An Interview with Xavier Anguera, CTO & Co-founder at ELSA
Founded by Vu Van and Xavier Anguera, ELSA is an A.I.-assisted language learning platform that teaches people how to pronounce and effectively communicate in English. With its Headquarters in San Francisco, the startup has built several hubs around the world — one of them in Lisbon, where the CTO Xavier Anguera is based. With him, we discussed the company’s distributed model, Lisbon’s tech scene, and the future of work.
BRIDGE IN: First, let’s talk about ELSA — how did you meet the other co-founder? How did the company evolve from its creation and what are your plans for the near future?
Xavier — “We met at a technical conference: l came from Barcelona to Lisbon in early 2015; I was building my own company and I felt I was lacking the power of sales — I don’t really enjoy that part, what I love is the technical part. Probably for that reason my company was not doing very well. At some point, I decided to look out for alternatives, and the one thing I wanted — aside obviously from doing something that is related to my background in speech processing — was to be able to live in Lisbon. Mostly for personal reasons, I love the place.
At that time, in 2015, there were not so many companies that would have agreed on having somebody working for them remotely. When I met Vu, the project was at its first stages — she showed me the prototype and I gave some feedback, which got the conversation going… she was basically looking for the one technical co-founder. It was a random encounter: she came from the US to this conference in Germany, specifically looking for a technical cofounder and that is how we met.
I told her I would be working from Lisbon and she agreed straight away. However, at one point my team began to grow so we needed to have a formal company here in Portugal to be able to keep hiring. It was only me at the beginning, sharing the office with Unbabel. Then Unbabel moved out because they grew a lot but I stayed there and brought in the very first employee in my team. A few months later we were 5 and we didn’t fit in that small office anymore so we moved and kept moving as the team kept growing. At the moment we have moved 4 times already!
BRIDGE IN: ELSA has a very interesting distributed model. You have your headquarters in San Francisco but also some hubs in Lisbon, Vietnam and India.
Xavier — “We have offices in San Francisco, Lisbon, India, and Vietnam. Additionally, we employ several people remotely. It depends a lot on the profile: if you are looking for a junior backend developer, you can probably find them anywhere; if you are looking for senior-level professionals things change. You may be able to find that person in the same location as you, and that is perfect. Sometimes though, the right profile may be located elsewhere and the choice is between forcing them to relocate or simply allowing them to work remotely.
There are definitely advantages in being located in the same office — when you have a doubt you simply raise your hand and somebody will come up to you to brainstorm. However, if you don’t want to limit your talent search to your area, you have to allow people to work remotely and equip the team with tools that allow them to do so. For example, we use Slack and Zoom a lot and this allows us to be perfectly functioning, although time zone differences can be challenging.”
BRIDGE IN: I recently saw that you are hiring a Country Manager for Japan. What’s behind this “distributed” strategy? Why did you pick these locations?
Xavier — “This is mainly about impact. We chose the places where we could best serve the community and where there was a more pressing need for our services. Our first hub was in Vietnam, where our CEO is from, which meant having easier access to partnerships, PR, etc… We developed this hub pretty quickly and the team there is very large. Once we had Vietnam up and running, we tried to replicate the model in other Countries: we hired Country Managers to research the specific location’s needs and start building local partnerships. For example, our Country Manager in India brought a very famous cricket player on board as an ambassador. That motivates a lot of our potential customer base — as you know cricket is in India what football is in Portugal so you can imagine.
We have then put a lot of effort into Asia — India, Vietnam, Thailand, and Japan. In Japan, the situation is very similar to Vietnam, in the sense that users are very clever, young professionals who want to succeed in the business world. They read a lot and generally consume a lot of content in English so they’re listening and reading skills are impressive, while pronunciation and speaking skills are far behind. That is where an app like ELSA can help — we teach pronunciation, intonation, and communication skills.
We now have a Country Manager in Brazil too. This is a nice story — all of a sudden we saw we had many users from Brazil downloading the app, but we had done nothing to nurture that market so we decided it was the time to actively develop operations in Brazil too.
As per Lisbon, that was mainly because of me! The Co-Founder knew nothing about Lisbon so she came and I took her to see the City center, Sintra… she loved it of course!”
BRIDGE IN: You have lived and worked in many different Countries, what drew you to Lisbon? From a tech founder’s perspective, what are your thoughts about setting up a company in Lisbon?
Xavier — “When I came to Lisbon from Barcelona I still had my first startup based in Spain, so I had zero experience with Portuguese labor law and bureaucracy. What we did with ELSA was, we established the company with the help of a law firm that wasn’t even specialized in tech startups so we had some funny conversations at the beginning, with me and my co-founder trying to understand what would be the best way to incorporate the startup here.
We finally made it and we were lucky enough to find a very good accountant. From there it is relatively simple — you just follow the rules, and we discovered many of them! I have to say some of these rules can potentially scare companies away: it is true that Portugal is becoming this vibrant tech hub but from a labor perspective, if you are a North American startup — and I lived it myself — it is so hard when you interview people that you like and want to hire right away but it is not possible due to all the steps you and the employee need to follow. In California, you just need to give a one-day notice to leave and move on to your next challenge while here contracts are more binding. It is a difficult compromise where the tech sector is dynamic by definition so regulations need to be flexible enough not to scare American companies away, but you also still want to protect workers.
I think bureaucracy was the only obstacle we met — Portugal has a great talent pool, the place is fantastic, the cost of living is lower than in other European countries… “
(VC investor Yannick Oswald recently gave us his view on the Portuguese ecosystem in an interview here).
BRIDGE IN: Let’s now dig into the question that everyone is asking: what do you think about remote work, will it really be the future of work as many say?
Xavier — “I think remote work is a state of mind — it doesn’t work for everyone. In ELSA’s case, we have a hybrid model although the pandemic has obliged us and everybody else to be fully remote.
A hybrid model such as ours also comes with some challenges. For example, at the office, you have conversations, interactions and brainstorms that people who are not there physically will miss. There has to be an extra effort in documenting everything so that you don’t have any unbalance between WFH employees and office-based ones. Time zones are also a sensitive topic: if you have a project where employees from different time zones are working on, there has to be an efficiency plan where people do not get stuck for hours waiting for their colleague’s information or piece of work. On the contrary, if you learn how to manage it very well, it can be very efficient because you can have around-the-clock development.
With regard to fully remote companies, I think the interesting thing is that you can actually hire the talent you need. The success of the organization will then depend on how well you can manage efficiency issues.”
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Originally published at https://www.bridgein.pt on August 26, 2020.