Carlos Paniagua: “Take risks that won’t kill you. But take risks!”

Carlos is the CTO and Co-Founder of Glia – a digital customer service platform that allows consumers to interact with their choice of messaging, video, or even voice. Glia has offices in Tartu, Tallinn and New York, they grew by more than 150% in 2020, and at the beginning of January, they raised $78 million in Series C funding! Furthermore, Carlos is an alumnus of the University of Tartu, where he got his master’s degree in software engineering.
This interview was conducted by Maarja Karlson, a member of the sTARTUp Day Marketing & PR team.

How did you become an entrepreneur – was it something that happened naturally or was it a well-deliberated decision?

I want to say a little bit of both. I've always had the ability and urge to focus all my attention and energy on solving problems that interest me... And later on, when I went to college, I naturally started implementing ideas with friends as small businesses. Back then, the idea of a startup wasn't even a mainstream concept yet. We experimented with different ideas, some of them didn’t work out.

Later on, when presented with an opportunity, I kind of knew that entrepreneuring was something I wanted to do. I like solving interesting problems, and having the space to experiment, not knowing the solution, and discovering what I needed to learn to solve it. It has been exciting. Being able to work with people who are very smart and passionate was and still is an amazing additional plus. So I kind of accidentally walked into it, although I always liked doing things on my own. And when I got lucky enough to find a group of people with similar values with whom I could do business at this scale, it really was a no-brainer for me to take it.

Explain to a child what Glia does.

We are helping businesses to communicate, support, and engage in conversation with their customers digitally. The same way you'd normally speak with friends and family. You use WhatsApp, Messenger – it's the default way of communication, but typically you cannot do that with your bank or your insurance company. With these services, the experience is different, but it shouldn’t be. We are providing a solution that allows you to talk to your bank, doctor, or the government with the same level of quality you have when talking to your friends and family.

What are the questions to ask yourself to find out what you want to do in life?

That’s a difficult question. What worked for me was the understanding that you have a limited amount of time, energy, and brainpower that you can use. Ask yourself if what you're doing right now is the best way you can spend that time, energy, and resources. Obviously, throughout your life, you have different levels of time and energy. But always question if this is the best way of spending resources with these people, doing these things.

Another thing is to have a small narrative in different timeframes that you can use as a North Star. For example, you can say that by the end of the week, month, or year you would love to accomplish this and that. So you can have these different stories that you will tell your friends and family about. And then ask if the way you're spending your time and brainpower is helping you make that narrative a reality or not.
I think, as humans, we love stories. That's how we learn and how we communicate best.
So creating a narrative that you will feel excited about will help to reach the goal. For example, you could set a goal: I want to read three books by the end of the month. Is that exciting? Not so much. A narrative could be: I want to hang out with my friends and tell them about these cool books that I'm reading – that’s more engaging. It is a story that you want to make a reality versus something more trivial like I want to read books. It’s kind of the same, but you look at it from a different angle. Basically, by selling it to yourself, you are more likely to accomplish it.

What is your biggest fear as an entrepreneur? How do you cope with it?

Right now, it is the well-being of our team. With all that’s happening with Covid, working from home and all that. I wouldn’t say it’s a fear, but this is the biggest concern that I have. I want to make sure that everyone feels safe and is as healthy as possible. And not only the mental and physical health of my team but their families as well. I am trying to be more mindful of it and create the conditions for everyone in the team to be safe and healthy.

Another one would be how to accelerate our hiring and onboarding in today’s remote environment. We have been successful in hiring and onboarding new Glianeers remotely, this year we need to continue being effective in adding new members to our teams and accelerate. Good thing is that our teams in the US and Estonia are being proactive about it.

Every company has its own ways of dealing with Covid and working from home. How did you at Glia approach it?

Our People Ops Manager created a task force, which we called the "Antibodies". It’s a group of people from different offices who come together to express their concerns and share their ideas. That way, they are co-creating the policies and the steps we take to make sure everybody is safe and comfortable. It is a collaborative process, and it aligns perfectly with the values of the company. We have four values: collaborate, challenge, master, and persevere. That is one of the reasons we created this task force – so we can collaboratively keep everybody safe and healthy.

Another one is, creating a sense of community. We have organized online events locally and globally. It creates the opportunity for people, who usually wouldn’t hang out, to be connected and have the place and moment to share and get to know each other. People from Estonia are getting to know people from the US and I think that’s very cool. Teams are empowered to hang out and to organize online events if they want to. For example, one of the teams went to a virtual escape room – a great way to create that sense of community in today’s world. You can still feel connected to other people and know that there is someone else on the other side of the Zoom call who is part of your team.

In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?

One belief is related to one of the values of the company – Persevere. This journey with my co-founders has been a rollercoaster with many ups and downs. One day things are going well, and the next maybe not so good. But Perseverance and always looking at every situation presented in the form of a problem from a different angle – these are the beliefs that have improved my life.
You have to kind of flip the situation and look at it as an opportunity. This, combined with a strong sense of trust that what we are doing, is worthwhile.
As a founder, there’s always a fire burning somewhere, and you need to decide how you deal with it. And which fires are more important than others. If you don't look at it from the positive side, from the this-is-an-opportunity side, it can be overwhelming. We have a strong team and strong internal values as the two most powerful weapons to weather any storm.

How do you motivate yourself to look at the problems as opportunities?

I am leading the engineering side of the organization. Every failure and every problem really is a learning opportunity. I think one of the tricks is to make mistakes that are not fatal. Take risks that won’t kill you. But take risks.

If you try something new, and it doesn’t work, that's okay. You can sit down, look at it and understand what happened – you are still alive and can learn from the experience. Looking at it as an opportunity that gives information, can later be used to make better decisions. Because failure and problem-solving are going to be there even if you don’t look for them. How you deal with these situations has a huge impact on your mental health and how creative you can be when solving them. If you look at them as opportunities, your brain is like – okay, this has a solution, let's look for it! And that permeates to your team as well. If you follow this mindset, other people can jump on the train as well.

Another habit that has helped me a lot is following a strict routine of going to sleep and waking up at the same time every day. The job that we are doing is very creative, and if you are not well-rested, your performance diminishes significantly. Staying in a routine and having the same sleeping hours can be very impactful.

Especially, when you are working from home, and it’s all mixed up.

Exactly. With Covid, I feel like the work schedule has changed for everyone. What works for somebody doesn’t have to work for you necessarily. We have tried to encourage people to be themselves. Because this is a marathon, not a sprint. It is a long game, and we shouldn’t wear ourselves out too soon. So I’m not going to tell my team when to rest or when not to – we are all adults. But we have to be communicative and say how we feel, I try to be proactive in asking that as well. I encourage my team to take their time to recharge.

Author: Rasaa Etten

The road to success is usually with ups and downs. During your road to success, were there moments where you thought that you were going to fail, and this whole thing wouldn't take off?

Of course, there have been difficult times. One day things are going great, the next day something happens, you have an incident, and clients are upset. Having a set of strong values helps a lot to get through difficult times. You can use the values as North Stars, as a compass to help to make the right decisions, to communicate them, and to go through difficult times. And you need to hold on to the knowledge that you have a good team and you believe in your vision strongly and passionately.

Tell me something you are learning right now.

I’m trying to learn Estonian. I’ve been living here for quite some time. Kind of a shame that I’m not speaking Estonian yet. But I want to continue building Glia in Estonia. We are expanding our team quite a lot. And learning a language to connect with the local people will help to continue making progress personally and professionally. It’s not an easy language, though. Last year I completed the A2 level, and this year I started the B1, but I was told it’s going to take time. So, I am slowly working on it.

If you had one superpower as an entrepreneur, what would it be and why?

There are two, and I’m not sure which one is the best. One is discipline – it helps a lot in terms of schedule and processes. The other one is making trade-offs. It is difficult. When making a decision, you need to weigh the upsides and downsides, and then you have to make a call. More often than not, you are going to make a mistake. So the power of making trade-offs soundly and safely would be helpful. I think both would be great.

Why is now the time for Glia to exist?

Right now, we are more relevant than ever before because our generation expects to be able to communicate in the simplest way possible. You want to tap twice and connect with someone. You have so many digital options: social media, email, website, apps. You also have a phone, a tablet, and a computer – you have so many options to talk to friends and family. Those tools are setting the standards and expectations of how good communication feels. And sadly, that's not the case for when you want to buy something or talk to your bank or make a reservation somewhere.

Recent events in the world are making businesses realize that we cannot rely on technology from the 50s, 60s, 70s. When people had to go and work from home, they needed digital ways and digital channels of communication to continue their business and continue helping their customers. It is an opportunity for businesses to move onto a digital platform to provide a truly great digital customer service experience.
And we want to be THE digital customer service that everybody expects to have. We want to set that bar of communication quality for everybody.
The same way Zoom is now everywhere because people needed it to meet. And people need Glia to be able to continue with their businesses. That’s why we are more relevant than ever before. From my perspective, of course.

What makes you excited about the future?

Well, I'm really excited because we are growing quite a lot. We recently closed a new round of investment. Given that businesses realize how much they need us or platforms like ours, we want to grow and capture the market. That's very exciting because it opens so many opportunities for the company and everybody in the team. New roles are created rapidly at Glia, and people are taking more responsibilities and growing into new roles. We are going to welcome a lot of new people into the team.

We want to continue growing in Estonia, and that's very very exciting. I’m kind of excited to be able to travel again as well – It would be nice to take a plane for a change in a long while. But professionally, the growth opportunities that we have in our hands make me very excited. I’m confident that we have the right team and the technology. It is the right time for us to continue growing and to really have a presence in Estonia!

Hero of the Week is a column focused on inspirational entrepreneurial people around us – their journeys, success stories and lessons learned from failures, goals, inspiration and everything in between. Get inspired and be the Hero of your own life!

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