TRAILBLAZERS, Episode 2: How Relationships Deeply Impacted this Man’s Success
May 31, 2016
trail·blaz·er: a person who blazes a trail for others to follow through unsettled territory
GSVlabs is dedicated to accelerating global innovation. With over 150 startups in the EdTech, Sustainability, Mobile, Big Data, and Entertainment verticals, we work with a diverse range of amazing entrepreneurs.
Above all else, we believe the “one-size-fits-all” mold is not what shapes entrepreneurs. We believe each person has his or her own path to entrepreneurship. Their own trail to blaze.
This week we sat down with Paolo Debellini, founder and CEO of Herokins, to understand how relationships deeply carved his unique path to entrepreneurship.
Path to Purpose
Paolo Debellini was born and raised in Italy. And like many 20 year olds, he had yet to find his purpose in life.
“I was kind stuck, I didn’t know what to do with my life. I wanted to get out of Italy. So I told my parents that I was going to Ireland. They were super supportive, so I went”
Paolo initially planned to move to Ireland for a couple of months, learn English, and gain real world experience. Instead of returning to Italy after his visit, Paolo enrolled at the Dublin Institute of Technology, earned his undergraduate & master’s degree in marketing, and set out to start his first company.
Lessons in Failure
Back in 2011, social media was just taking off in Ireland. Despite its promise, Europe was in a deep recession and many small/medium-sized enterprises couldn’t afford to invest money into its advertising and marketing platforms.
Seeing that there was a void in the market place, Paolo seized the opportunity and embark on his first venture — and his first failure.
“Setting up my first venture was a great adventure. It is super simple to come up with an idea, write a plan down, and so on. The real challenges come when you have to deal with people and their motivations”
After repeated attempts to make things work, Paolo was forced to shutter his media company. It was through this failure that Paolo learned his most important lesson to date.
“The startup world is hectic & things don’t always turn out the way you want them to. You need to form strong relationships and surround yourself with people that will stick with you throughout the journey”
Paolo moved back to Italy, worked as a consultant at a prestigious PR company, and built up its digital communication department. Although the job paid well and allowed him to live a very comfortable life, he did not feel passionate about the work.
Paolo set out, yet again, to find his purpose.
Photo by Sven Scheuermeier
It wasn’t until he was hiking with his nephew Stefano in the Swiss Alps that Paolo found his next quest. Stefano was extremely grumpy and wanted to go back home and play his Xbox. Unable to appease his nephew, Paolo added a layer of fiction to the hike and transformed the hike into a beautiful, fiction-driven adventure for Stefano.
“It was kind of like an Italian drama happening on the Swiss mountains. I didn’t know what to do and then it hit me. I added a simple storyline and transformed the mountain into a fictional world with magicians, castles, and evil people to destroy”
And that’s when the idea for Herokins came to him.
“I thought to myself, ‘This is pretty cool, I had a lot of fun. How can I use this experience and transform mundane, everyday situations into crazy and really cool adventures?’”
“That’s how Herokins started. The journey and adventure of learning began that day”
When he was not fulfilling his consulting obligations, Paolo began to think of different ways in which he could add a layer of fiction to everyday situations. He knew that he needed to use technology to do this, but how?
“When I look at technology, which is my other passion, I think of AI, deep learning, and so on. It is flat, I don’t feel anything when I talk to Siri or these new softwares. It is like I am speaking a different language to these devices that are trying to understand what I am trying to talk about”
To solve this problem, Paolo turned to his other passion, movies. Contrary to technology, movies allow for the user to form an instant connection with the characters. There’s a reason that you feel glued to the screen when you watch movies — you begin to live, think, and feel for the characters.
By combining his two passions, his idea began to take shape.
“I wanted to give tech gadgets real personalities and help create meaningful relationships between the user and device. So I went to work and created the characters, stories, family trees, settings, and motivations”
The (Sudden) Move To Silicon Valley
Fed up with the uninspired work that he was doing at the consulting firm, Paolo decided to do something extreme — he quit his job, sold his house, and moved to Silicon Valley.
“I sold my house because it was the only capital that I had at the time. It was the easiest decision in my whole life. I didn’t even have to think about it. I told myself ‘f*ck it, let’s do it’. I haven’t looked back since”
“You don’t realize how utterly chaotic the startup world is until you do it. If I were to tell a responsible person what the experience was going to be like, I don’t think that that they would do it. I think that you have to be complete mad to do it. But I love it”
So Paolo moved to Silicon Valley in 2014, embarked on his next adventure, and began looking for people who could build his product.
After about 7 months in Silicon Valley, Paolo had his team and created the first prototypes, yet one thing eluded him, funding. Throughout his journey, he had maintained relations with one of his past clients from Italy and showed him what he had been working on. He loved it. He believed in the product, understood the company’s vision, and more importantly, fell in love with Paolo’s passion and drive — and this is an important lesson for young entrepreneurs everywhere.
“It is important to sell your product, don’t get me wrong. However, getting your product to align with your vision is easier said than done. It is more important to sell yourself, your passion, and your vision. The investor took a chance on me and I will always be grateful for that”
Having created the prototypes and stories and secured funding, Paolo sought out a manufacturing consultant and entered into an agreement with one of China’s largest manufacturing companies.
“On paper, everything was perfect. I had the best Manufacturer and a middle man with 20 years of experience, everything was great. Looking back, it turned out to be the worst decision I ever made”
In addition to working with Herokins, the Chinese manufacturer had also entered agreements with other top brands and could not have cared less about his startup.
“There were some moments where I was feeling desperate. We had a lot of problems, it was tough to see the light at the end of the tunnel”
But this was not going to stop Paolo. He had worked too hard and had sacrificed too much to make his dreams become a reality and he was not going to give up. So he did what any rational entrepreneur would have done. He went to China…
“Last year I went to China to meet with the manufacturer’s. I wanted to spend a time with them, gain their trust, build meaningful relationships, and get them to share my passion and vision. If they see that you are committed they are going to commit as well”
“We went through some difficult situations together but it has only made our relationship stronger. I can say that we are in a much better space right now. I am very satisfied because we are ready for mass production”
Seeing that its product is now ready for mass production, Paolo and Herokins is poised to capitalize on a couple of key voids in the market:
The first being the void in early age educational development.
“90% of the brain develops in the first five years and there is no formal training or program that caters to all. Parents have to figure it out themselves”
The second, parents are growing increasingly busy and do not have as much time to bond with their children.
“If you look at most of the toys, they are not designed to bring them together. They are creating a chasm between parents and children in times where children need attention and support the most”
And this is where Herokins’ wearable educational technology creates value for its users.
Herokins makes the everyday mundane task fun and enjoyable by providing children with instant satisfaction.
Secondly, the wearable toys facilitate learning and empower parents to be better storytellers
“Stories have this amazing power. I believe that all parents can be storytellers — although some of us are better than others. Herokins facilitates the learning process and helps parents figure out child development. So in addition to helping the kids, we are helping the parents as well”
Thirdly, it helps bonds parents and children
“Herokins was designed so that the parent is always in charge of the screen and the kid is always in charge of the wearable. We don’t want kids to spend too much time in front of a screen and get hypnotized. We designed our products so that the parent(s) is there and present”
Having successfully brought his idea to life, Paolo does not think that he has reached the top of the mountain quite yet.
“We haven’t go to the top yet and I feel like we should never get to the top. It’s a never ending experience. The moment that you feel like you have made it to the top is the moment you are going to descend. I don’t want to feel that way. You need to respect and embrace the fear of failure, everyday. You need to understand that you are still learning and that you are going to make mistakes. If you have the arrogance of thinking that you are going to make it, you aren’t going to go anywhere. You can’t think that you have it all figured out because Silicon Valley and the World will swallow you whole”
The only way to learn is to try it yourself. You need to build strong relationships with the people that you are working with so that they take the time to explain what they are doing. Little by little you are going to learn.