Pigs, chemistry, startups, and CTO stories with Helton Souza of Labdoor
CTO of Labdoor, Helton Souza, has stories to tell. Stories about moving to America to learn English, about selling pigs (yes, pigs) online, about pitching for Startup America, and ending up in Silicon Valley. He’s also got insights about taking scientific lab data and making it consumer-readable, about saving 46% on infrastructure costs with smart cloud moves, and about countless hours around a kitchen table coding like mad men in an Airbnb in Milan. At the end of this episode I could see the movie reel in my head. I think you will, too, as we discuss love of project, freedom of technology choice, and the human behavioral hacking required to motivate a team.
Ledge: Helton, good to have you here, man! Thanks so much for joining us.
Helton: Thanks for having me, Ledge.
Ledge: Can you just tell the listeners your two- to three-minute story, a background about you and your work.
Helton: Currently, I’m the CTO of LabDoor, which is a company that reverse engineers supplements online and tell people what’s really inside a supplement. We do a chemical reverse engineering on them, and then we figure out if the label is accurate, if there are contaminants, heavy metals besides mold and all that oxidation in the products that we’re consuming. Basically, because of the lack of regulation in the space, we have the opportunity to do this work for the end consumer.
Technically, I’m originally from Brazil. I’m from the city of Belo Horizonte then I moved to São Paulo when I was fifteen. I went to college in São Paulo and I started working with Java basically for banks and insurance companies in the state of São Paulo and just like heavy secure specs and just really high-complex things where we usually don’t see the final product but there’s a lot of heavy tech involved in that.
I moved to Indianapolis in the United States in 2009 to learn English. I was losing a lot of jobs because I didn’t speak a word of English in 2009. In Brazil, we only speak Portuguese.
I moved to Indianapolis because I had family there. They had an international program for foreigners so I took the English course with all the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old kids from all over the world. It was a lot of fun learning English in that setting.
And then, the need for the tech in the United States was as big as it was in São Paulo at that time. After learning a little bit more, we started working for some small companies there and then we decided to build our first company and joint venture with Rafael and TJ.
We opened our consultancy firm in Indianapolis and it was called “Tera & Creata.” We were doing services for small- and medium-sized businesses.
And then, we did our first tech startup which was called “Show Me Pigs.” It was a marketplace for pigs that go on the show in the state fairs. I didn’t know anything about pigs at that point but a client brought us the idea; and it was a great thing because they didn’t have a marketplace, at the time, for these kids.
Kids in the Midwest raise some pigs and they compete in these things. You take your little pig and if it wins the competition, you can get a lot of money for that little pig.
And then, we created a marketplace where you could sell your pigs; you could sell a semen; you could sell anything that they buy for reproduction.
In 2012, the Super Bowl was in Indianapolis and then Startup America brought an event there for a pitch competition for startups in the Midwest. So we signed up for that. We made a little video for it.
And in the final event, we met Neil who came in. He’s a guy from Michigan. He was studying in Ann Arbor and he had just opened a chemical lab with his dad.
He came out in first place. We came out in second. And instead of bringing him, we started talking. He was impressed with the tech and the design and everything that we had done so far. We showed him the pigs and all the clients.
A few weeks later, he told us, “Hey, I have this idea. I want to take the chemical analyses to the masses in some way. I want to do this B2C if it’s possible because I have a lot of NDAs and companies have asked us to test products. And we find out that some of these things are not good but we cannot say anything and we’re buying those products everywhere ─ in Walgreens, Walmart, Costco. I have an idea as to how we can take this on a B2C.”
At first, he wanted to hire us to build the software but after giving him the quote, it was way more than what he was expecting because there was a very complex tech stack behind this whole thing.
Eventually, he said, “Why don’t you, guys, join me and we’d do this together?” And two weeks later, we both sold everything we had. Neil drove down to Indianapolis. We got rid of all of the clients and the companies that we were doing at the time and we started what is today “LabDoor” and it was June 2012.
I became a tech guy. I was the designer and the communications guy and Neil became our CEO and the head of chemist department. At that time, we had TJ with us helping us on the business side, too.
In October, we had an opportunity to come to the Silicon Valley. We were invited to join Rock Health, an incubator for health apps in the valley. They invested and we flew here in October and it was like the dream, like a famous scene in the movies. I never thought in my whole life that I would be in the Silicon Valley building tech apps and working on the high-tech engineering and chemistry stuff.
It’s been great.
Ledge: That’s a fantastic story. Congrats! I believe that is very much the story that everybody wants to have. Let’s talk about the technology stuff. What do you have to do as CTO and what’s the engineering and stack behind LabDoor? I think it’s a fantastic service. What are the challenges of running it? What do you have to make work 0:07:06.6 on the engineering side?
Helton: At first, like any good old startup in a garage, I was coding this thing full time by myself. I’m a Java guy so I love Java technologies. I was coding this thing using Play Framework is a French framework for Java and it’s a very good frame.
Now, I think they are more Scala based. Twitter and LinkedIn are using it. But we’re in the first generation of that when they were very new. It was amazing to see a Java framework that was easy to deploy and develop.
And, at that time, I was playing around with our own servers in-house desktop with two Internet connections and running Tomcat and running all that in the front end just to low balance all the things that we had and deploying those things in house.
A lot of nights were spent in making sure the servers were working, that there was power there, and the Internet was not breaking on us.
Years later, the company started growing; and then, in the backend, the admin side of translating, there’s a lot of chemical analyses from the lab and it’s an ungodly amount of data that comes out of there. They don’t have pretty names. And they do not translate to a grade or to a score from zero to a hundred easily.
So you have to work a lot with the business and a lot with the chemist department and try to build that algorithm and those equations that we translate, that bunch of data, into something that people can relate and they can look at it for five seconds and say, “Okay, this is a good product and these are the reasons why.”
So the stack, obviously, became more of our challenge; and then, we started evolving the whole stack.
I would say that, today, we’re in the third evolution of our own stack; and, nowadays, we work with AWS and we Kubernetes. It’s blowing my mind how great Kubernetes is and everything that it can do to us. It’s like GitHub. And then, Jenkins as the CI. We have Docker and all these great things. We’re using Java 9 all the way to 10.
In the front end, we still use a lot of Play and it’s a Liquid Design so we don’t have a mobile app. And there was a business discussion that we need to find a way to put something on a mobile app that’s native that’s going to be very useful for the end users to just go there and have value out of it because we found out that just having an app to package the website, it’s not very helpful.
The amount of resources you spend keeping up with everything that Google or Apple is trying to change in new phones and new frameworks and all those things, it’s not worth it. Our users usually go to Google and they search “best fish oil” and we need to be there in the first or second place without paying which is another challenge.
It comes back to me working really close with Raphael on the communication and the marketing side finding out how they fine tune tech to get all those nice juicy words in the website in the right places so people find us faster.
Just this latest tech, for instance, this tech that we are using, it saves us 46% in money and we’ve been implementing this over the past three to four months. This new Kubernetes and AWS really light pods in this good stuff that comes with that like micro containerization of the stack. It’s paying off great.
So I think we saved 40% to 50% on price.
Ledge: Absolutely! And you’re so right. You know your users so well. It speaks to really excellent alignment of marketing product and engineering. It sounds like you got to it maybe before everybody was talking about it.
That’s a hot topic this year. The VP of product also gets to run engineering now. And I think that somewhere along the line, that was lost ─ the technology and product serve the same purpose and must be aligned with marketing.
It’s really great that you have that evolution in the organization’s DNA that you, as the CTO, are not just concerned with technology but you’re concerned with the success of the product and the business. And that’s not always the case.
Helton: As a CTO ─ and there’s a tweaking there. I’ve been spoiled by having great technical people working with me in this project. I’ve been trying hire this guy who is, today, my head of engineering since I started this company. His name is Anderson. He’s a great developer. He was my first boss in Brazil. When I got out of my first job at the university, he was my first boss developing code for banks. And this guy went to London and he was having a successful career there with his wife.
I was trying to kick this whole thing by myself and just working at it. At some point, it was too much. It was overwhelming. And I remember trying to hire people in the Bay Area and it was a real painful experience because you’re looking for somebody who is ten years plus in the market and who really knows his tech and, at the same time, they can coach people which is incredibly hard for a tech person to do because we love machines and people are highly problematic if you’re a coder. People just don’t follow the rules of coding.
So you need to love human behavior and working with people, and that’s a different kind of hacking ─ when you can hack into somebody’s mentality and just motivate them to build something that the company needs and still be excited about it and not just want to do what they want to do.
After a very frustrating meeting in the city, in the financial district, I called this guy and it was probably in the middle of the night over there; and I told him, “Anderson, I’m not joking anymore. You need to come and work with me. I need help.”
And I honestly started crying because there was so much at stake. The stake was so high at that point. You’re running this thing like in the Q3. We had 6.6 million page views. We had 290,000 users in our platform.
That whole thing brought a lot of responsibility. And, at that time, it was so overwhelming because on top of the whole management, I was doing all the tech work.
I told him, “I don’t care what you’re doing. I need you as a friend.”
I was like, “Dude, you owe me that. You’re my friend. I cannot count on anybody else.”
And then, he said, “Look, calm down. It’s in the middle of the night here. We’re going to talk tomorrow. Calm down. What’s going on? I didn’t know it was that bad.”
And then, we talked again the next day and we figured out that he was going to Italy in Milan to solve some passport issues with the wife and the family citizenship.
I told him, “Where are you going to be? I’m going to fly there and we’re going to work together in a project that I have in mind.” At the time, there was no orchestrated containers. Things that could orchestrate containers, we do well.
Netflix had a great framework in production at the time and I was looking at it and I was like, “This is highly complex for what I need” but I had the idea in mind of how to build that using AWS and their machine.
I told him, “We’re going to build something that I’ve never seen before and I think you will be excited. And I’m going to pay you to do this with me but I’m going to go there and you just tell me where you are. I’m going to find an Airbnb and I’ll be there. We’re going to build this.
And after we put this in production, we only have 28 days. After we put this in production, you tell me if you want to work with me or not.”
He was like, “Whatever, man, I have 30 days of vacation. Let’s do this.”
I flew there and 20-something hours later, I was in Milan. I don’t speak Italian. It was a challenge because not all of them speak English, too. I just speak Portuguese but that was not a help at all.
So we sat in my little Airbnb apartment for like fourteen to sixteen hours a day; and then, on the 22nd or the 24th day, we pushed this thing to production.
And, Ledge, it was the greatest feeling of all time because when you’re a tech person and you put something in production and it does work ─ the goal was when we increase request ─ at the time, that was a novel thing ─ at a certain threshold, it would just a new machine with all the code and everything would just go up; and it will go down when you don’t need it.
So there was no overpaying for a stack anymore. And that was so exciting. When we pushed that thing, you feel like a golden god. You know your code works.
Ledge: You invented Elastic Compute and you didn’t tell anybody else.
Helton: I’m pretty sure there were other people working and there were solutions at the market but they were all too heavy for me. It was an over technology for what we needed. We needed a very simple solution at the time.
And then, after that, it was pretty clear that he couldn’t get away. He was in love with the project.
I think for tech people, this is very important: the freedom of choosing great technology to work with. They’re free of politics, free of the big players signing contracts in meetings where tech people don’t matter.
And then, you come down and it’s like, “We have to use this ERP system. WE have to use this API. This database is really important for the company.” And that was the CEO call.
“Well, it’s not good for me at all and you have to make it work.”
So I think this is the story of how I got my head of engineering.
Ledge: That’s fantastic. I love that story. I can tell that you have a lot of good stories and you’re very passionate about engineering which is great in leadership. It must be a lot of fun to work on your team and with folks like that.
This is the question I finish up with everybody. We’re in the business of evaluating and staffing unicorn, A+ super senior engineers. That’s what we do and we have a really strong sort of proprietary knowledge of that and process that we do it in. But I think we’re always interested in learning from the field.
You do the same thing when you’re growing your company. What are the key heuristics that you do to hire very senior, excellent engineers? How do you identify them? How do you know if someone sitting in front of you is one that you’d want to put on your engineering team?
Helton: Besides the technical analysis that you do and time and what they deployed, after the technical interview, they know how to code, they have to assess what I think is the most important thing: How thirsty are they still?
Because when you become a senior programmer or a tech person, you kind of get a little bored with the everyday tasks. You’re going to build this once and it’s very exciting. The second time, you solidify the knowledge and the third time, you’re probably doing this with only 50% of your brain capacity.
Technical people are forced to step into the more business side of things. We get excitement back. Now, you’re making business decisions that will align with the tech that you want to work with.
There’s a gut feeling but if we’re talking engineering words, it’s an amount of data that is not spoken that’s in those meetings. That’s why I go great lengths to meet people in person.
And I ran teams in Brazil and in other places and I always like to go back there and talk to these people face to face because you can learn a lot. And you have to be a good business person. You also have to learn very fast how to read people.
And this is also another side of the tech. You’re working with very cold machines and algorithms and all these but everybody doing this is a human being and they are highly complex and motivation does not come easy these days.
They have a lot of opportunities. At the same time you’re evaluating them, they’re evaluating you.
It’s kind of like when I was a young kid ─ and we were talking about this before ─ when you’re a guitarist playing on a stage, if you don’t go up there and deliver 110% of the performance, people will not feel 100%.
It’s kind of a so draining process that you do every night when you go on that stage and you perform. I think the whole magic of running that show is like every great musician that you even went to at a live concert, they have been doing this for 20 to 30 years. And when they step on the stage, it’s like the first time they are performing.
That passion ─ you look at them and say, “Wow, I’m feeling it and he’s feeling it and he’s flowing that energy to the crowd.”
I like to be this high energy person and I’m totally passionate in what we do because the real problem in many cases is that it’s dangerous to consume supplements that are not healthy and safe in many cases. And who is telling us that?
A nice label, a six pack on a bottle or like a ripped artist or an actor doesn’t do signs. And, at the end of the day, it’s liquid; it’s powder. And what is there?
Ledge: I love that, man. I love the passion. Great answer! I love the idea of having to both hack the code and hack the person. You’re so right. I do a lot of sales and customer support and customer development; and it’s the same thing. It’s a very human connection and I think that the businesses recognize that end up doing a lot better.
Internal, external ─ it doesn’t matter who you’re serving. It’s about the human connections.
Helton: You’ve got to love people. You’ve got to love them for what they are. We have flaws, a lot of it. But you’ve got to put yourself in those shoes.
I’m not great and I’m definitely not great all the time. And then, you also have to accept that your employees and your partners will not be one hundred percent at all times. But if we can get there a few times a day, a few times a month, that is enough.
I don’t like that talk about “only working with triple A people” because triple A people and unicorns are not real. They are a projection of what we can do at a hundred and ten percent.
But a hundred and ten percent will cost a lot to the human being. You need to sprint and recharge.
Ledge: Great leadership, man! I love it. Helton, thank you for being here with us. This is going to be a great episode.
Helton: Thanks, Ledge.