We asked Leo Xavier to point us in the direction of someone he thought was doing good. He immediately named Olaf Veerman – a Dutch entrepreneur who is in love with Lisbon (or in Lisbon, to be more precise). Olaf is helping NGOs solve hard technical problems in their operations, so that they can tackle tough social problems and help make the world a better place. His company, Flipside, is not only a successful business, but was also recently acquired by Development Seed.
You’re the first non-Portuguese that we interview. So, how did you end up down here in Portugal? Let us know how Flipside came to be.
Portugal, because my wife is Portuguese.
It was love, then?
Yes. We were living in the Netherlands in 2004 when we decided to move here. In the meantime, we were working for several Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in South America, helping them on more technological projects. We were in Brazil for a year, then Uruguay and Venezuela for a couple more, yet always keeping Lisbon as our base camp. The last city we were in was Caracas – that was 4 years ago. When I got back I decided to carry on working with these organisations and those alike, however, this time as Flipside instead of on a freelance basis.
You always worked with NGOs?
Yes. Our first clients were NGOs and Development Banks that I got from my personal contacts during my South American journey. I started with a small one in the Netherlands, which had projects in South America. And that’s how I got there. When I got back to Portugal I started Flipside alone. I then hired Daniel – a full-stack developer who is still on the team.
I started working here at Liberdade 229 three and a half years ago because I knew Leo Xavier. We knew each other from a bid we had made on a project with Quodis. We never got the project, but Leo invited me to bring Flipside to Liberdade 229. We then hired Ricardo Mestre, who used to work at Quodis.
Portugal suffers from a general misconception regarding NGOs. These are often depicted as amateur, and with little to no resources. Nonetheless, the organisations we work with, are generally in a good financial position. That allows us to do work with a purpose, that also pays well.
When Flipside started, what kind of projects did you do?
A lot of web development. Project management tools specific for the kind of work NGOs do. We started with that Dutch NGO because they needed a project management tool for their work in Africa – a few projects of mobile data collection, as well as some Drupal-based projects.
Flipside is a business that works with NGOs. Is this because you think there’s a good business opportunity there, or because you identify with their projects and ideals?
I started working in that sector because I believe in the work that NGOs do, and identify with the sector itself. Each of them also has their own specific needs, and usually work in environments with very weak connectivity, such as low bandwidth and high instability. So, for mobile data collection projects we have to use cache and offline storage. Also, an NGO is an organisation that is very different from any other. It’s not a big business or an SMB.
Portugal suffers from a general misconception regarding NGOs. These are often depicted as amateur, and with little to no resources. Nonetheless, the organisations we work with, are generally in a good financial position. That allows us to do work with a purpose, that also pays well. Generally, these NGOs are also more receptive to work involving open-data and open-source technology. This openness is key to how we operate at Flipside. From time to time, we do pro bono work, but it has to be attracting for us and the client alike. This can be an interesting challenge for a group with limited resources, or a project that allows us to stretch our muscles and learn a new technology.
Politicians talk a lot about entrepreneurship and the importance of small and medium businesses and startups, but when the time comes to choose a tech supplier, they always go with the big corporate multinational. Startups and SMEs are hardly ever perceived as serious candidates.
Was incendios.pt one of those projects?
Yes. All of our clients were outside of Portugal, so we wanted to do a project around a local theme. A showcase of how to create a valuable tool with open data. We underestimated the challenge of having a dialogue with the portuguese public sector. incendios.pt is based on data from a public agency, but it has been challenging to even clarify technical doubts regarding the data. This is a sign of a bigger issue in Portugal.
Politicians talk a lot about entrepreneurship and the importance of small and medium businesses and startups, but when the time comes to choose a tech supplier, they always go with the big corporate multinational. Startups and SMEs are hardly ever perceived as serious candidates. All in all, though, we’re proud of incendios.pt, and really like the project. When you work with foreign clients on foreign projects, it’s nice to be able to dedicate yourself as a team to something that is local and close to heart.
People here end up having a better, cost-effective quality of life than in Berlin or London. That is attractive for both sides, but it’s not enough. Daniel and Ricardo are part of the team because they believe in the company’s purposes, which is essential.
What other projects have you done? Can you talk about any in specific?
Two projects we’re also proud of are the Global Climatescope and Airwolf. The first is an index that – using Bloomberg data – measures the performance of emerging markets when it comes to clean energy sources. The latter, AirWolf, is a mobile data-collection tool for an Ugandan organisation.
In the tech startup world there are lots of people telling founders to get out of Portugal. Having done the journey in the opposite direction, why have you chosen to stay?
There are a lot of talented people here! It’s harder to develop a business, but the quality of life here is very good. Technological infrastructures are also of good quality here, and business costs are lower, so we’re able to pay above-average salaries for what the Portuguese reality is. People here end up having a better, cost-effective quality of life than in Berlin or London. That is attractive for both sides, but it’s not enough. Daniel and Ricardo are part of the team because they believe in the company’s purposes, which is essential.
How did the acquisition by Development Seed happen?
We worked together with them on Climatescope, and from then on we started exploring the possibility of further working together. Both companies, Flipside and Development Seed, were really aligned: the type of client, the kind of work we did, the vision, the values… however, we weren’t exactly the same though. Development Seed has 10 years of history with a great track record. They were stronger from an engineering point of view, whilst Flipside were stronger on the design component.
How did you change as a company after the acquisition? Did Development Seed change as well?
The acquisition had an impact on both companies. Development Seed didn’t have remote offices, yet now they do. This is a huge shift in mindset. What Development Seed bought was Flipside’s design and engineering capabilities, as well as our client portfolio. Having an office that is closer to other time zones is also very good so we can have a better response time to our clients there.
There was an emotional attachment to Flipside, and the team worked hard to build it over the past years, but joining Development Seed has allowed us to work for even more interesting organisations on even tougher challenges.
To continue our journey through the seas of the Portuguese tech startup scene, Olaf has pointed us in the direction of two more outstanding people: Miguel Laginha, from One Stop Transport, and Nuno Veloso, from Marzee Labs and Porto.io.
Like where this is heading? Has Olaf Veerman given us the right coordinates for our next interviews? Stay tuned for the following pier-to-pier with our fellow adventurers.