema, watching series and listening to music but above all, today my biggest passion is to travel! And eating, of course! (laughs)
That passion for travelling brings us to what you do at Infraspeak, namely, partnerships. When you deal with customers or partners from other countries, are cultural differences a big challenge? How do you get around that?
Most of the partners I’ve spoken to so far are in Africa and in South America so we’re talking about very distinct cultures.
When it comes to Africa, they’re typically partners that are a little behind to their European counterparts so there are plenty of opportunities. Usually, the people I deal with are extremely available with a slower pace and almost all partners or people we negotiate with have been very upfront when doing business. That’s something I like a lot.
In South America things have been a little bit more complicated and challenging. There’s less availability and it’s harder to catch people’s attention. Scheduled meetings get cancelled or nobody turns up and it requires a lot more flexibility on our part when it comes to negotiations. However, it’s a market with huge potential. Much like Africa, South America is in a lower state of evolution when it comes to infrastructures when compared to Europe and this always leads to new business opportunities.
To establish a new partnership, we usually go one of two ways. The easiest one is through inbound marketing, meaning companies find us and contact us through our website or social media. Usually, inbound leads come from smaller partners without much of a fit to work with us. On the other hand, our outbound marketing has been pretty successful. We defined some of our priority markets on the short term and with the help from AICEP, we’ve been contacting some potential partners. AICEP identifies some of the local companies with the right profile to be our partners, they introduce us and then it’s up to us.
When that happens, we usually end up talking to much larger companies with a different structure and a higher degree of professionalism so cultural differences aren’t as noticeable. At the end of the day, cultural differences are not what stop us from establishing new partnerships.
What about plans for the future? Is there any specific part of the world we’re going after?
Yes. This year our goal was to focus on Poland, Mexico and Colombia but COVID made everything move slowly. We hope that until the end of the year, we can establish new partnerships in these markets.
Our priority was to start with markets that were less mature in terms of maintenance software and where companies still rely on Excel sheets and paper, allowing a much easier market penetration. However, in those cases, you also need to educate the market on why they need to implement these solutions, which takes effort from our part. Take the United Kingdom where most companies already use some form of CMMS. When you talk to a customer, there’s an immediate perception of what they want and need. It’s a very mature market. In less evolved ones, there’s less competition and more opportunities so when it comes to partnerships, we’ve chosen to go for markets with good economic indicators.
Beyond these 3 markets, there are also a few other interesting countries for us in Europe. In 2021 we want to focus on two additional European countries and start setting foot in Asia, where we’re already speaking to potential partners in Hong Kong and Macao. I think those are the main geographical areas that will see Infraspeak partnerships sooner.
Finally, how does a Head of Partnerships, who needs to constantly travel, handles a pandemic that sends everyone to quarantine?
Based on my previous work experience and the fact that I live in Lisbon, not Porto, where our offices are, I’m already pretty used to remote working. In fact, this is how I enjoy working the most.
However, when it comes to partnerships, it’s much different to negotiate face to face than it is to do it remotely. A lot of companies were forced to adapt to a new way of working due to the pandemic which in turn, changed people’s mindsets and made them more available to negotiate remotely. It’s not the same but what we’re planning to do in the 3 markets I mentioned is to have a first approach remotely, a triage of sorts. Then, once we select one, two, three partners, take a trip to those markets for a final selection and to sign off on a new partnerships.
Regardless, I think travelling as a whole will change, even after a vaccine and once it’s safe to travel again. We’ve established new habits and travelling will go down. Another thing I’ve noticed with remote working is that we’re a lot more demanding with ourselves now. I find myself having six, seven, nine calls per day. There were some weeks where I’d finished work completely exhausted and with so much work left to do. We can’t forget that we need time to prepare each call and to follow it up after. It’s impossible to just talk all the time! (laughs)
The strategy I found in these last weeks was to block two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon for administrative work because I wasn’t being able to handle it all. It was a major adjustment I had to do during these times of quarantine.
José is Head of Partnerships and New Markets at Infraspeak and this week’s guest on Inside Infraspeak. Thank you, José!