1 Year Travelling in Southeast Asia After Building My First Tech Startup (Part 1)

I want to say before we move on that this is an article of opinion, not intending to represent anyone’s vision of the events reported besides my own.

The year was 2014, I had my first job as a Chief Technology Officer in a company I helped build from the ground up, my own house near the beach, a car and money to give me the life I couldn’t dream on having by the age of 27.

Don’t take me wrong, I was not rich or anything remotely near that, but I had enough to live the life I wanted without thinking too much about it. One day I decided to leave it all behind and move to Southeast Asia for one year. This is the story of how I it all happened.

Let’s start from the beginning.

My phone rings. A guy called Miguel Pinto (which later I found out was the Co-founder of the PHP Portuguese community) invites me for an interview in a coffee shop outside of the city. I was doing freelance since November 2011, after almost two years building e-commerce shops for some of the biggest corporations in Portugal. That call was the best thing that ever happened to me in weeks.

The plan was simple: build a tech center in my hometown, Porto, to support the global expansion of a german company called Rocket Internet in Asia and Africa. For that they needed me to develop e-commerce shops and aggressively build and lead teams of software engineers to support it. I had no idea if the company really existed, never hired or lead anyone before and wasn’t nowhere near of imagining what founding a company really meant. With my hands shaking I signed the contract and shook Miguel’s hand.

The table! Our first office!

After putting the founding team of 7 engineers together, we spent the first two weeks hunting for an office space and planning all the logistics from a coffee table near the beach. By the mid of February 2012 was finally time to take off to Berlin and learn everything about our first project during one month in Rocket Internet headquarters!

First months of cold, sweat and tears

We arrived to a freezing cold Berlin and very soon realised it would be a very long and painful month. Fighting through 1 meter of snow we got to the office on our first day, hoping to meet everyone and get introduced to the components of the proprietary e-commerce system. Instead, we got 1 hour of training — half in english, half in german — and immediately were asked to configure our development environments and get the first tickets assigned.

The first 3 engineers of what is now known as Porto Tech Center, having canned food for dinner!

Man, that was hard and emotionally exhausting. The weeks that followed are still a big blur in my mind, in a mist of bug fixing, interviews, meetings, canned food and lack of sleep. I’ve never been in the army, but imagine that’s how basic combat training for new recruits must look like.

From an office room with no windows and a hatch in the ceiling where some crows would show up to eat from time to time, we started our first project with a big big overwhelming feeling that everything would end before it actually starts.

It was called Bamarang, an e-commerce platform specialised in daily discounted flash sales of designer home products. Like many other Rocket ventures that went down the same path, Bamarang closed 4 months later in June 2012 after a strategic move from its main shareholders, to consolidate all efforts under the main business Westwing.

Our first office in Berlin!

On the last days in Berlin we finally got our contracts signed and the first paycheck for potentially some of the hardest weeks of our lives, fighting every day to prove we deserved to run the tech center back home.

Growth beyond our imagination

The business model was very simple: hire software engineers, allocate all of them to one of the projects and charge to each company a fee on top of their salaries. With the money that was left we would pay the bills and Rocket Internet initial investment.

What we didn’t knew was that we had to do all of that in a few months with dozens of people hired! From the initial plan of getting 20 engineers on board, spread around 3 projects at a time, we went on a hiring spree (some weeks had between 5 and 10 interviews per day) and grew to more than 100 engineers in the first 6 months!

Our first shared office space!

Our weeks started in welcoming the new hires every Monday, get their initial training done and put them on a plane to Berlin for their 2 week bootcamp by Wednesday! In the meantime we had to come back to our desks, support dozens of Managing Directors in charge of Bamarang’s 13 countries, hire the engineers that would start the month after, lead the ones we already had and try our best to keep our shit together.

Very soon the shared office space was not enough to fit everyone so it was time to pack and move to our new location. We took initially two floors of an insurance company office building across the street, which we later expanded to a total of 4 floors!

This insane growth was a very big hit in the rather virgin tech startup scene in Portugal, so it immediately caught the media’s attention. One fine summer day a reporter of the Portuguese national television (RTP) joined our standup.

Our work during the upcoming months consisted in building the MVPfor new e-commerce platforms, put a team together to support the go to market and initial growth, hire on-site engineers for each one of the companies, handover the entire system by the end of the first year, and… keep the peace.

All hands on deck for quality

After the first year of operations, it was time to take a step back and re-think our strategy. Although achieving the amazing mark of less than 10% of turnover after the first year, the growth pains started to had serious consequences and we were not 7 mercenaries with a license to kill anymore.

A strong effort to improve the quality of our software started, together with all the security and scalability initiatives across the dozens of companies we supported by then. A great part of this was having each of the remaining members of the founding team to focus on one project at a time.

Kiomi homepage

By this time, Zalando decided to add to their portfolio two new fashion brands in partnership with us, a project heavily based on high performance frontends consuming APIs from the backend systems in Berlin. That’s how Emeza and Kiomi were born.

This was by far the most amazing team I worked with in the tech center, doing the impossible under very challenging situations, second guessed at every corner and still delivering the finest software craftsmanship money could buy. Kudos to you guys! Check out all of them below, many still the best friends one can have.

Emeza and Kiomi family, would go to war with you all any day of the week!

At the same time many other projects were striving to succeed in emerging markets, with our engineers delivering rapid growth without compromising on the scalability of the platform. A few success stories are:

  • Lazada, the online marketplace in Southeast Asia, probably the biggest success story and recently acquired by Alibaba in a $1 Billion deal. It was born in the tech center in June 2012 from 3 different codebases in very bad shape.
  • Foodpanda, the second project we started in 2012, now available in 34 countries all over Europe, Asia, Africa and Middle East and recently (Dec 2016) acquired by Delivery Hero.
  • OMS, the order management system supporting e-commerce operations across all emerging markets, resulted from an outstanding engineering work and is now processing hundreds of thousands of orders every day.

My first job as CTO

By September 2013, I was invited by Rocket’s senior management to be the Chief Technology Officer of the flagship project Jumia.com, an amazon like online retail marketplace, live in 8 African countries.

Jumia Nigeria homepage, the biggest country in the group

I took over after a period of intense product development that brought very interesting challenges in performance and scalability. The most urgent to tackle was the low conversion rate, highly caused by the ~14s of page load time on one of our biggest markets (if you want to learn a bit more of what this means for an e-commerce company checkout the article below about a case study with Amazon).

Considering we were serving customer facing applications in Africa from datacenters in Europe, a good part of that number was also caused by the network infrastructure in the continent.

However, my biggest challenge at the time was to rebuild the trust with Jumia’s senior management and get a communication plan in place between the multiple stakeholders around two continents.

This effort took almost 80% of my day in very long e-mail threads and angry phone calls, but after the first 3 months were passed, I was able to:

  • Buy the time the team needed to prepare Jumia’s software to scale by implementing a temporary feature freeze.
  • Start developing a new highly scalable e-commerce platform based on a more recent version of the system.
  • Implement new software development processes with Scrum and Kanban that increased in ~30% the teams efficiency.
  • Migrate our entire infrastructure to a new data center to process the millions of page views/month.
  • Re-structure the team of 30 engineers and middle management.
  • Keep the current platform running without burning anyone out.
  • Improve the conversion rate and cut the page load in half for all the group websites.
  • Stay healthy and continue having a personal life.

One of the office pranks during my first days as Jumia CTO

The acquisition

By the beginning of 2014, we went through a due diligence that resulted in the sale of the tech center to one of Rocket Internet holdings, Africa Internet Group, based in Paris. This represented a moment in the company that we never expected to see only after two years of operations.

The confidence AIG placed on us was the result of the outstanding effort and endless days of launches, merges and scaling that all the teams pulled off, and for being part of that I’ll always be thankful.

That being said, it was the end of a cycle for me and time to experience new businesses models and cultures, giving up on the comfort zone and finally hearing that nomad voice calling for me all those years. Nevertheless, leaving the company that was my home (sometimes literally) for almost three years was probably the hardest and most painful decision I ever had to make.

Looking back from a distance, I would have done everything exactly in the same way, with the same people. There was a massive amount of learning and some of the relationships we’ve built will for sure last a lifetime.

Can’t start to explain how proud I feel in knowing that the perseverance of 7 guys fighting everyday to keep calm and carry on created so many jobs, countless friendships, gave birth to a few babies and happy marriages, makes every piece of it worth it.

What remained of the initial founding team during our second christmas dinner

Next Step: Southeast Asia!

For a man that spent all his life living within 5 square kilometres of his birthplace, traveling can be as much mysterious and wonderful as it is scary. Since I was a kid Asia always called for me, in every movie, inside every book, in all the cartoons and drawings. Finally now I had the money, opportunity and stability to jump head first and leave everything behind.

Between two bottles of Monte Velho and the most amazing sea food in the world (if you don’t love Portugal, you clearly didn’t travel long enough) the decision was made. Luckily I had one of the strongest women I know as my girlfriend, which not only supported me but shared my insanity.

After find new jobs, sell our entire life belongings (except the books!) and kiss our mothers, we bought the plane tickets for the day immediately after our last working day. Destination: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Hope you had as much fun reading it as I had writing it. Time doesn’t spare memories and this is one of those that I’m not prepared to let fade away.

Statistics of this article:

  • 18h of writing over 3 days
  • 4 coffee mugs
  • 2 bottles of wine
  • 1 gin tonic
 

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