Seeing opportunity within life’s obstacles, Colombian-American entrepreneur and investor Andrés Barreto says the key to entrepreneurial success is following your passion and finding a problem you’ll stop at nothing to solve. Known as the “Latin Mark Zuckerberg,” Barreto’s favorite music class, of all things, inspired the launch of his first startup, Grooveshark. With several successful endeavors under his belt (PulsoSocial, Onswipe) Barreto continues to stay motivated by picking projects that inspire him.
TIG: What do you think of your reputation as the Latin Mark Zuckerberg? What words would you use to define yourself?
Andrés Barreto: “The words that I use to define myself are serial entrepreneur and seed investor to companies. The comparison is not even fair. I wish I had the impact Mark Zuckerberg has and definitely the money he does. But, what I find interesting, is that this has been the analogy used in the press and the media in order to introduce a new character to Latin America – not just the soccer player, the telenovela actor, the politician. And that’s the role of the entrepreneur. So, if in order to explain what an entrepreneur is, they need to make the reference to Mark Zuckerberg, I’m all for it! As long as it becomes common knowledge in Latin American culture that being an entrepreneur doesn’t equate to being unemployed, but rather that it’s a valid career choice, just like being a lawyer or being a doctor.”
TIG: Tell us a little about one of your first major projects, co-founding Grooveshark, how old were you during that process? What inspired you to work on that project and see it through?
Andrés Barreto: “So, I was 18 years old and when we started, we were students. All of our team members were students. All of our employees were students. There was a point where there were only interns. We learned how to code, how to sell, how to design. We learned how to do accounting, finance and law, like everything, while building the company. This was experience, not only for me as a founder, but also for our team members. Even though they started as interns, they eventually became executives of the company and today they’re very successful, working in other companies. They all had this experience, not because of what they learned in school, but rather because of what they did outside of it. That’s what gave them the competitive advantage over other people.”
TIG: Could you tell us what advice you have for young people looking to follow in your footsteps?
Andrés Barreto: “For people that want to pursue entrepreneurship, there are two ways. If you’re still a student, the best time to start a company is now because you have absolutely no experience, no money and no contacts. This means that even if you fail, you have experience, you have contacts and, you might not have any money, but you still have more experience than the people who didn’t even try. So even in the worst case scenario you end up winning. You have nothing to lose because you started with nothing. And in the best case scenario you can change an industry, you can change the world. The other way to pursue entrepreneurship is not necessarily starting a company right away, but definitely joining a startup. Even if it is doing an internship, or right out of school, or both, at ideally a young company that has raised maybe a little bit of money so that can you can learn with the company of other people, the entrepreneurs, and the money of other people, investors like myself.”
“University alone won’t give you what you need to be competitive in the job market or even as an entrepreneur. We all understand that we need to have work experience before we graduate and those are internships. Now imagine that everyone understands that, everyone does their internship… What a lot of people don’t have yet is that international experience.” -Andrés Barreto
TIG: What do you think is a common misconception among young people on how to achieve professional success?
Andrés Barreto: “There were people that picked a major either because they were good or bad at math or at writing, and they were thinking that whatever they were studying was going to help them get a job. I think that’s a big misconception that whatever you’re studying is going to help you get a job. It doesn’t. Most of the time what matters more than what you’re studying is what you were doing outside of school. The sad part of this is that people study what they’re not passionate about… If school doesn’t necessarily have a big impact on what job you’re going to get, and it’s actually what you do outside of school, then why not study something that you would actually enjoy studying, for the sake of studying, instead of thinking about getting a job? That’s one of the main reasons I decided to study political science. My favorite class was ethnomusicology, which is the study of history and culture through music, mostly non-Western civilization culture. That, later on, helped me with everything that I’m doing in Latin America today and helped me start Grooveshark. I didn’t study business management or entrepreneurship or even engineering to get where I am today. It’s just I took classes in things that I found fascinating and I learned how to learn quickly.”
TIG: How do you think young people, particularly from English-speaking countries like the United States, could benefit from an internship in a foreign country?
Andrés Barreto: “University alone won’t give you what you need to be competitive in the job market or even as an entrepreneur. We all understand that we need to have work experience before we graduate, and those are internships. Now imagine that everyone understands that, everyone does their internship. Everyone goes to PwC. They do their internship with JP Morgan or GE (those sorts of big kind of internship machines, with hundreds of interns a year). But if everyone is doing that then you’re just like everybody else. What a lot of people don’t have yet is that international experience. As technology brings the world together and removes barriers, and a company is quickly expanding and needs to be number one, not only in the US, but also in Europe, Asia and Latin America, the fact that you have that experience doing an internship abroad, even if you work in the US, puts you at an advantage. The interesting thing that I’ve noticed with a lot of technology companies in the US, is that the head of global expansion or the head of the Middle East or the head of Latin America works from the headquarters in New York or in San Francisco. If you look at their CV and their resume, it’s not like they had a ton of experience working in Latin America. It just so happens that when their company was growing, they were the only person who spoke Spanish. They were from Spain. It doesn’t matter that they’re not from Latin America – “anyway you speak Spanish, you do that…” So, if a company has to pick a second generation Spanish-speaking immigrant, or someone who actually had experience working there, the person who actually had experience working there would win, hands down. That’s more of a competitive edge than those kids who try to do the same thing by going to PwC, or whatever, doing what everybody else is doing.”
TIG: What advice do you have for young people with an entrepreneurial spirit who aren’t sure exactly where to start?
Andrés Barreto: “The first thing you need is an amazing team of co-founders that are the smartest people that you know. You trust and admire them and they trust and and admire you as well, so there’s mutual respect. Not only do they have to be very very smart but they also need to be able to execute and get things done. Most importantly, they need to have that traditional leadership ability. As the company grows, they need to be able to convince people to drop whatever they’re doing to join you as employees, customers or investors. So it’s those kind of leadership skills and that sort of charisma that you look for in co-founders. And that’s the most important ingredient, your team. After forming the team, then together you guys would look at some problems that you face frequently or every day – problems that are frustrating, or cost you money or cost you time. Problems that you feel like somebody should solve, and if nobody’s going to do it, you have to do it. Not necessarily because you saw in a report that it’s a big business opportunity. No. It’s because you feel like this needs to exist and you’re passionate enough about it. You know that even if you fail and even if the business doesn’t do well, you are solving a major problem that you are passionate about solving because you feel like it needs to happen. The reason why that is important, and the reason why it’s better to solve your own needs than market research or trends, is because normally in entrepreneurship almost everything goes wrong, always. And if almost always everything is going wrong and you’re doing something you’re not passionate about, then that is more likely to lead you to quit. But if almost everything is going wrong and you’re passionate about the problem you are solving, you’re going to plow through it, stick with it and then be successful in year eight. Then for those eight years, even though those people know that you suffered, you felt like you were doing something meaningful, because it was a problem you were passionate about solving. And then after all that, the third step is figuring out how you can implement the solution in a very short amount of time with a prototype and product – fake it til you make it. It doesn’t matter what it is, only give yourself a very short amount of time. That way you can put the product, service or whatever you’re doing in your customer’s hands very quickly. Then they can tell you what you should be improving, building or developing next. Don’t try to launch something that’s perfect, because it will never be perfect, and it will never be ready. That’s why you usually say let’s launch for the date and not when it’s ready. You pick the date arbitrarily. The more money and the more time you have, the further away from today that date can be. The less time and money you have, the closer to today that date should be. And then you launch it and that is that.”
TIG: How do you stay so motivated?
Andrés Barreto: “I find a problem that I want to solve and that I feel needs to be solved. When I built Grooveshark and I was studying ethnomusicology. I thought that there should be something out there where I could listen to music from southern Morocco, if I wanted to, or from northern India or Eastern Europe or Chile. And the interesting thing is that all those regions that I mentioned share kind of the same traits musically, but I couldn’t find it, because when I traveled to buy CDs, nobody was selling CDs. When I tried to get it on the internet, itunes didn’t have those artists because they weren’t major labels, and in peer-to-peer networks only the most popular stuff is available to download. So I built a solution because I felt like this needed to exist. I needed it. I was willing to pay for it. If I was willing to travel to try and buy CDs and fill my bags, that means I was willing to pay for it. And that’s why I built it… I always pick something I’m passionate about.”
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Photo 1. provided by Andrés Barreto
Photo 2. provided by Andrés Barreto