Oscar Giraldo has built Playvox, a company centered around Quality Assurance software for call centers.
During the fall of 2019, Playvox founder and CEO, Oscar Giraldo attended a reception in San Francisco where he ran into several people from Rothy’s, a shoe company that recently signed on as a Playvox customer.
No offense to Giraldo, but the dignitaries from Rothy’s were a little disappointed. Meeting Giraldo was fine, but they missed their Customer Success Manager from Playvox, Juan Manuel Gonzalez.
“When I went to meet them, they all asked “where is Juan?’” Giraldo said. “‘We’d love to meet Juan,’ and they were asking like they were old friends.”
Giraldo smiled, deep inside himself, this is exactly the way he is building Playvox. He will explain Playvox is not in business just to make sales and forget about its customers, but to treat its customers like friends and family.
It’s all about being good humans he said and that is a big part of the culture of Colombia, where Playvox is based.
Playvox, the provider of the most comprehensive software to improve agent performance and engagement, calls Manizales, Colombia its home, but the business stretches globally with offices in Orlando, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, Indiana, London and Barcelona.
The foundation of the Colombian culture is being warm, friendly and welcoming.
“There is something that makes Playvox unique in comparison to a Silicon Valley-based company and that’s the Colombian culture,” Giraldo said. “In a way, people are more welcoming, more friendly and when we interact with some customers, they’re not used to that kind of treatment.
“They feel like “What is this?” he added.
Starting a Company
At one time, Playvox was one of those Silicon Valley-based companies, but only briefly.
Giraldo, 36, started the company in 2011 in Santiago, Chile where he was living at the time. He packed up from there to go to the San Francisco Bay area in 2012 where Playvox was incorporated before returning to his hometown of Manizales, Colombia in 2013.
Giraldo went to Chile after college, admittedly he said it was his first time away from Central Colombia.
“It was a big decision for me because I was 21 and moving to a new country,” he said. “I was excited.”
But excitement turned to, of all things, boredom. Giraldo worked for a large bank and over time he became uninterested in working for the company.
“It wasn’t me,” he said.
In early 2019, Playvox had 22 employees, but the company took off and by January 2020, Giraldo and Playvox had 86.
So it was off to join a startup business, where he got a taste of what he really wanted to do. Giraldo would eventually meet Argentinian investor, Wences Casares, who founded and sold his own company $US 750 million at the age of 26.
“For me, when I met him face-to-face, it inspired me to say ‘Hmm I can do it as well,’” Giraldo said.
He started his first company which focused on helping ecommerce businesses to connect with consumers using voice. A person would go to a website, click a button and get a call back from a representative.
In a couple of years Giraldo said the company grew, but he would sell that company to his business partner.
It was during that time where he got the idea to focus on the call center industry.
“When I was selling the ecommerce business, they were like ‘talk to the call center guys,’” he said. “And I went to a call center and that was my first experience in a call center and the early observation was ‘Oh my God this is amazing.’ But these people were not motivated, they’re not engaged with the company and if they’re not engaged, they’re going to leave the company.
“I thought, how can we build something to solve that problem,” he added.
It was the initial idea for Playvox.
The imagination for the idea began and with eyes on a return to Manizales, Giraldo had to make a stop first, and that was via Silicon Valley. Giraldo went there to understand companies like Apple and Google and then generating another Silicon Valley-based startup.
But two things prolonged that for Giraldo, deep-down he wanted to be back in Manizales and two …
“I didn’t speak a word of English,” he laughed.
Regardless, Giraldo spent less than a year in the San Francisco area, where he learned how to build a global company and, of course, to speak English.
“I stayed there for nine months, but San Francisco was so expensive,” he said. “I decided to come back to Colombia, start the company and hire some engineers.”
A Company Begins With a Sure-Footing
In starting the company, Giraldo teamed with Ariel Cordiviola, who was from Santiago, Chile. At that time the company started as Arcaris and was one of nine Chilean companies selected by the Chilean Economic Development Agency to visit Silicon Valley.
“In the early days we were looking for a new idea to spin-off from what we were doing on Arcaris with the click-to-call solution that was not going to be a super business opportunity,” Cordiviola said. “So at that time we came across the gamification topic and we would connect that idea with contact centers since we have some experience in that industry.”
Giraldo teamed with Ariel Cordiviola, left, to begin Playvox and take his idea to Silicon Valley where they presented their ideas.
The two left for San Francisco, Sunnyvale to be exact, and started at Plug and Play, an innovation center where companies such as Dropbox, PayPal, and Zoosk got their start.
“On that trip, we made a presentation deck of 10 to 20 slides, and we offered a demo for our idea to everyone,” Cordiviola said. “And from that point, Playvox was born.”
Software development in Playvox would take some time, since the fledgling company was working with just one engineer. Then, in 2014 a second engineer would join and one that was located in the Giraldo family. It was Oscar’s brother, Mauricio.
Oscar left it up to Cordiviola to interview for the position.
Within a couple of years, Mauricio Giraldo would hire three more engineers, and with them, they built a concrete foundation for the company that specializes in technology for quality assurance and agent optimization.
Today, Mauricio is the engineering manager overseeing a staff of nearly 40, according to Oscar.
Later in 2014, Cordiviola left the company for “personal challenges” he says, however, he also states he always kept his eye on Playvox. When he wanted to return last year, Oscar Giraldo welcomed him back as a senior Product Manager.
Giraldo says he wanted to take time to craft Playvox after seeing the dangers many Silicon Valley companies face when they try to accelerate growth through overspending.
“At the end of the day, if you think about growing like crazy in an uncontrolled way, you are going to have thousands of people and the culture is going to be a mess,” he said.
Again, culture is a huge key factor when it comes to Playvox.
“There are plenty of big startups that have wasted a lot of money and there is pressure from investors to go big or go home and that is not a good business,” he adds.
One of the first engineers to come on board at Playvox, was Giraldo’s brother, Mauricio, right in 2013. Now Mauricio oversees a staff of 40.
Joe McFadden, Playvox’s Vice President of Business Development, was in on the start of Playvox and agrees with Giraldo then and now.
“It took us a little longer to get where we’re at, but by design, we wanted to make sure we presented the right product-market fit that we talked about,” McFadden says. “We wanted to make sure we weren’t spending money unless we possessed a super-high confidence the product-market fit was there.”
Growth in Playvox has risen rapidly in the last year and a half, which is according to the timeline Giraldo wanted.
With a solid engineering, sales and marketing team in place, Playvox has more than 150 customers including companies like Turo, NuBank of Brazil, Freshly, and Zillow Group. In addition, it has built partnerships with Zendesk, Salesforce, Talkdesk, and others.
Giraldo reflects back at the start of the company with admiration for those early days, building the infrastructure and now, how the company is growing.
“I see what we did in the past and I’m like ‘oh my God, how did we do that?’” he says.
He admits he didn’t have a great fear of going into the unknown and founding a startup. There was too much adrenaline.
“I basically focused on the vision and for me, it was pretty clear it would be a successful company, but I didn’t know how,” he says. “It wasn’t like a feeling of ‘Oh I have a fear of not making Playvox successful,’ it was something inside me, determination.”
Among Playvox’s values is “Be a Human” and Giraldo encourages all of Playvox’s employees to have a good time in their jobs.
Like any company with a good foot forward, there’s always a motto, formula or values to live by and Playvox is no different.
“When I started I did a lot of research on successful startups and all of them had values,” Giraldo says. “I thought well, I’ll choose a couple of values I like.
He then sat down and created a list of 10 values to live by, and it was too hard to remember all of them.
“But when somebody asked me the values, I didn’t know all of them.”
So he simplified the list into an easy-to-recall method, all based on the first five letters of the alphabet.
Always be learning
Be a good human
Change is good
Do it now
Enjoy the little things
“I decided to use ABCDE because it's easy,” he said. “It's easy for people to reference them and choose the ones for what is happening in the moment.”
And everyone who joins Playvox remembers them with this easy reference point.
In the beginning, as the company grew and added more employees, they believed in Giraldo’s vision. As a result, it was rare for anyone to leave the company because they didn’t believe in Playvox, and in turn, they became anchors of stability.
“It was difficult in retrospect,” he says, “But when I was living in the moment, I was excited -- I was confident -- and that blind confidence allowed me to keep people motivated. If they aren’t motivated, then people leave.
“It was easy to convince people of the Playvox vision on the spot, but it was also contradictory because we didn’t have the results,” he added.
The results, as they say, “have been pouring in” gaining customers at a solid pace and exceeding expectations in the fall of 2019 and through the early part of 2020.
Yet, Giraldo says, and just like any other company owner, the anxiousness is always there, even as Playvox continues its upward trajectory.
“Actually, now, my confidence is the same,” he says “There are always new challenges, we have nearly 100 people now and that’s kind of exciting for me. I don’t know what’s going to happen next year but I see in the future we are going to be even more successful, but we don’t know what’s going to happen this year.”
During the conversation, he overlooks a point of beating competition citing that’s not where a company grows. Instead, Giraldo continues to rely on the pillars of Playvox, which are its customers, employees, and culture.
“What is winning? Is it beating the competition? I don’t think that’s the game we want to play,” he says. “We want to add value to the customers and we want to add to the company in a sustainable way that allows us to give back to the people involved in this company - the employees, the partners, the community.”
Family and Values
It has to be hard for Giraldo to discount competition like that especially since he’s grown up to be competitive outside of Playvox. Through his teen years, and even today, Giraldo continues to play the sport he loves - roller hockey, which has its share of recreational leagues in Latin America.
“I started playing hockey when I was 11, I wasn’t good at playing soccer,” he says. “I decided to find a different sport.”
And despite the competitive nature of hockey, Giraldo has applied the sport’s structure to his business education.
“In order to win, you need to play as a team. Right?” he says “You need to be disciplined, you need to train, the anxiety to be on the field, the anxiety to go through the different matches and win.
“You can apply those to life and to business,” he adds.
In life, Giraldo, a single father, has three daughters, Paloma, 13, Amparo, 10, and Victoria, 4 and is raising them in Manizales, a city where he wants to leave a mark, not only on the community but to be recognized around the world for more than the central coffee-growing region of Colombia.
“I feel like my mission in life is not only building this company,” he says. “But that this company will have a higher impact on people’s lives. That motivates me. Casa Luker is the iconic company here in Manizales, they sell coffee and chocolate.
“I would like Playvox to be the next iconic company here. When someone says Manizales, they say ‘Oh yeah, Playvox.’”
In early 2019, Playvox listed 22 employees, which grew nearly four times by February 2020. The team is on an explosive growth path, but the cautious Giraldo is putting the reins on and keeping growth on the proper climb.
And the reason goes back to company culture.
“Hypergrowth is great, but keeping the culture intact is more important,” he says. “If you keep doubling every year, it becomes difficult to maintain the culture. We want those values to adhere to the people we have hired and that takes time.
“One year from now, I see the culture of Playvox getting stronger; the values maturing and all of the people super-aligned,” he said with the vision on the future.
Playvox adheres to a set of company values that start with the first five letters of the alphabet. Founder and CEO Oscar Giraldo breaks them down in his words.
Always be learning: Basically this is Playvox. It’s people who didn’t have experience before selling software from Manizales and they were able to get those skills and sell successfully.
Be a good human: What I found is that we made mistakes by hiring people because of their skills. What we didn’t take care of was their personality. You need good humans to learn fast and get those skills. The people we have now are great humans.
Change is good: Based on observations of team behaviors, we moved from being a call center identification company to a quality assurance company focused on agent optimization for customer service teams.If the team wasn’t able to change, Playvox would not exist today.
Do it now: There are times in startups when you don’t have time, you don’t have resources and you start thinking about parts that are risky or say that’s something we can’t afford to do or it's going to take two years to do it. No, let’s do it now. There’s always going to be a risk, and the bigger risk is to not do anything.
Enjoy the little things: It’s being grateful for what we have. It can be big or it can be small. We have it and we need to be grateful for that.