Growing a unicorn: Rappi’s pain

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Growing a unicorn: Rappi’s pain

My sister is two years younger than me. When she was a teenager she had a lot of pain in her knees, elbows, and hips. She was growing so much.

When I was a teenager I was the shortest of the group. I started growing when I hit 16 and grew 15 cm in one year. That's more than one centimeter per month. The difference between my sister and me was that I didn't have any pain.

I was lucky, she was unlucky. I wouldn't know the number of people who have pain from growing up. But that's another discussion, but I’ve seen growing pains elsewhere.

I've seen companies grow from 60 employees to 500. I've seen companies die when hitting four employees. I´ve seen ideas become companies over beers. I´ve seen a lot of the stages of company growth and I know that growing hurts.

Rappi was the first Colombian unicorn and I got lucky to come into Rappi when it was a team of about 60 people in size. Soon after they went through YC. They were growing fast and everyone was so excited about it. I was so lucky that I got to work reporting to the CEO, pretty much as his assistant. I got to see the whole company from thousands of miles up. I had the liberty to dive into any of the teams that I wanted to scrutinize. Proper reporting was one of the hardest parts. Everyone knew what they had to do and they had constant meetings with the CEO. But not all the information came in, and if it came in it might have been distorted by people's opinions.

It was very hard keeping up with everybody and everybody had a hard time keeping up even with their own teams. It got worse as we grew and added more teams. We also added more people to each team and we needed more floors to fit desks.

Empty office

Rappi tried fixing this with different systems. Weekly OKRs, dashboards over the database, Slack (actually two Slacks), splitting teams into different floors so there was a person from every team everywhere, and overcrowding desks. Everything failed. I moved to the Product team to lead a distributed developer crew, in Colombia, Japan, and India. I noticed that the easiest way to communicate was with something that was already in people's workflow. Using Google Drive.

Rappi Headquarters

We had our email on Google and uploaded everything there. It has versioning, sharing capabilities, real-time communications, it was perfect. We got moving fast again by commenting docs, connecting tables, and sharing files.

But with a caveat: it needed a person doing it. Labor is cheap in Colombia (the minimum wage sits around 250 USD) so we got into the headcount game. Yet, that's unsustainable. Everyone needs health, parking, a desk, etc. That also got out of control. Teams moved to their own workflow. We at Product moved to Sketch and Zeplin, Development moved to Jira and Bitbucket and we were back to silos.

After I left Rappi, I went back to university full-time. Then a Shark Tank Colombia startup called me. It was Car B. They wanted to remake their app from the ground up, as they were using a premade one that had fallen short. It was a wild time, so I called two good friends that committed to only part-timing. It was all well until one of them decided to take a small trip to Japan, “only for three months.” I was back at my situation at Rappi, full asynchronous work.

We communicated sparingly through WhatsApp. We also kept a doc with all the tasks on Google Sheets. He marked his time to get paid, and I added to his work through there, it was great but it was pretty manual. We also kept an API doc (think of it as how to get info for the app from the database) in a separate system. We often forgot to update it whenever our data schema changed. He would run into issues in the middle of the night here, and could not get help until the next day. By then it would be the middle of the night for him. It was a nightmare, but we worked through it and released roughly on schedule. Some piece of advice here: know your co-founders. We left that company after a pretty big fight that almost got to the point of lawyers.

Later, still in university, I had become a Jack-of-all-trades. I was almost graduating but hadn't found my place in the world, so once again I let my network pull me into greatness. A small startup that had been recently accepted into Rockstart accelerator needed a developer.

I started working for Linked AI on Christmas, and we got a platform to tag images for AI going in about a month. During that time we communicated on a WhatsApp group. In the end, there were only three of us so everything was communicated openly, directly, and instantly.

Young people in San Francisco

It was great. And then, the honeymoon was over. We moved offices and were more open to remote work. Sales meant that our CEO was out of the office a good deal of the time. She was out of the conversations we held at the office. Then the team started growing, which also strained further the communication as we had to coordinate more. I felt back at Rappi. I invested in the company as an angel and left on good terms.

Once again, I had grown but felt something was amiss.

My first friend ever contacted me. She wanted to launch a huge solution for all agrifood woes in Colombia. She needed someone that understood tech.

After inviting me over for breakfast, then lunch, and a couple of days later for gin, I was sold. CurubaTech came to be. I was appointed CEO as I was the most experienced in the startup world.

This was the chance to get everything right. We started using Google Drive for everything, even if we worked in chairs next to each other. We wrote everything down. We had a pretty neat file sorting system, code was well organized, and we went to face the world.

It was a total failure. Our system paralyzed us, we had so many subfolders we were losing sight of what was important. We wrote everything down so it took a lot of time. Versioning was not transparent so we had several almost identical copies of files. It was a different kind of a mess.

We failed because we took too much time preparing, fundraising wasn't successful. Clients were too expensive to attain. As with Rappi, what works best is something already in the workflow.

Again, I had grown and the same thing was amiss. Order seemed chaotic.

I decided to find a big company to figure out its secrets. I got a job as a Frontend Lead at Symplifica, a company backed by one of the richest families in Colombia.

There were already 50+ employees. They had steady sales, they had celebrated their fourth birthday, stability was obvious.

When I started I enjoyed looking at their processes, they were well defined, not too hard to keep. They managed to create value, but like at Rappi, they had people to keep the process going. It was tiresome. I had to report to the CTO and the PMs. Sometimes I had to give up development time for maintenance of the documents, as everything was in a detailed Google Sheet. I wished and wished for a magic solution, searched online frantically, and gave up trying to fix it. I decided to go with it.

That’s when Esteban Vargas asked me to meet him, along with his co-founder, Juan Sanmiguel. I had invested in their previous company and knew they were killing the operation, so I was curious. They told me that they were killing SafeTalpa to go into the business of Knowledge Management.

Call it serendipity, luck, mystical forces, fate, but I was on board the second they asked me to join them. After brainstorming, we wanted to name ourselves Gutemberg. Like the guy that invented the printing press. But there are tons of things that use that name, and competition would be fierce. We went to Wikipedia and decided on Fust. Like the moneylender that kickstarted Gutemberg’s press business.

Since COVID made Symplifica downsize I’ve been working hard on Fust’s app. We wanna kickstart businesses all over the world. By helping them keep their information updated. We know growing hurts and adding people to the team to do that is not always feasible, and can be automated.

We started with integrating on Google Drive as it is one of the world’s most used information management systems. While alerting changes on email as it is already on everyone’s workflow.

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