Xavier Verdaguer: “Barcelona is like a start-up”

Xavier Verdaguer is one of the most creative and international entrepreneurs that Barcelona has produced. He holds computing engineering and technical architecture degrees from Pompeu Fabra University, has studied top level management at Stanford University, and defines himself as a serial entrepreneur. Over the course of his career he has created several companies, and is currently behind three Silicon Valley projects: Innovalley, dedicated to the design of smart clothing; Seven4Seven, which develops apps; and Imagine, a creativity programme for young entrepreneurs. Verdaguer calls upon our universities and business schools to train their students in entrepreneurial skills to make up for the country’s shortcomings in this area.

© Italo Rondinella

You were an inventor from a very early age. There is an episode of the programme Joc de ciència [Science Game] in which, at the tender age of 12, you receive an award for creating a machine…

Yes, a pluviograph, a device for measuring rain intensity. It is probably still at the Sant Miquel dels Sants school, where I was in my sixth or seventh year of primary education. TV3 organised a competition for inventions, theoretically for older kids. A classmate and I lied about our age to be able to take part with a device that we built with things I had pinched from my granny, like an alarm clock and a biscuit tin. However, the contraption worked, and generated a rain graph. The prize was a Commodore 64: it was my first computer, which set me on the path towards IT. That is what being an entrepreneur is about, having a dream and fighting to make it real, not just going to a notary and signing a company’s articles of association…

You have set up a good number of companies over the course of your working life. You started with TMTFactory.

Yes, it was my first, and it has been with me since I started out up to the present day, through some hard times, such as when I went bust in 2001 with the dot-com bubble. The first commission was a project for the Barcelona Maritime Museum. At the time, I was a computer expert in a civil engineering consulting firm, and started to do things on my own with 3D and multimedia production. In 1997, I went in for a tender at the museum with a project to explain the port’s history interactively, although I cheated a bit as I had no company incorporated. The proposal consisted of explaining, using touch screens, how the port had evolved in different periods. They gave me three months to set up an exhibition. I had to create a team and shut myself into my flat in Gràcia until everything was ready. The exhibition won an award for the best multimedia production from Spain and Portugal. After that we continued to work with multimedia projects until the internet did away with CDs and we started doing websites. Until 2001…

You said you went bust…

I worked for a single client, and when the bubble burst the client disappeared overnight, owing us a lot of money. I come from a very humble family and have never had a financial cushion, so the crisis dragged us all down. I had to lay off all 20 workers and start again from scratch. The failure was very tough, because you get black listed.

What qualities are needed to be a real entrepreneur? What skills should be worked on in schools?

Firstly, students’ communication skills must be worked on, because otherwise they will be unable to present or sell projects, and it goes without saying that English should be taught better. Secondly, we need to promote leadership. Success is frowned upon and entrepreneurs lack ambition and the will to change the world. We need people with drive, and this has to be instilled in children from an early age. Here, an entrepreneur who does well is immediately pigeon-holed as a businessman, a term that has negative connotations.

And in more advanced stages?

The entrepreneurial spirit must be promoted at university. In the United States, lecturers encourage students to create companies. Having an entrepreneurial experience is like a whole school, because you have to know a bit of everything: accounting, public relations, planning, and so on. It is not just a matter of training managers, but rather entrepreneurs, in all schools, from teacher teaching to pharmacy. Barcelona has very good business schools, such IESE and ESADE, which should divert management training towards entrepreneurial skills; otherwise they will miss the boat. Here, university researchers work to obtain scientific prestige; in the United States they never lose sight of the entrepreneurial horizon. University research in Catalonia should keep the market in mind, to attract investment, with more pragmatic objectives. In the United States, universities encounter fewer administrative obstacles if, for example, they want to set up a spinoff to create a company. By way of illustration, the President of Stanford University sits on Google’s Board of Directors. In contrast, here it would be unthinkable for a university president to be a member of the board of directors of a major company. There is a very big barrier between the universities and business, and this makes knowledge and technology transfer difficult.

Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, says that “the twentieth century was the bankruptcy of the social utopia; the twenty-first will be that of the technological one”…

My discourse on technology is more optimistic. Technology is unstoppable. The internet is spreading like wildfire and will make things reach everyone faster. A Maasai with an internet-enabled mobile has more information now than Ronald Reagan had 20 years ago, when he was President of the United States. At this moment in time, barely a quarter of humankind is connected to the internet, but this figure will increase to three-quarters by 2020. This low-cost internet penetration will democratise many things the first world already has, such as access to education and information.

© Italo Rondinella

A few years ago you launched the Imagine project, which seeks to motivate young entrepreneurs from here and take them to Silicon Valley for a spell. What are these projects about?

Right now we are working on a technology to purify water, a commission from Unilever, a multinational company with a very strong foundation behind it. They have realised that in a few years’ time there will not be enough water for everyone, and asked us to come up with a proposal for saving water. We created a team of three young people with very different profiles: a mathematician, a publicist and a creative. None of them had knowledge of environmental management. The mathematician developed an index to measure responsible water consumption, which takes demographic mass, industry and environmental needs into account. The publicist proposed the organisation of a world competition of cities – 180 of them, including Viladecans, where the company is sited – which will compete to improve their consumption index. To promote community motivation, an urban element is installed in the main square of each city so that the residents can follow the index’s progress. As of this moment people are asked to propose specific saving measures. Our creative’s idea, for example, consists of taking a shower while listening to a song that lasts no longer than five minutes. It has been demonstrated that if you limit your shower time to the length of a song you can reduce your regular water consumption from 160 litres to 80. So the idea is to publicise measures that motivate people in general.

This collective motivation is essential if we are to move towards smart cities, a new paradigm of interaction with the environment which will only be possible if there is hyperconnectivity among people. Connectivity does not mean social cohesion. Perhaps technology alone is not enough…

Evidently, technology cannot be an end in itself; it has to be a means. It offers us a series of new possibilities, which will take shape in what we now call the Internet of Things, but the use that people make of it and how we leverage the opportunities that emerge in order to cooperate and add information will be more decisive. One person has half an idea and another person might have the other half. Social networks promote connectivity, and therefore creativity, but technology alone is useless.

As a company, is Imagine solvent?

It is not a business, but rather an open project. It is my most successful business in the sense that the transformation of the people who participated in the three editions has generated an emotional yield. Imagine was a turning point in their lives. They went through a very intense experience that helped them to transform the environment.

You have also created a highly international community with the Supertramps project. How did this adventure start?

A few years ago I had a scare, health-wise, but I recovered. While I was getting over it, I took a semi-sabbatical year and a more relaxed attitude to work. I decided to travel the world for six months, got all my visas and vaccines, but I never paid a single night’s hotel. I did couchsurfing. Moving from one sofa to another, I reached India and Nepal. Over the course of this period I shared photos of people with open arms with the people I met. These photos, which I posted on Facebook, are called Supertramps. They have spread everywhere, and every day I receive about a dozen photos on the FB supertrampspage, which now has 3,500 “likes”. To my mind, happiness is not real until it is shared.

Your journey ended when you set up in California to study at Stanford University. You did a Master’s degree there, and founded Innovalley in 2010, a company that develops “smart” clothing.

Yes. Innovalley merges Catalan creativity and fashion with American technology. We make gear for motorcyclists with built-in GPS, using sensors which tell you whether to turn left or right, for example. We began making branded clothes accessories, but some time ago we began to work for the major fashion brands and other accessory manufacturers. We work on long-term research projects, which means we won’t see some of the products on the market for a while, but we have a great time testing the prototypes that we produce.

You once defined yourself as a “serial entrepreneur”. Are you more of an entrepreneur than a businessman?

Yes, I am more interested in generating new business ideas, designing the business, putting together a team that works and starting it up, then turning it over to a management team.

This distinction between entrepreneur and manager is very American, isn’t it?

Yes. There would be two models. One that starts up and manages that project for ever, which is typical of here, and the founder model, which is creative but is not involved in management.

What does Barcelona need to acquire or catch this enterprising spirit?

First of all, a direct flight to San Francisco. Right now, the Mobile World Congress makes us the world mobile phone capital. Barcelona is very well-positioned here. It is a sector where talent prevails, and there is a lot of it. We must create a cluster of entrepreneurs in Barcelona.

When all is said and done, we are in the midst of globalisation. What can you do in California that you can’t do here?

Right, that is true; the place is not everything. To begin with, we should wonder why Israel is the second country in the world with most companies listed on the NASDAQ. We are still lacking an entrepreneurship culture here. Catalonia is the third European research power in science. We have talent and people with money who do not invest enough in local talent. Barcelona is like a start-up. We have had interesting waves, but now we have opportunities. Nowadays, Barcelona is a creativity brand associated with many things: football, cuisine, architecture, design… And it seems that we do not realise this. Sectors must be reinvented. We can decide the direction we want to take.

Could the Silicon Valley ecosystem be replicated in Barcelona?

Any place in the world can be enterprising, but some eco-systems are better than others. It is more difficult to be an entrepreneur in Barcelona than in San Francisco, where there are investors, opportunities and machinery ready to turn ideas with teams into a business… In San Francisco the environment is very positive and you learn a lot more. There are a lot of highly qualified people who are also very accessible. Here, on the other hand, you have to go through endless filters to get to speak to certain people…

So what are we lacking?

The culture of failure. And the culture of success… Here, anyone who is successful falls under suspicion immediately. And the risk culture. We have to be passionate about what we do, we have to work with a more positive mindset. In the United States, if you lose your job you have no unemployment benefit, but people pull through. We also need the mentoring culture. We need to join forces and cooperate a lot more. We are too focused on Spain. Catalonia has to look towards the world, and make its own contribution. Our world is the world. Sometimes I kind of wish that Spain would boycott our products because this would oblige us to sell abroad, and we would buck up.

Do you, an entrepreneur, believe that an independent Catalonia could make it on its own?

I don’t know, but I like to share this collective dream. Having a dream and fighting for it is an entrepreneurial attitude. With this kind of attitude we can achieve great things and greater happiness, both in the world of business and in life in general, and the same applies to building the future of a nation. I truly believe that entrepreneurship is a good road to happiness.

If you came back to live in Barcelona, what business would you get into?

I would probably be into telephony, or social issues, or perhaps both of them together. Barcelona has a vast degree of social innovation potential that must be discovered and harnessed. The Hub Candidate Barcelona has been created, a platform that seeks to connect, promote and foster the social entrepreneurs’ big ideas. The Hub Barcelona Initiative belongs to a global network of 31 hubs spread out over the five continents whose mission is to change the world by applying sustainable business models that can be extended and replicated. A veritable ecosystem of social innovation.

Technology and happiness

In addition to his ongoing projects, over the course of his career Xavier Verdaguer has founded other companies, such as TMTFactory (multimedia contents and consulting for digital projects), BCNMedia (multimedia production), IntegraTV (interactive television), Smart Point (information point systems) and Bconsulting (software development). This creative man is an international partner of Barcelona Global and a promoter of the San Francisco – Barcelona Sisterhood initiative. He received the Barcelona Activa Entrepreneur award and the award for the best young creative entrepreneur in 2010, granted by the Junior Chamber International (JCI). He is also the driving force behind the Supertramps project (www.supertramps.ws) for sharing moments of happiness online.

Bernat Puigtobella

Barcelona Metròpolis Editor

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