Inspired by working on an innovation team at a large logistics firm Ultramar in Chile, Tomás Sánchez launched his startup, Alma Suite and set his sights on the United States to test the market.
THE PATH TO CREATING AN INNOVATIVE STARTUP
Tomás and his business partner, Felipe Stange were working on new projects at Ultramar when Tomás had an epiphany. “I realized that if you want to be a truly innovative company, you need to also affect your culture,” he recalls.
So Tomás and Felipe developed an idea manager, which Tomás describes as “a platform where everyone could post their ideas, vote, and comment on each other’s ideas and a clear symbol that the company was open to discuss and try new things.”
He adds, “It was a big success, everything worked, people participated. We did a great job at that company—which ended up being rated the second most innovative company in the Chile by a ranking that is done by universities. It was a good success.”
After working on the innovation team, Tomás followed his passion for entrepreneurship and worked at a startup that led him to live in China for year. “It wasn’t successful,” he admits, “but it was a good experience.”
Tomás returned to Chile and teamed up with Felipe again.
“We were talking about innovation and knowledge management and we thought we should launch something innovative for companies. We realized the most problems companies face are usually about communication, trust, and coordination—and then collaboration, and then knowledge management, and then innovation. So we knew we needed to start a much more basic level,” says Tomás.
That’s when we the two came up with the concept for Alma Suite, which is designed to improve communication inside companies and with clients. The application combines a private social network with a straightforward task manager and includes features such as a private wiki, private messages, news, and ideas.
Tomás and Felipe started developing Alma Suite in early 2014 and launched it a year later. The startup was elected entrepreneur of the year by The Chilean Financial Times and elected the most disruptive startup by the Chilean Association of Entrepreneurs.
“In the last few years, the Chilean government has been fostering innovation,” Tomás noted. “There are different rounds of funding depending on level of your startup. And we received two, one in late 2014 and another last year.”
BRINGING THE STARTUP TO CONNECTICUT
“After being in Chile and testing that Alma Suite was a good product, we decided it made sense to go to the United States because there is a more mature market here,” explains Tomás. “In the U.S., startup companies move faster. They have a shorter sales cycle because people are used to remote sales.”
The company was looking for a strong startup ecosystem and chose Connecticut over places like Silicon Valley, Florida, and Texas. “We thought Connecticut was a good opportunity with its location between Boston and New York—and we had been accepted into the reSET accelerator,” Tomás says.
“I’ve been through the process of moving into a new country and trying to start up a business,” he notes. “When you’re launching a startup in a new country, you need to know people and you need connections. You need to refine your materials, your language, and the way you explain things—and you need to understand your customer better.”
Tomás continues, “It didn’t make sense for me to do all of that sitting in alone in a co-working space. It would be much harder than if I went through an accelerator.”
With regard to the reSET accelerator, Tomás hopes the experience will help refine the startup’s inbound marketing and sales process. “Once we refine that we’re going to be able to achieve sustainability,” says Tomás.
Alma Suite also hope to find an investor and possibly partner with a midsize company.
THE IMPORTANCE OF ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Tomás is passionate about entrepreneurship—and encouraging its growth in Chile.
“I got into startups because I believe that entrepreneurship is a massive thing that can really affect our society,” he emphasizes. “When you go to work and spend so much of your life there, you better like it. Entrepreneurship is a way to solve that feeling.”
The Chilean Association of Entrepreneurs was founded in 2011, with Tomás a part of the founding team. He is now on the board.
“I’m basically focusing on developing a new agenda to make Chile a better place for entrepreneurship and an easier place to launch a startup company—that’s one of the obstacles any entrepreneur usually has,” he relates. “We are pushing for a new public policy that is going to help foster entrepreneurship. We already made changes to accelerate the startup process,” he adds.
In true entrepreneurial form, Tomás shares that he’s always coming up with new ideas and trying new things from ski patrolling to firefighting—to fostering entrepreneurship.
He notes that discipline is the best way for him to find balance. “You need to set goals, you need to have checkpoints, and you need to have some rules for your behavior,” he advises.
“For example, I put time into the Chilean Association for Entrepreneurs. But it’s volunteer. It’s a specific number of hours a week. And I don’t do more than that. Otherwise, I will be neglecting Alma. I do the same thing with sports. I enjoy them, but I set a certain amount of hours every week. It’s been the same with different startups I’ve worked at.”
In addition to self-discipline, Tomás emphasizes the importance of having mentors or coaches.
“One thing I’ve learned is don’t be afraid to go and ask for advice,” he encourages. “You can ask questions to find out whether or not you have a good idea and then you can start drawing a better picture of what you should be doing.”
Tomás also stresses the importance of building a network—especially as an international startup coming into a new country.
“When you’re building a business, everything is about trust. And when no one knows you, you need to build up a network,” he says. “Back in Chile, people have heard of me; over here it’s different, so that’s an extra challenge.”
Brand competition is also on Tomás’ radar. He notes that with advances in digital communication, it’s easier to reach a broader market. However, he warns, “You’re still competing against big players. So even though you may have a terrific product you still have to compete with the brand awareness budget of big players.”
His advice? Find a niche.
“You have to be smart enough to find a little place in the market where you can slip in. Be innovative and use a channel no one else is using,” he suggests.
MAKING WORK WORK
Digital communications have changed society and our social system, notes Tomás—and businesses need adapt to those changes.
“The societal changes affect our mind frame about how we see things. Our social system has changed completely. And one of the institutions affected by that is work,” he believes. “The way work was designed and conceived responds to the reality we had 100 years ago. Not to the reality we have now. So that’s an extra challenge society and companies are facing.”
According to Tomás, that challenge also affects work ethic.
“You want to attract the best talent and make people feel fulfilled at work. You also want employees to stay and be proactive and deliver things,” he emphasizes. “To do that, you need to adapt to what society is today. And companies are not doing that.”
“These challenge are what we try to tackle with Alma Suite,” Tomás explains. “We’re not solving every challenge, but I think we are the tip of the iceberg. Our clients are companies that are willing to organize their conversations in different ways—willing to be more open and willing to manage things in a more efficient and organized way.”
The approach focuses on interaction.
According to Tomás, “It’s not about the size of a team. It’s not the seniority or the levels of studies. It’s not anything else. It’s interaction—you make people interact with each other and you’re going to have a high-performance teams. That interaction is also a crucial element when you’re talking about happiness,” Tomás adds.
“The most important thing for assuring happiness is human relationships,” he emphasizes. “It’s the same thing with work. Interaction is the common factor between performance and happiness.”
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