Fred OIiveira brings Silicon Valley entrepreneurial culture to Portugal
As a computer science student at a leading university, Fred Oliveira could have gotten a job with a major technology company anywhere in the world. Google awarded him a prize in 2005 for participating in open-source projects. Fred was a hot commodity and firms wanted to swoop him up. But he didn’t want to go that route…
As an early blogger and participant in the open source movement, Fred wanted to do his own thing and be an instigator behind something that was much bigger. That much bigger was TechCrunch. Back in the early days of blogging – 2004 and 2005 – Fred was interacting online with other early bloggers, including Michael Arrington, TechCrunch founder.
In September 2011, Fred wrote a great blog post on Helloform about the early days with TechCrunch. Fred remembers how he sent Mike an email criticizing his blog (which was the first iteration of TechCrunch). Mike liked Fred’s ideas and the way he thought. Fred ended up first designing the new site, watching it take off and then flying from Portugal for a job, where he helped make TechCrunch what it became, including its exit to AOL last year.
The job included sharing an apartment with Mike in what became known as TechCrunch HQ or Mike’s place. And that immersion into Silicon Valley entrepreneurship changed Fred’s life forever.
Fred couldn’t stay in the US full-time because of immigration issues so he spent the next few years flying back and forth. While building TechCrunch (and also working on another Mike company, Edgeio), Fred also built his own startup in Portugal, Webreakstuff, which is a product think tank.
Fred’s been successful at that too, building the company with no outside investment to the point where they can use the profits of the company to spin out other companies. Their latest project is Bling.io. When I ask him about the name, Fred laughs and says, “My co-founders and I are pros when it comes to stupid names!”
Why is Fred back in Portugal? With TechCrunch sold, Fred is back in Coimbra, where he went to university. While the US immigration issues are very real, Fred had another motive for returning. He wanted to import some entrepreneurial culture to his country: “I thought it was a good idea to do something in my own country for some noble reason – which is why some call me an idiot. Lots of people here [in Portugal] think that I threw a big opportunity out the window.”
I guess Fred has the wrong kind of friends! But wait; Fred’s been really successful. Probably more so than his friends. It’s righteous for him to want to do something impactful in his own country. And it is going to take someone like Fred (some people like Fred) to really make a difference there. Portugal is such a small country that a couple of Freds might be all that it needs. Anyway, I digress. Back to the story…
Fred is 28 right now. It’s been six years now since startups have been his life. Fred also speaks at conferences around the world, plus he invests in other startups and mentors entrepreneurs. Fred is all about entrepreneurship. And even though he tells me that he is “kind of burnt out on the whole entrepreneurship thing,” he gets excited when he starts talking about what is next: “I have been thinking a lot about my choices. I know that I could do a lot for Portugal. I know that if I asked a few friends, we could bring funding here. I know the YCombinator incubator model could be successful here. And someone has to do this. Maybe it’s me?”
Fred’s thoughts on Portugal. Fred has read my New Venturist post about Portugal. That’s how we got in touch. He tells me, “It’s really tough, here in Portugal. For Webreakstuff, we have built three products – two were successful and one we are building now. But we could have done so much more someplace else. I believe that there could be a great upside to doing things here. But, I am not the same person that I was six years ago. I am not naïve. I know that I could raise more money and get to where I want to go faster if I move my company to Silicon Valley.”
Fred is critical of the Portuguese entrepreneurial ecosystem: “Portugal is not giving me or people like me enough support – they don’t really understand it or how important entrepreneurship is,” he concludes.
Fred notes that the economic crisis only hit young people fairly recently. In general, Fred knows that people are unsure about doing their own thing. He expounds, “I believe that you are basically born into entrepreneurship. Some will become entrepreneurs out of necessity. But most become that out of passion.” Fred knows that it is worthwhile to mentor potential entrepreneurs. And he knows that this kind of assistance is rare in Portugal.
Entrepreneurship and academia. Fred is frustrated that in Portugal he sees academia as preparing students for consulting firms and not entrepreneurial ventures: “They don’t have success cases for entrepreneurship in the universities here.” He tells me that people know that this is a problem – that the country needs graduating students to think entrepreneurially – but not enough change is happening quickly enough.
“If there is one thing that I really believe it is that academia doesn’t prepare anyone for the reality of the future. I was an average student in terms of grades – not bad, not good – but the funny thing is because of the things that I have done, not studied, I have had hundreds of times more offers and opportunities than others have had coming from the same place.” Of course, Portugal is not the only place that this occurs…
Cluster of entrepreneurs. So, if academia is not conducive to entrepreneurship, where are all of these entrepreneurs coming from? Fred is a product of Prof. Mário Zenha-Rela‘s lab (computer science at Coimbra, see my blog post about Mário and his company, Dognædis). So is Sérgio Santos and his startup, Bundlr. So is Francisco, CEO of Dognædis. These and other startups are hiring the best of other CS students as soon as they graduate (before the consulting companies get to them). And I foresee that other startups will be created from newly minted CS students that see the path others have taken. Clearly, Prof. Mário, you are doing something right!
Fred tells me that it is this cluster of a growing entrepreneurial community that is why he and others stay: “Deep down we all have a will to make it happen and succeed here in Portugal.”
About Webreakstuff. The origins of the company begin with a lot of offers that Fred received to do consulting, programming and design when he flew in from CA. He and three others teamed up: “We set up a company and built web apps for companies to reach a global audience. Webreakstuff evolved into an idea incubator because we built products for and in startups.”
Their clients are big names. Fred tells one story of getting an email at the end of 2006 from Bell Canada, the country’s biggest ISP: “They wanted us to build a real estate portal – like Trulia.com. We designed and built it, they sold it, and we all made money.” Since then Webreakstuff has done projects with Sequoia Capital, TechCrunch, MTV and others.
In addition to making products for others, Webreakstuff has incubated its own ideas and built products, such as GoPlan, an online project management solution.
The company has been profitable since its first week and has garnered a goodly amount of publicity.
About Bling.io. Although Bling.io has not been spun out yet, pending the decision of moving it to CA or not, Fred and his partners consider it their new startup which is infusing energy and challenge into their lives.
In eight words, Fred tells me that Bling is, “Like Twitter for the things that you buy.” He gives me an example, “I buy a lot of books and frequently when I buy a book I take a photo and upload it to Facebook so that my friends can see what I bought and act on that. Bling is a timeline for the things that you buy.”
For the user it’s a vehicle to see what your friends are interested in, what they are buying, establishing and maintaining a wish list. But, down the line, it can become an immensely valuable database of what you (and others) are buying and when and how many.
During its private beta, Bling had about 1,000 users – Fred tells me that they are really passionate users. Bling is establishing a database of products and where they are bought and for how much: “Bling enables us to see trends based on where people are buying from. Early data allows us to see how Apple compares to Android in terms of real people buying actual phones. How many people in a particular region prefer an iPhone to an Android, or where is it cheaper to buy an iPhone?”
This is a hot space right now. Fred believes, “The relationship between shopping, online and social is not that explored yet. We’re at a good time for this.” And the Bling app launched today!
Fred, it’s not just Portugal that needs you and people like you. The world needs your guts, your spirit, your perseverance to do something bigger than the usual. Whether you stay in Portugal or go to California, you will be successful!