Rafael is a business, brand, and communications strategist with over 10 years’ experience in Marketing and Advertising. Throughout his career, he has worked on a range of different businesses in the most diverse of categories in Brazil and in the UK winning multiple creative and effectiveness awards. Most recently, he has co-founded UJJI, stepping into the Chief Strategy Officer role whilst also partnering up with the Oxford University Innovation Incubator to bring this tech solution to life. Together with his co-founder, Ludmila Milla, he has combined the latest research and advances in neuroscience & AI to create a gamified, personal growth mobile tool. UJJI is currently in its prototype stage and is looking for a seed investment of £230k. Rafael and Ludmila, co-founders of UJJI are currently the only ones working full time on UJJI, but the venture already has an extended team of people providing advice and consultancy from areas ranging across neuroscience & psychology, artificial intelligence, game development, data & insights and sales.
What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
I’m a marketing and communications specialist and have been working in the realms of strategy client and creative agency side for the past 10 years. I have a degree in marketing and advertising from ESPM, Latin America’s most renowned university in this field of business. Throughout these years, I have been lucky enough to lecture at the university that has raised me as the professional that I am and have been flirting with the exciting world of startups by providing consultancy to some of the ventures I’m most fond of and by creating startup-like projects within established companies that I have worked with and for in the past. Such experience has been fuelling me with curiosity and desire to build something that’s not only meaningful to me, but that truly delivers value to as many people as possible. More than having prepared me for my endeavours, these years of expertise building have generated the spark and courage to adventure myself as an entrepreneur.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Entrepreneurship is creativity. It’s about building something that more than being truly meaningful to you, is also delivering on a human truth and solving a cultural tension that you have identified. It’s about coming up with an idea and transforming it into a business that not only will keep you covered financially, but will keep you moving intellectually. But there’s more to it. It’s about forcing yourself out of your comfort zone. It’s about learning to deal with the uncertainty. The result? Butterflies in your stomach every day. I think of entrepreneurship as a roller coaster that’s already open for you to ride, but that will never be 100% built. You’ve got the initial tracks, you’ve already jumped in on the wagon, but you’re putting the remaining pieces as you go. And so, you simply don’t know if you’re turning left or right, up or down. The only certainty you have is that you need to keep on going, or else your cart will fall off. And as an entrepreneur, you don’t want that to happen, do you?
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
As soon as we uncovered a latent problem and genuine consumer tension. We’re all part of the give up society. 92% of people are giving up on their goals and dreams every year (Source: Harvard University). This means, only 8% of people are achieving their New Year’s resolutions. I knew there was something wrong with the way we carry on with our lives and with the fact that we end up not following through on what we set out to do. So, despite UJJI being an innovative solution, it felt like a no brainer to create this safe and simulated environment for people to develop the skills they need to reach their life goals. I knew we were on the right track when we decided to transform our own methodology into an interactive experience that helps people move forward in a fun and rewarding way.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Number 1 – Resilience. You’re not born resilient. Your experience builds it out for you on the background, whilst you’re there… living! Your anxieties and aches combined with your hope and persistence for a positive outcome help you keep on moving. And to truly build something great, such discipline and focus are fundamental. After resilience, comes curiosity. The desire to keep on learning stuff from the widest range of areas will most certainly help you along the way. Collecting nuggets from articles you read, podcasts you listen to, chats you have, etc. will help your brain unconsciously build connections for you which will be very valuable whilst steering a business on the right path. And lastly, commitment. There’s no part-time entrepreneur. Either you are full time dedicated to a project, or it simply will never take off. So make sure you’re all in if you really want to build something you’ll be proud of.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Waking up every day inspired knowing that I’m building something that can genuinely change people’s lives. We’ve all had that one job that has kept us from getting out of bed in the morning feeling energised and ready for what’s to come. Since I have started building my own business, I have not felt like this. Not even once… So, my favourite part of being an entrepreneur is being able to enjoy work. And have work genuinely positively impacting all other areas of my life.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
My father, who unfortunately is no longer amongst us. He has taught me that when it comes to entrepreneurship, will, and courage ends up being more important than skills and abilities. In spite of not having all the requirements for starting and building a business back in the day, his discipline and commitment has helped him navigate through the entrepreneurial process with confidence, giving him enough runway to pick up on the knowledge he once lacked.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
If I had 5 minutes with my dad today I’d love to stress test my motivations and discuss if my ambitions for building a business are truly coming from the heart. I have also learned with him that it’s only when you truly involve yourself with your projects on an emotional level that you can really be proud of what you’re doing. Despite not having him beside me on a physical level, I keep pushing on, listening to what he would be telling me if he was around.
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
My career transition. After ten years working in one specific industry or field of business, most people stick to the status quo and have difficulties to accept a different, more exciting future because they lack confidence and have extreme self-doubt about their capabilities. I am glad I have stood up to invest in a new professional future for myself. One in which I can still apply my strategy skills and empathy towards culture and human truths, but also, one that can help me deliver more value to the world around me.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
With a previous project, I have learned that in spite of being motivated by a fail fast mentality to deploy as much of a lean strategy as possible, there will always still be milestones you need to achieve before progressing. Agile thinking is fundamental in order not to miss the timing and let competitors catch up, but cutting around milestones and steering away from important building blocks will lead you to create a house of cards, not a business.
How have you funded your ideas?
We have up to now bootstrapped our business, but we’re very excited to inform that we have now moved on to the second stage of the Oxford University Innovation Incubator, which means we’ve officially become a spinout of the university. This not only helps UJJI in terms of funding but also, provides us with an important seal of credibility for the neuroscience and AI elements of the business. We’re also in the midst of applying for grants via OxLep, Innovate UK and others and have a few demo days pencilled in for the near future.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
We’re still in the early stages of the business, so have just now started the process of driving visibility to UJJI. We hope to very soon be able to have a few of these under our belt and we’re really looking forward for #StartedInOxford to successfully kickstart our journey.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
The Oxfordshire community has been extremely important for us and has most certainly played an important role in fast-tracking our progress. As an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire, I’m not surprised anymore by the amount of doors that opens before us by simply getting in touch with people and asking for a few minutes of their time. It’s undeniable that Oxfordshire is one of the places on earth with the highest knowledge base per capita in the world, and so, you’ll always be one or two chats away from meeting someone that can truly help you unlock something crucial to your business. Then obviously, if you’re lucky enough to have your company create some sort of relationship with Oxford University, you will always benefit from the name that comes with it. No matter where you are in the world, being able to say you’re developing a project in partnership with one of the most renowned institutions in the world will always place you as an outlier.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
We have been lucky enough to be accepted by the Oxford University Innovation Incubator for the Summer 2020 cohort. The incubation process, particularly in the very early days of ideation and validation, has been extremely helpful as you’ll always have access to the most effective tools to build out your business and to very experienced mentors that can truly help put you on track for success. I would most definitely encourage a new entrepreneur to knock on OUI’s doors and share their idea to see if there’s an interest from the incubator to help on the concept development and onwards.
Any last words of advice?
Do not build start building a business unless you’re truly committed to it. Having a zombie, walking dead project that never moves forward can be one of the most frustrating experiences an entrepreneur can have. So either double down on it or wait until you’ve 100% convinced yourself this is the right thing to do.