The Debt that (almost) all startups pay

João Vazao Vasques
The Startup
Published in
6 min readAug 5, 2015


Life is made of chapters and “everything that has a begining has an end”. At the time I’m writing this, I have closed an important chapter of my life: my first startup. In other words, it failed. I failed.

Since I was very young I always liked to build things. I think I was 6 when I went with my grandfather to the train factory he managed. Despite all the big trains and electricty stuff (which I loved), what really impressed me was his passion and how other people respected him. It was that day that, without even being aware, I decided to become an entrepreneur and build something to make him proud.

In September 2013 I quit my job on a top startup in Lisbon, UniPlaces. It was not an easy decision because I made some good friends and really enjoyed working there. However, I felt it was time to jump off a cliff and try to build a plane on the way down. In other words, start a company. I thought I was ready to face everything ahead of me but I was wrong.

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master” — Ernest Hemingway

In theory, I was on a good position to start a company: I was familiar with the Lean Startup methodology, having won the first Lean Startup Machine 2012 in Lisbon; had worked in a startup before (UniPlaces) and was a good software engineer. All these factors made me think that I would not make some mistakes first time founders do. Without even realizing, I was underestimating the challenges that were in front of me. How could I possibly have thought about this? What was I thinking? Looking back this was probably the biggest mistake I made.

Lesson #1: Be humble and never underestimate anything.

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately” — Benjamin Franklin

When we started Wazza, my co-founder was still doing his thesis. I understood how important finishing it was for him, so I gave him time to end it. Due to this, we didn’t work together physically most of the time. I thought I could handle most of work but I was not prepared for an unexpected “guest” — loneliness. I had already experienced it during my master thesis at some point but this time it was a lot more intense. The early days of starting a company are complete chaos and full of doubt. I was lucky to be in Startup Lisboa, a top incubator in Lisbon where I could chat with fellow founders but it was not the same thing. Countless times I felt lost and with no idea were to go next, what to try or not. It was like sailing on the sea on a fishing boat, during a storm, without a compass. Got the picture?

When starting a company it is crucial for founders to work side by side every day. When creating something new, you will feel and be lonely most of the time. Don’t underestimate it like I did.

Lesson #2: The path is darker and lonelier that you think.

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen” ― Winston Churchill

In May 2014, we got accepted in Lisbon Challenge — a top european accelerator program promoted by Beta-i. It was a great experienced where we met other startups, amazing people and tested various aspects of our business model. It was hard work but fun, as life should be. We didn’t ranked well at the end I didn’t analyse it as I should. It was a clear sign we weren’t going in the right direction. However, I was confident that we were going to find a way to succeed. Meanwhile, I got hit by a car and survived. Don’t ask me how, I’m still trying to figure it out.

Lesson #3: Talk less and listen more.

“He who has a why to live can bear almost any how” — Friedrich Nietzsche

After almost losing my life in that accident I started to look at things differently. Suddenly, I started looking for a purpose in everything I did and the same applied to my startup. The problem was: I couldn’t see our purpose, our mission. All great companies have a clear mission that they want to see in this world. Think about PayPal, Facebook, Apple, SpaceX, Skype for example. Each and everyone had a big clear mission in order to change a part of this world and they did it. A company without a mission is like a boat without a compass. I realized this after a one week trip on San Francisco and Silicon Valley. It was another sign that we weren’t going the right way.

Lesson #4: Have a clear mission.

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is to not stop questioning” — Albert Einstein

Nothing was bad though! In September 2014 we got the news that we had won the Vienna Startup award. This award was a project of Pioneers and Vienna Business Agency where they selected two startups from all over the world to come to Vienna and expand their business. We were excited of course, winning is always good! On the months before going to Vienna, I realized we were struggling to sell our payment analytics product to the customer segment we had identified (mobile app developers). Due to this, we agreed that Vienna would be the live or die. In other words, either we get traction and start closing customer or we close the company.

In Vienna we got outstanding support from the Pioneers and Vienna Business Agency. They helped us by opening doors to a new bigger customer segment (payment providers and banks), making introductions to key contacts and giving us relevant feedback and suggestions. Between hundreds of emails and countless meetings I began to see that there was no positive evolution: no one was jumping at us and saying “I need that, I’m going to buy it!”. The time for a decision was coming: continue or close.

Lesson #5: Passion is the fuel. Method is the map.

“If you’re hurt, lick your wounds and get up again. If you’ve given your absolute best, it’s time to move forward” — Richard Branson

After coming back to Lisbon I was clear to me that we hadn’t accomplished our objectives. I had to put my passion and emotion aside and see things in a very objective and analytical way. It was the end of line for Wazza. We had a good product but no clear evidence that things would be better in the future. The way was right in front of us: close the company. Like all big choices in life this was a hard one to make, due to all the history and work I’ve put into it. However, sometimes you need to leave your emotions aside and have the humility and courage to do what is necessary. It hurts but it makes you stronger than you could possibly imagine. True winners are not the ones who never fall but those who fall and rise, again and again.

Lesson #6: It will hurt you more than you think

“Our greatest glory is not never falling, but rising every time we fall” — Confucius

Founding Wazza was a great experience. I met so many brilliant people, learned so much, in so many different areas that, in spite of the company not achieving the success I had hoped, I won more than I lost. I want to thank everyone that helped me along this path.

For now, I am taking a little break to rest, refocus and think about what I’m going to do next. I’ve fallen this time, but I will rise again wiser and stronger.

Lesson #7: It’s all about the people


#1: Be humble and never underestimate anything.

#2: The path is darker and lonelier that you think.

#3: Talk less and listen more.

#4: Have a clear mission.

#5: Passion is the fuel. Method is the map.

#6: It will hurt you more than you think

#7: It’s all about the people

Bonus lesson

#8: Don’t get hit by a fu***** car! :)



João Vazao Vasques
The Startup

Blockchain Analytics @Chainlink | Alumni of: @Unbabel, @talkdesk, @Uniplaces |1x startup founder| Taekwondo black belt