Foreign entrepreneurial expansion continues to rise as the startup ecosystem becomes more mature. But without the proper investor relations, companies from “the outside” have a tough time going global. Even companies with a great product and excellent leadership can struggle to push their product outside their homeland if they aren’t making the right connections.
Pipefy, for example, was founded in 2015 by Alessio Alionço, a former mergers and acquisitions consultant. He had experienced frustration with the inflexibility, poor user experience and cost of the tools available for ensuring process execution while combining the business operations of two companies. This exasperation awakened his desire to create a solution to manage business processes and automation effortlessly. Although Pipefy is rapidly growing and now used in over 150 countries, it needed the right kind of push to get there.
Lee Jacobs, a San Francisco-based entrepreneur, runs Edelweiss.vc., a group of Angel investors concentrated on helping companies thrive. Previously a partner at AngelList, he has dedicated himself to empowering entrepreneurs to build successful businesses, assisting them with fundraising strategies, business development, sales and coaching founders, and is a Pipefy Board member. Lee wrote in depth about investing in Pipefy and foreign entrepreneurs generally here.
Although Jacobs already had experience working with foreign entrepreneurs, he didn’t know anything about workflow when he met Pipefy’s Brazilian Founder and CEO back in 2015.
“I was a little skeptical when I had my first meeting with Alessio Alionço,” Jacobs said. “Enterprise software investments and workflow were things I hadn’t invested in yet.”
Early on in their discussion, Alionço revealed more than 60 thousand companies were already using Pipefy, a lean software process management platform born in Brazil’s eighth largest city—Curitiba.
“I was shocked the company had already gotten so far with so few resources” Jacobs admitted.
He was also captivated by Alionço’s determination and vigor. After all, this man had figured out how to access the Silicon Valley network despite countless barriers.
“I think back to how impressive it was that he just showed up in San Francisco from Curitiba, when at the time, he didn’t know English well, and now he’s on the path to Pipefy becoming a big company,” Jacobs said. “It’s hard to get into the Silicon Valley game without connections. But there he was, sitting in San Francisco— not Rio de Janeiro, not São Paulo or Curitiba, but San Francisco.”
That’s where the importance of the relationship between foreign entrepreneurs and foreign investors comes to play. Building a network in Silicon Valley is very difficult for most foreign entrepreneurs.
“Some are easy to dismiss someone who doesn’t speak English well, but it was important to me to see through this,” Jacobs said. “So much early-stage investing is based on relationships. Once, I invested my job was to lend him credibility, and he had to learn to overcome barriers and the fact that he wasn’t well connected. We started building a network methodically and worked on establishing his credibility with the right people in Silicon Valley.”
Jacobs said being a foreign entrepreneur usually requires a huge mindset shift.
“The mentality and the culture of entrepreneurs from countries tend to be more conservative,” he said. “You have to realize that some of these countries haven’t been economically and politically stable for long, so they still have a ‘play it safe’ tendency. These entrepreneurs tend to focus on their domestic market, this focus and the lack of available local of capital can lead people to think smaller.”
Thinking smaller doesn’t work on a global scale, though. Luckily, Alionço never thought small.
“Just because you came from Curitiba, doesn’t mean you can’t think big,” Jacobs said. “Alessio thought focusing on Brazil was like focusing only on the minor leagues and he wanted to come to play for the major leagues (the global software market). There were huge obstacles to overcome, but he welcomed them.”
Step by step, Alionço was making the rounds to gain the momentum he needed to attract those valuable connections.
“He has leveraged relationships, for example, with early-stage venture capital firm Trinity Ventures, to get some great people,” Jacobs said. “I spent time introducing him at important events so he could start getting a reputation.”
Jacobs said he knew there was something special about Pipefy and its energy when he received a video clip of the Curitiba office one afternoon.
“When Pipefy got to one million APR, I was sent this Facebook message… It was a video of people watching a screen, going silent and then absolute mayhem. They were partying, going nuts. It was as if Brazil had won the World Cup.”
At Pipefy, the entire team was so dedicated to hitting that APR milestone they were able to dwell in and enjoy that moment. That’s because Pipefy employees don’t just have a job; they have a career. The mindset is that they are working together toward a joint mission—to become a major company with a Curitiba backbone.
“I just recognized there was something different about Curitiba, and I knew others would be able to see it, too,” Jacobs said.
He encouraged investors to come out to Brazil to experience the heart that he knew was in the Pipefy office. Jacobs wanted them to feel the palpable energy and understand that the entire company was genuinely striving to make Pipefy a big business.
“Of course, board members came and saw what I was talking about,” he said. “Pipefy has done a great job of treating employees well. They are friendly, team-oriented and care about each other and the chance to be a part of making Pipefy a big company. There is also an extra dedication to continued learning.”
Jacobs also attributes Alionço’s success with the effort he put in Pipefy’s early days.
“He has always done a great job hiring super smart and passionate people,” Jacobs said. “Brazilians are passionate people, and this cultural component lends well to developing leaders in the business.”
Alionço certainly reflects that willingness to keep going, no matter what. In fact, two years ago, Alionço decided to go surfing with an executive candidate he sincerely hoped to land. The candidate in question had many other job offers on the table, but Alionço was confident he could persuade the prospective professional to join forces. Although Alionço had tons of surfing experience, he ran into some bad luck out on the waves. He broke his ankle during the excursion.
“The thing was, Shik Sundar [Pipefy’s current VP of Sales] was very impressed by how calm Alessio was during the accident,” Jacobs said. “Alessio was already back on Slack giving directions from the hospital bed to his team before his surgery. That tough and composed mentality, along with a great Curitiba experience, got him his candidate.”
Alionço adopted the honey badger as the symbol of Pipefy’s culture, stating that honey badgers are fearless, driven and focused on reaching their goals, never taking ‘no’ for an answer, and not letting anything or anyone stop them.This metaphor encompasses both Alionço himself and all Pipefy employees.
“Alessio has time and time again impressed me with his grit as he takes on challenges,” Jacobs said. “His spirit is inspiring, yielding a company culture that others want to become part of.”
The culture has maintained intact, despite massive growth.
Of course, moving to the United States is a risk, and starting a business is a huge one. Founders must push the boundaries of their comfort zones, but Jacobs believes that immigrants can make some of the best entrepreneurs because they don’t take things for granted.
“I love working with passionate, fearless and scrappy startups,” Jacobs said.
Pipefy has proven to be just that.