Lessons From the Immigrant Hustle: Alex Robbio
Belatrix Software is made up of 3 partners who are connected by a very familiar bond: they are father and sons. Each has their individual stories, but those stories come together in creating the foundations of one of the fastest growing companies in the Latin American software industry.
What’s your name, company name, and title?
My name is Alex Robbio and I am the President and Co-Founder of Belatrix Software, a fast-growing software development company.
Which country did you emigrate from?
I emigrated from my home country of Argentina to the US in 2001. Just recently, I moved from the US to Spain in August 2018.
Why did you or your family decide to immigrate?
It is a long story but put simply — During the early 2000s in Argentina, there were limited job opportunities due to the financial crisis which had hit the country. At the time, I was working in sales and could see how the economic crisis was making it harder and harder to sell. I also had an old car at the time, which was constantly breaking down as I went to visit clients or prospects. Emigrating to the US was a recurring topic of discussion for my wife and I, and was something that in the end we decided to do quite quickly.
What was the most difficult thing you faced when you arrived?
When I arrived in the US, I had very few connections and a strong accent. At first, it was difficult to find work. We had moved together as a family with our young daughter, so it was important to find any kind of work to support our family.
I also had to learn to look at my profile from the cultural point of view of potential employers. One of the things that I started to do was to use the name Alex instead Alejandro. Just that small change in my e-mail address and resume increased the number of interviews I was able to line up by a significant factor.
The other challenge was dealing with the U.S. immigration system. It’s very complex and is a hefty investment compared to most other places I am familiar with. For example, friends of mind that emigrated to Europe or Canada with similar backgrounds to mine had become fully-fledged citizens by the time I was still dealing with H1B visas, green card applications, etc.
What was your very first job?
When my family and I moved, we had less than $1K US which I spent on buying an old minivan. I needed to generate an income quickly so my wife and I cleaned a Target for a few weeks and then we found other jobs — at a call center and restaurant.
Why did you choose to become an entrepreneur?
My parents were my biggest support system — they encouraged my brother and I in experimenting with setting up businesses at very young ages. For example, in Argentina we had a small business buying computers from the US and importing them into Argentina. I also built a small insurance-focused software company together with a partner, but we had no idea about marketing. It was ultimately a failure. So while growing up, entrepreneurism was always something we had spoken about and experimented with.
In addition, it was a mixture of fortunes that actually led to the creation of Belatrix Software. I spotted an opportunity with the company I was working for at the time in the US; they were looking for some technically-minded individuals. Using my connections back home, and together with my brother and father who were still in Argentina, we were able to help the company — this became the start of Belatrix. So, my employer actually became our first client, which is an unusual situation!
How did you raise the money necessary to launch your business? (e.g. did you find an investor? Did you borrow from the bank? Did you save money by working a 9 to 5? Please tell us your story).
We have always been fully bootstrapped as we never took any outside investments, nor were we able to obtain financing. It took us 15 years before we were able to apply for bank loans. The challenge with service companies like Belatrix, is that they have almost no collateral and their assets are its talent base, know-how, and customers. Financing through factoring is also not viable in a low-margin business where you might forfeit 50% of your profit by factoring invoices.
The company founders, including myself, were not paid a yearly salary from the company for a long time. We had other lines of business as well as other jobs that subsidized the business as we started.
We also had to get creative. As I mentioned we asked our first engineers to bring their own computers, which would have been a huge expense for us, after a few months we were able to start buying our own equipment.
What was the most difficult thing you faced when you first started your business?
The hardest thing we faced was having no resources and no capital. We had to be extremely resourceful. For example, before we had our first client visit the office, I remember asking people to loan us their plants so it would not look so barren! We always joke that we invented the idea of ‘Bring Your Own Device’ because we didn’t have any funds for PCs. Also, we had to convince our first developers to bring their own computers. In time, however, not taking outside investment enabled us to make long-term strategic decisions and grow at a pace that was right for us.
Why do you think you have been successful?
I sometimes have to pinch myself when I see how far we´ve come from just a few years ago when we had no employees, no capital, and no resources. We now have over 650 employees across the US, Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Spain. We provide software development services to some of the best-known companies in the world. I believe this success has come from having a vision and a belief, but also from partnering and learning from people with technical and entrepreneurial expertise.
In the beginning, we had some good years and then some bad years — there was no structure to ensure continued growth. What helped us get past this was when we joined Endeavor, an entrepreneurial organization that selects and then supports “high impact entrepreneurs.” Various experts at Endeavor helped us identify the weaknesses in our business — whether in sales, services, accounting — and ultimately helped us create a stronger, fitter company. One of their key recommendations was building a sustainable company where the founders would not be the bottleneck. This is quite common in companies with no outside funding, and thus we had to build out a strong management team and a superb board of advisors who are able to help us identify our limitations and blind spots.
What advice do you have for newly arrived immigrants that want to pursue the path of entrepreneurship?
There are always opportunities available, but it’s important to get people around you excited about your idea. It’s hard work building a business, and you need to create a team you trust as soon as possible. Secondly, don’t underestimate the importance of having strong financial controls and information. I’d recommend hiring a CFO as soon as possible when you are in the $5M to $10M in annual revenue, if not earlier. At that size, a good CFO can pay for him/herself through improvements in cash flow, financing, etc., which allows the entrepreneur to focus on the core of the business.