As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Alexander Sanchez de la Cerda.
Alexander is a Fellow at Harvard University, researching Quantum Networks in Narang Lab.
He is the Founder & Director of Assist-o, a Swiss-American company providing high-quality assistance to businesses and individuals worldwide. The company’s services include graphic design, marketing solutions, 3D modeling, software development, and social media, among others.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up in Vienna, Austria, a city of rich culture, incredible diversity, and amazing cuisine. My father was just starting his own construction company and my mother worked in an architectural firm. Despite them being busy, we spent a lot of time together and I’m lucky to say I have parents who still support everything I do.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
Well, one of my childhood dreams was to become an inventor. As I was growing up, my image of an inventor shifted from a vague childhood concept to a person who is both a talented scientist and a great businessman able to bring something new to life. What I realize now is that my childhood concept of an inventor was actually what everyone else thinks about when they say “entrepreneur” since for me inventing also always naturally entailed the application of my invention. Having researched at Harvard and established an international company, I hope I managed to succeed in both.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When we came to the idea of starting a company, I thought offering a personal assistant + fitness coach package was a great idea. I thought it would drive sales with a compelling offer and further extend our potential market. Since it was right in the midst of a pandemic, you can imagine that having a fitness coach was at the bottom of people’s priority lists. You can probably guess that the idea didn’t work out. I’ve learned since then that starting a business means finding ways to solve problems your current and potential clients have. My goal now is to lead a company that can best serve others based on their priorities and current needs and challenges.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am grateful that I have so many names to mention, starting from my parents, friends, teachers, professors, and colleagues. It would be unfair to name a particular person when so many have taken part in shaping my success.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
The biggest challenge was building up a network of people who would benefit from Assist-o’s services or people who would connect us to them. I’ve learned that relying on friends and people who previously offered to help can only get you so far and that it isn’t viable in the long run. Even though we have great clients who came from our personal networks, we’ve learned that networking is a crucial part of getting the word about our services out there.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When I set my mind on something, I work hard to get it — giving up is not in my nature. I believed (and still do) that we have a great concept, awesome team, and quality services to offer. For me, that was enough to stay motivated and keep going.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Our team is now bigger than ever, with over 25 people working remotely from around the world. Thanks to the adaptability and the skills of everyone in the company, we are in the fast lane to success, or at least I hope that is the case. We have some incredible things in store for this year which should bring us to a whole new level. So I would definitely say that hard work (with a little luck) always pays off.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We have a very unique concept which was difficult to explain at first. When people ask you what you do, they expect you to say something they’re already familiar with. In our case, that was impossible because we aren’t an agency, an outsourcing or staffing company, or basically any of those other things that people are used to hearing.
We support companies and individuals who can’t hire full-time employees or simply lack the skills, time, or knowledge to resolve the issues they are facing. Be it a new website, accounting support, marketing strategy, graphic design, translation, or just keeping up with day-to-day responsibilities, we have an individual or a team who can solve their problem.
For example, if a startup owner contacts us, we already know they probably have a limited budget and a lot of seats to fill. Instead of wasting time on searching for the right fit or outsourcing to multiple companies or freelancers, they simply reach out to us and we take care of the rest, no matter what their checklist.
What differs us from others is that we hire the employees and you essentially hire the company — it’s a win-win situation.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I would be lying if I said it is an easy ride. It requires a lot of dedication — more dedication than most are willing to give. It’s important to have a support system in place. It usually starts with family and friends and expands to your employees and colleagues. Manage expectations and surround yourself with people who understand that you may skip events and are sometimes unavailable, slow to reply to messages, and can’t immediately take calls.
It definitely teaches you a lot about your friendships and yourself, as it shows you that unsupportive relationships are not worth the time. A support system and successful delegation are key to avoiding sleepless nights.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Giving smart, capable people the opportunities they deserve and connecting them to clients around the world is how we’re currently trying to make a difference. We support NGOs and startups while at the same time giving our employees the opportunity to grow and develop in various areas. Companies that are just starting out are often struggling and NGOs with limited resources are not too far behind. If we manage to make a difference in their world, I consider that as a win in my book.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- If you manage expectations, everything else will naturally fall into place. When you clearly set your expectations, you will either find out that someone isn’t a match for your company and you’ll avoid clashes in the future, or you will get great people to work with because you were clear and transparent in the beginning.
- Ideas are great, but useless unless you implement them. For me personally, it was hard at first to have my ideas challenged since I always come up with new things. However, it’s important to have someone who can validate them or tell you that the timing isn’t right. That way, you can focus on the ones that are currently viable and implement them more easily — without that, it will just remain an idea.
- Better done than perfect. I am a perfectionist, so I spend a lot of time on setting up platforms, contracts, gathering data, creating nice docs. But to what end? Eventually, I came to realize that it should be more about being innovative, creative, and resourceful as you can fine-tune your product endlessly.
- Don’t make money a priority. Expecting the company to generate pure profits right off the bat will lead to a world of disappointment. Ensuring you have a liquid cash flow is one thing and a definite necessity, but a fat bank account is something that shouldn’t be an initial goal as it rarely happens. Prioritize long-term quality over earning fast and the money will follow.
- Let go of things! Resist the urge to micromanage. Trust your team to handle responsibilities as well as tasks. Getting into that mindset as early as possible is what will help you grow. You can’t only tell people to be proactive and creative, you need to give them the room and the tools to do so. Needless to say, that doesn’t mean you don’t validate the work, but you don’t have to be involved in every single step of the process.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
I’ve learned that, even though the traditional management style is quite effective, it can lead to toxic workplace culture if you aren’t careful. I like to think that I belong to a new generation of managers who encourage their employees not to keep their heads down, but to speak up when they see fit. I want people to work with me because they want to, not because they have to. Creating such an environment has definitely affected my company positively in the sense that we provide an environment in which you can strive. I don’t want to bribe people to work for Assist-o or get respect just because I’m the boss — I earn it the same as everyone else. My philosophy is to lead by example, not by force.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I agree that learning from your own mistakes definitely makes the lesson hard to forget. That said, I don’t think it’s the only way to truly absorb information. Theoretical knowledge is a great starting point and, if you’re lucky, you will at least have an idea of how to implement it in practice.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
If I could, I would make quality education available to everyone around the world. For me, education is a fundamental resource and creating a school for gifted people would be a dream come true. Achieving your dreams through education has always been the best means of fighting inequality, and I’m sure that’s the way it’ll stay in the future.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Assist-o is very active on social media. We share updates about the company, new job opportunities, and news from the startup community. You will also find behind-the-scenes views, podcast recommendations, and more. There are also a lot of other things in store, so follow us and get in touch — we reply to every message!