Making Something From Nothing: Sergio Suarez Jr Of Humankind Investments On How To Go From Idea To Launch
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
I wish someone told me earlier on that I need to be a better listener. You hire these talented, intelligent, creative people, and I wish someone had told me from the beginning that I should listen to them a lot more. They have great ideas. I hired them because of how great they were, so why not listen to their ideas and opinions more? I definitely value and listen to all my employees more than I did in the beginning.
As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sergio Suarez Jr.
Sergio Suarez Jr. is the founder and CEO of TackleAI. He began coding at 11 years old, and his passion for useful and industry disrupting technology led him to create successful startups and develop software applications ranging from small business analytics and security to Artificial Intelligence and Neural Networks.
He was inspired to launch TackleAI following his career as a healthcare data engineer, where document management led to lack of efficiency, decreased productivity and unnecessary costs for the organization. He recognized an opportunity to create a technological solution that could minimize the human element of document processing, and maximize the productivity of the human element elsewhere.
Using funds from his time as a professional poker player, Sergio and the development team spent years writing code in Sergio’s basement, where they originally launched TackleAI, which now uses that code as the basis for all of TackleAI’s automated data extraction capabilities.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I’m the son of Mexican immigrants, who are both entrepreneurs. It was a huge influence on me to see my father and mother working together in their businesses, which many of our family members work in now. Many of my business strategies and way that I learned how to interact with people in business came from watching my parents run their businesses. They both had their specific roles that they excelled in, but they were always honest and hardworking.
I was good at school but it really bored me, so by the time I got to high school, I lost interest in what they were teaching, and got into computers and learning to code. They didn’t teach this in school so I started learning things online, especially once video sharing sites came up, where you could get resources more easily. I went to college for a year, tried it, and it just wasn’t for me.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Steve Jobs said “The only way to do great work is to love what you do”. People talk about struggling to get out of bed to go to work in the morning, and I never feel that way. I’m excited to think about what I’m going to solve that day, and to be around these people that are so talented, and inspire me. I’ve always liked that quote because if I wasn’t in that mindset of loving what I’m doing, I don’t think TackleAI would be where it is, or I could’ve helped get it where it is today. Creativity thrives on passion, and if you’re not motivated to even get to work, you can’t be giving your all.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
It’s a toss-up between The Matrix and Good Will Hunting. When The Matrix came out, I thought the technical aspect, like the special effects they used, and the different cameras were all so cool. The story of us living in a simulation was so interesting to me because it’s something we’ve thought of in physics with simulation theory, and it kind of made me look at the world in a different way. I was raised believing certain traditional things, and this made me think that there could be alternative realities to what I perceived.
In Good Will Hunting, I enjoyed that they didn’t portray highly intelligent people as a stereotypical awkward, social outcast. This genius character was charismatic, good looking, and didn’t stick out negatively. Growing up, I always played football, so I felt like I had to either dumb myself down and play up the jock role, or not play football and really lean into my intelligence and be okay with being called a nerd. I felt like I had to fit into one of these boxes, and at the time, usually football was easier. I really connected with the character in that a genius could live a normal life, have different facets of his personality, and how going through struggles and growing up poor, his intellect got him out of things.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?
The biggest obstacle I see is that people are afraid to fail. Innovators and entrepreneurs don’t fear the failure. It takes a lot of belief in yourself. It takes ego to think that your idea is going to make a significant impact on the world, and I think there’s a tenacity and drive that’s needed that not everybody has. There’s a notion of work/life balance that people strive for, and that’s hard when starting a business. In a startup, you’re wearing every hat, and have little to no capital, and it’s stressful. Once you get your idea off the ground, it’s still hard, because you’ll have so many obstacles and struggles that can stop you and it takes special people to not see walls or obstacles and stop, but figure out how to get around them.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m sure someone’s had the idea, and someone’s attempted it, but it doesn’t mean you should stop. There are a ton of restaurants, even more specifically a ton of Indian restaurants, Mexican restaurants, Chinese restaurants, etc. Competition is healthy. A lot of times, it’s not the first person that makes it to market that succeeds, but the 2nd or 3rd person, because they’ve learned from the other’s mistakes. If you think of your Geocities and Lycos, or even Myspaces that were around, and then there’s Facebook, who was late to the party but has been the most successful. If you have the passion for it, it doesn’t matter if someone’s already come up with the idea. The chance someone has had the idea is very high. That shouldn’t stop you. Make yours better than what’s already come out.
For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
First, always start a company to hold whichever IP, or intellectual property, you’re creating. If a company holds it, ownership can’t be argued like it can be if just an individual person owns it. Second, if there are multiple people in the company make sure you have an operating agreement. You’ll be referencing that agreement many times over the course of the business. My third piece of advice is you need to structure your business as if it is going to succeed. You need to put the work in to make sure that you have the proper documentation and licenses. Some people say, “we’ll take care of it later” or “we’re only going to need that if we get big”, but when you have investors and more people involved, it becomes much more complicated to try setting these things up. The operating agreement solves so many problems later on. I can’t stress enough that the people who don’t do this have so many headaches down the road, and spend a lot more time and money trying to solve them.
I come from the world of software where we don’t tend to patent because if you publish your patent, you have to tell people how you wrote all of it, and then you’ll have to prove if someone stole it from you, which is difficult. If you’re writing software, I suggest not patenting your software. From a software perspective, focus on security, because one breach can take down the whole company. My last piece of advice is to make sure you always have your customer in mind when making your product. Make sure that it’s applicable to a wide range of people and not incredibly niche. It’s really important to put together a diverse team, so the product made suits everyone. If you don’t have a diverse team, you’ll miss perspective and viewpoints that are crucial to a product’s success.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Culture within the company, especially as it grows, is so important. You need to create a work environment where people can feel creative, innovative, and collaborate with each other. When you find the key values of your culture, you have to do your best to make sure those things are being cultivated. It’s something that takes work and attention, but it’s too important to be ignored. It’s how you retain employees, and keep people happy. As the company starts, employees will work out which values are important to their happiness in the workplace and agree upon it together.
- You’re going to spend ten times more than you think on legal. It’s too painful to give stories. But really, you’ll be spending money on legal to protect your company, and you’ll need to be thorough.
- The company is going to need you twice as much as you think they’re going to need you. You think someone won’t need you after 7pm, but you’ll get phone calls and emails at all hours. You just need to be available all the time. A lot of times if someone contacts you, they needed you at that moment to do something, so you need to help them get their task done so you’re not holding things up, or if it’s a business opportunity and they were thinking of you for something, they may move on to someone else if you’re not available.
- The quality of your investors matters way more than you think. It’s not just about raising money. I’ve been really lucky in having amazing investors at TackleAI, in that they’re easy to communicate with, they bring a lot of great ideas and resources and that’s important when starting a company. I didn’t realize how much I would lean on them for sales and introductions. Many times, these people are already really successful, and they’re great to take advice from. You’re going to spend a lot of time with your investors.
- I wish someone told me earlier on that I need to be a better listener. You hire these talented, intelligent, creative people, and I wish someone had told me from the beginning that I should listen to them a lot more. They have great ideas. I hired them because of how great they were, so why not listen to their ideas and opinions more? I definitely value and listen to all my employees more than I did in the beginning.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Number one, talk to people you respect in whatever industry you’re trying to get into and ask their opinion. Is it something that excites them, knowing it could potentially be something? Number two, figure out how you’re going to pay for it. When those things are done, start a company for your IP, then be prepared for long days and some sleepless nights. Wake up ready to do it all over again. It’ll be worth it.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
Strike out on your own. No one is going to be as passionate and care more about your product as much as you do. I believe that your company lives and dies by you, not consultants. You could be in a portfolio of inventors, where you’re one of many, and their attention is divided. You will focus and work on your company harder than anyone else. Spend money on consultants once you’re making money.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
I have a lot of thoughts on this. As a person of color, so many people have told me to bootstrap. It seems like this proud thing to push as far as you can with as little as possible, not get assistance from others, and do it completely on your own. I don’t want to struggle through that if I don’t have to. If you can get venture capital, you’re able to focus on core business, product, customers, and not worry about how to pay your employees next week. When your mind is on that, instead of the product, it’s more difficult, and the product suffers.
So many times, the people you’ve raised from have a great network and have significant resources and/or customers. Then you have helpful people around you where your success is now in their best interest. Your investors become teammates. Worrying about finances when you bootstrap is just not conducive to a healthy work environment or mental state. You start making bad decisions, because you can only worry about today’s problems, and great decisions are made when you’re planning for the future. Investors put you in a great position to grow. It’s crucial to raise money, and it’s a thing in our community that’s almost looked down upon, but so many of the successful companies that have made it to IPO have raised money in some form or another. I believe in order to give your company the chance to succeed, it needs to have money, and if it doesn’t have it, it needs to go raise it.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
TackleTheFuture.org and Necahual.org are the two main nonprofits that I focus on. I was given lots of opportunity and access to learning materials that others do not, and without that, I wouldn’t have been able to learn what I did at such a young age. The younger you learn to code, the more creativity and understanding you’ll have as you get older. It’s not impossible to learn when you’re older, but you’re tending to learn tasks, when younger people tend to think outside the box. I want to give that chance to as many children as possible. At TackleTheFuture, all children receive laptops because in underrepresented communities, many times they have one computer or laptop shared between the whole family. We’re offering coding courses for all children free of charge, including any apps, laptops or other tools they need.
Necahual Foundation is an organization founded by my parents that supports a children’s shelter in Guadalajara, Mexico, where my father is from. For over 20 years, we’ve provided shelter, clothing, food, allowances, tutoring, birthday celebrations, and now a new swimming pool. The children are taught life skills, and even job skills so that when they turn 18, they can be self-sufficient. There’s also a home shared by some of the young adults who have moved out, and now work or we help pay for them to go to college, and they pay rent and utilities on their own.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Thank you. I would say a movement to get every child involved in STEM, especially for the communities that don’t have access to all the things needed in science, tech, engineering, and math. STEM makes up the universe, and the more we understand the universe, the more progress we make as humanity, and the more we can be better as people. STEM is crucial and plays an undeniable role in the progress of people, and I wish everyone had easy access to it so they could just explore their creativity with it.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Dan Price. He raised the minimum salary of all employees to $70,000 and lowered his from $1.1M to $70,000. I met him briefly around six years ago at, I think, the Inc. 5000 party in Florida. I took a photo with him and told him that his salary idea was crazy, but that I really admired him for doing it. I said it would be really difficult getting people to stay at $70,000 because upper management wouldn’t be happy, but he built an amazing culture, and was such a great figurehead in that company that I would love to pick his brain on how he cultivated their culture, and what he does that makes him such a great leader.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Making Something From Nothing: Sergio Suarez Jr Of Humankind Investments On How To Go From Idea To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.