As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Manuela Seve, CEO & Co-founder of Alpha’a.
With a background in finance, Manuela worked as an equity analyst at Gávea Investments, one of Brazil’s most reputable investment management firms. Manuela’s trajectory in the art world began at an early age; she comes from a long line of art collectors with a foothold in the Latin American art market. Born in Rio de Janeiro, Manuela received her Economics degree from IBMEC in Rio de Janeiro, in 2020 she completed the Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship initiative program and now resides in Los Angeles.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up surrounded by art my mother is an artist and my dad is an art dealer so at a very young age they would take me to museums and galleries, and I remember being miserable wanting to go play, until I met Van Gogh we did a play about him in school in Brazil and as a young kid I had the opportunity to see some of his works in person at the MoMA that was when art found its way into my heart. However growing up I always had a natural ease with numbers and was really into what the financial markets could do, so I studied economics and got a job in finance. I actually founded what is now Alpha’a while still working full time.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take always’ you learned from that?
A few months after the company was already incorporated, and we were already working together as a team, we decided to apply to Web Summit, a huge tech conference in Dublin. We not only got in but received a grant to incentivize female founders in participating. (At that time I’d say the ratio was at least 9 to 1 men to women.) We were asked to fill out a form that would be used to produce our booth sign, and we committed the ultimate startup error. We started our mission statement with: “We plan to . . .” When we arrived in Dublin and saw the sign we almost fell back, luckily we had produced Alpha’a stickers and were able to cover the startup sin.
Our biggest lesson, always proofread multiple times before sending anything to print!
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?
My Co-Founder, Renata. She has always trusted and stood by me through thick and thin. It would have been impossible to withstand all the challenges along our journey, which included, moving six times over one summer in New York City, finding the cash to pay suppliers and employees, breaking down and putting up entire shows, carrying boxes, plywood, and other unthinkable things, without her support. We truly became a family and we had a special gift of being extremely different which meant when one was freaking out the other one was unusually calm. This balanced yin and yang dynamic is the base on which we built Alpha’a.
In 2014 as part of our launch initiative we sold a series of limited edition artist t-shirts to fund 25 scholarships in a custom art program, however we were short in a few thousand dollars and I was completely broke, Renata and I were starting a conversation about working together and she immediately deposited the funds before signing anything, that leap of faith was the basis of our relationship.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
We still have the same vision as we did since inception to provide more opportunity in the arts and consequently democratization of a market traditionally very guarded. We later discovered that there was more to our mission since the arts are such a universal language they are a perfect tool to disseminate messages around social and environmental causes. We run campaigns every year, and are constantly bringing more opportunities to light for minorities and women this includes a conscious effort on our part to include female artists, Latinx, people of color, etc in our active projects and is expanded through the Alpha’a connect platform which uses video content connected via qr codes to our pieces to let the artists share his story with the viewer or passerby.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
At the beginning of the pandemic one of our investors gave us a call and told us to prepare for the world ending, so we created a doomsday plan, which took into consideration a scenario of 0 revenue for 6 months (the opposite ended up happening we grew 220% in 2020) we then factored in how much money we had in the bank and called in the whole team to announce that we would be making cuts to all salaries including the executive team, we asked for feedback and everyone agreed this was the right course of action.
During uncertain times, its important to be transparent with your team and let them know sacrifice will be made by all including the executive team. The phrase lead by example really says it all. At Alpha’a we’ve always crowdsourced our problems and never blamed anyone for solutions that don’t work. We know a lot of our plans will fail and that moving forward quickly is essential, but try to debrief and understand what actually happened.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
This question always comes up, but I have to say at least for my type of personality I find extra motivation through the tough times, there’s a lot to keep you occupied and solutions to be found for several problems. I spent most of March & April in 2020 alone in a tiny NYC apartment working pretty much all the time, and not only did I raise our sales but we raised 100k from 200 individuals through equity crowdfunding. It’s important to celebrate all the victories even if they are small, this really does sustain your drive when things go wrong.
I’ve thought of giving up in moments where it seems as though you find yourself in a rut. That’s where it’s really hard and you have to dig deep and remember the bigger picture in order to be creative and implement new processes, think of new business models, get aggressive with growth hacking etc.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Positivity. I’m naturally a glass half full type of person, but being an optimist and finding that silver lining and sharing it with your team really boosts the morale, especially when the odds are against you. But you can’t be unfounded it’s important to show a plan and keep to it, revise and share it.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Every crisis brings with it a huge opportunity, instead of talking about the ways in which you could fail, motivate your team to be creative and pitch crazy ideas that could be applicable to the ever-changing world. But also have clear long term goals and processes, schedule weekly team meetings and encourage departments to do the same, by keeping the conversation open and compensating creativity the uncertainty becomes a part of the team’s life, as it should be in a startup regardless of the economic trends. We’re here to change how industries do business and a crisis creates opportunities never forget that and your team won’t either.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
There’s no good way to deliver bad news, so my advice is to be direct and to the point and immediately ask for feedback.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I’m trained as a financial analyst, so I’m used to having at least three scenarios already on my models, that’s why they exist to guide our reactions to unpredictable situations. Use your models for your own actions not just to show investors growth.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Flexibility and ego in check. By accepting we are not always right we open up a whole new door to receive insight from your whole company, the more minds working on a problem the more solutions we’ll be able to find. Make decisions quickly and don’t be afraid to change your mind.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Focusing excessively on cost, if you cut your entire team to save cash, you’re immediately hampering your growth, talk to your team, and you’ll be surprised by what they are willing to give away.
Sticking to a plan that’s not working, even if you spent hours putting together a plan, if its not driving sales, abandon it quickly and try something new.
Shutting down communication, many times leaders believe they are protecting their team from the tough information, so they share it to themselves and believe they are making the hard choices, crowdsourcing decisions can lead to much better outcomes!
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Adapting to general market conditions, before 2020 we had never done a project in commercial real estate, but we noticed that there was going to be a tremendous repurposing of AAA office space and that the landlords were not as affected since most companies were still honoring their rents, they would however need to rethink how people work within that space, it ended up being one of our biggest growth vector. Another example is how people are shifting away from high density urban areas and working closer to home, setting trends for mixed use properties in less dense areas. The macroeconomic trends will always rule the real economy, I was lucky to have studied economics for my bachelors.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Be transparent, as I mentioned earlier my team was essential in bringing creative ideas to light about sectors we should be exploring, this led to a boom in sales by looking at commercial real estate for the first time.
Implement processes and clear goals across the board, but let them reach those goals by their own methods. My co-founder’s job is to increase the number of new artists on the platform, I have a general idea as to what could work but at the end of the day she is the specialist and knows who are the right people to reach out to.
Use ALL the resources at your disposal, when we raised the 100k from individuals this was generated through my personal LinkedIn account.
Ask for help, you’d be surprised how many great people out there are willing to take a look at your business model and send some free advice and connections your way. But if you don’t ask, you’d never know.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I usually apply Churchill’s “Never give up, never never give up” quote to about everything that really matters. But Lady Gaga’s Oscar speech said it all:
“Thank you for believing in us. Thank you so much. And if you are at home, and you’re sitting on your couch, and you’re watching this right now, all I have to say is that this is hard work. I’ve worked hard for a long time, and it’s not about, you know…it’s not about winning. But what it’s about is not giving up. If you have a dream, fight for it. There’s a discipline for passion. And it’s not about how many times you get rejected, or you fall down, or you’re beaten up. It’s about how many times you stand up and are brave, and you keep on going. Thank you!”
How can our readers further follow your work?
Find me on LinkedIn, Clubhouse, Instagram and Medium @manuseve. My DMs are open, so please feel free to reach out!