A chance meeting between two Spanish entrepreneurs who were walking with their families through the San Francisco Zoo in early 2012 was the first episode in the success story of a Spanish technology company. One of them, Eduardo Vilar (Madrid, 44 years old) was planning at that time to create Returnly, a company that would make it easier for users to return purchases on the internet. The other, Laura González-Estéfani, was a Facebook employee. Hardly any phone numbers were exchanged that were never called. But a year later González-Estéfani became a key figure in Vilar’s project as the first investor in his company, which last April was sold for 300 million dollars (246 million euros) to the financial technology Affirm, promoted by the co-founder of Paypal, Max Levchin.
His first contact was not really very promising. “Laura lent us her stroller to change the diaper to one of my daughters. The impression I made on her and on her husband was not very positive, ”Vilar tells EL PAÍS in a three-way videoconference on the Internet. González-Estéfani, for his part, admits that Vidal seemed to him “very serious and a little dry.” But, in addition to nationality, both were linked by some things such as the personal moment they were living.
“I was trying to start a company in San Francisco with my own savings and without knowing anyone. We were both in a very similar phase of life, with family and very young children starting to live here, something that is not easy or cheap ”, Vilar points out. González-Estéfani, a graduate in audiovisual communication and the first Facebook employee in Spain, had come to Silicon Valley with her family to carve out a niche in big technology. “The risk that Eduardo assumed has nothing to do with the mattress that I had as a Facebook expatriate,” he clarifies, not without admiration for the entrepreneur.
Why embark on the American adventure? The businessman had co-founded in 2009 the Spanish technology portal TicBeat, currently owned by Axel Springer, “but at that time he was looking for the motivation to compete with the best, instead of repeating a success in Spain,” says Vilar. A major challenge, according to this serial entrepreneur, who believes that you have to think twice before trying to succeed in the United States.
“Many believe that if things come it will be easier because there is more money here. I tell them: ‘Imagine you play basketball and you go to the United States for the NBA. It is more competitive, it is more difficult, you will have to train three times. If you think it will be easier, you are wrong ”, he says. I recommend that you evaluate your motivation to come and, if you are really willing to leave things behind, surround yourself with the right people ”. In his case, that was González-Estéfani. “Returnly wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for Laura,” he acknowledges.
During that “random” meeting at the Zoo, the Facebook board asked Vilar to connect through his account on the social network, but since he was not a user, the phones were exchanged. When they no longer expected to see each other again, they met again through a mutual friend. Vilar remembers that that moment was a turning point for both of them. “A year after the meeting at the zoo, Laura decided to invest in my company and introduced me to her boss, the international director of Facebook, Javier Olivar, who also participated in the first round of funding. This was a tremendous validation for Returnly, after many investors said that the project, which allows customers to get the correct item before returning the wrong one, was not going to work if it was not for Amazon. “
Spanish engineering talent
Those voices that warned about the project’s low chances of success were wrong. The idea was to improve the user’s shopping experience, allowing consumers to receive a new item before returning the previous one, that is, to assume the financial risk of the operation. Also in offering return management tools for businesses that have online sales. And it worked. The company currently has more than 80 employees, 50 of whom are Spanish engineers, also at the suggestion of González-Estéfani: “Laura made it clear to me that there was talent in Spain, that it was good and could be hired quickly. While in the United States the hiring times are three months after we publish the offer, in Spain it only takes a month ”.
The fact that Vilar crossed her path was also a shock to Laura González-Estéfani’s career, since it was he who “encouraged” her to leave Facebook, where she had been for nine years, to “give up milk” and launch together Clara Bullrich in Miami The Venture City, an incubator for startups that it also helps to find financing.
Together they have been supporting entrepreneurs for four years since they started looking for money, when the company is almost an idea, until the call A series ―First round of funding, used to recruit talent and create the structure of a company. Between the emerging companies Those who have accompanied in its early stages are Cabify, Pixlee, Woom, Hogaru, Optimus Ride or GlampingHub. In the case of Returnly they have also come on call series B ―When the company is consolidated and seeks to have income― because González-Estéfani, that his previous experience in eBay allowed him to understand well “the problemón of returns ”. In total, about three million euros of investment, from the beginning to the aforementioned series B.
The sale of Returnly to Affirm is a shared success that will mark the future of these two Spanish entrepreneurs based in the United States. Vilar explains that it will allow them to “perpetuate” their collaboration. “My role changes. Now that I have money to spare, Laura will be able to count on me as an investor and with my participation to promote projects by people like me ”. “It is the closing of the circle. A story to tell our grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren ”, González-Estéfani celebrates.