Interview with Gabriel Ayala, CEO and founder of Suscrip
He landed in Spain at just 19 years of age with a big suitcase and an even bigger personality, more than willing to take on the task of being the bill collector for apartment shares, nights out, and traveling with friends. Luckily he also brought talent and the drive to develop Suscrip, an app that facilitates that very task.
Where’s that accent from?
I was born and grew up in Venezuela. In 2010, after just turning 20, things had gotten so bad that my brother and I decided to leave it all behind and come to Donosti. I haven’t lost my accent, but culturally speaking I no longer identify as fully Venezuelan, although I also don’t feel fully from here. It’s like being in limbo.
How did you find the change?
We didn’t know anyone. I had already done three years of Mechanical Engineering in Caracas, but I couldn’t get much of it validated at University of Navarra so I practically ended up doing my degree twice. That’s one of the things that has impacted me the most. I tell myself, you arrived in Spain with a 50-pound suitcase. If you end up with just a 50-pound suitcase, it’s not the end of the world.
How long did you stay in Donosti for?
Four years. When I finished school, as none of the big companies are interested in hiring a foreigner with a student visa, I worked for eight months in a store selling tomatoes. For free.
Yeah. My goal was to get my work permit. The day after I got it, I was hired by the consulting firm Management Solutions, one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
What did you get from it?
I met some incredible people who became my friends and even invested in Suscrip. As soon as I started, I was sent to the States to work for BBVA. When I returned to Spain, I kept working on regulatory reporting projects for them. It was all new to me, but I learned a lot about banking, how the financial industry works, and about apps in general. I would put all that to use later on with Suscrip.
So what’s all that got to do with Mechanical Engineering?
Well I chose it because I like investigating how things work, but nowadays I probably would have opted for Organization Engineering, or even Business Administration with Law. Because there’s a lot to Engineering, and if you’re not going to work in something so technical, it might not be worthwhile. Even still, I think it helps you to think.
In what way?
I think in boxes and squares. It has its good points, because a big problem can be divided into smaller problems, and you can tackle them, box by box. But the people on my team tell me that I’m very “square”, although I try to be flexible. It’s a whole other story when someone has creative training or something along those lines.
Have you ever done anything other than technical?
Yeah, I always needed to be doing something in parallel. I started taking part in Model United Nations when I was 14. It’s a competition where students represent a country and must debate certain topics, simulating the actual United Nations. I loved it.
How long did you do it for?
Until I was 19, at university; we took part in the world championship organized by Harvard, and we won. When I came to Spain, I realized they didn’t exist here, so I founded the first one with a friend. It’s called UNMUN and I think they’re on the ninth edition now, with around 600 students from all of Spain’s universities.
Any other interests?
I try to set aside one or two days to see my girlfriend and my friends. I like going out partying and I love music, especially 60s and 70s rock, we’re big rock fans in my family. I also love to snowboard when I get the chance. Other than that, I’m a real homebody. I like to cook, mainly Venezuelan food, and I like to eat, but I’m a bit odd; I can be hooked on something for five months straight, and next thing I can’t even look at it anymore so I switch to something else. At the moment it’s Wok 2 Walk. There’s one next to the Telefónica building and I go there so often that the guy knows me.
How did Suscrip come about?
Out of sheer necessity. You know the kind of person who is always on top of the electricity and water bills in apartment shares, the one who organizes the shopping list, dinners with friends, trips away…? Well I’m that guy. It got me thinking: there must be an easier way of doing this. So when I was at my grandparents’ house in the US back in December 2016, I combined my own experience with what I’d learned at the bank, and I thought up a way of doing it.
What’s the concept?
Our vision and mission as a company is to allow you to share what you want, with whomever you want. We can connect to your bank and we can turn any transaction that appears in your bank into a shared service. The joint costs that come with apartment shares, groups of friends, even your kid’s school fees that you share with your ex—with Suscrip, you don’t even have to mention that stuff. The challenge is showing people that it can be done, and that it’s actually really easy.
How long did it take you to set it up?
I was working for BBVA in five different countries over the course of a year. I’d spend two weeks away, and one here. As I didn’t know anybody, I made the most of my nights and weekends to start working on Suscrip and create and develop the first prototype.
On your own?
For the technical development, I got a loan of €50,000 from the bank and hired developers based in India that I found on Google. It was all a bit crazy, but it worked out in the end. And throughout the process of setting up the business I got a lot of help from Jorge Mendoza, a consultant who I’d met in Colombia. In 2018, we had a basic prototype with which we launched a first round of €350,000. That was when I left BBVA to set up the startup.
Is there anything you’d do differently?
Well, one major learning experience was that I should have hired Elio, the CTO, and Paola, the CXO, as soon as I left the bank. Because it was too much for one person to take on and decisions are made differently when you have different perspectives weighing in. Paola has really changed the way Elio and I see things, because she’s an architect and she’s creative, as well as techy. She brings a great mix to the team. And I also didn’t have all the technical knowledge that Elio brings to the table, which is why I made some wrong decisions that delayed the product going live. So yeah, having the team on the first day.
What plans do you have once Suscrip is established?
Set up another one. It’s amazing. But there’s still a long way to go with Suscrip, because we’re solving a global problem so we have to set it up internationally as soon as possible. But, in about five years at least, I want to set up another startup. I feel I’d do things in half the time.
And, in the longer term, what do you want to be when you grow up?
(Laughs) Well, although it sounds like a cliché that any entrepreneur would say, I’d like to invest in other startups. And, above all, in countries like Venezuela, where there are so many opportunities from the point of view of production, and so many talented people, but there is no support or infrastructure to launch your own projects. If I had the resources, I’d love to do that.