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Pawel Solyga didn’t mean to create a software development company.
It was 2012 and he’d left his job to build a mobile trivia app. He secured some funding. Built a small team. Things were going okay.
But in the background of his workdays, his email inbox was brimming with requests from friends who wanted his help with their projects. And when things slowed down with the trivia app, he finally realized that his over-full inbox wasn’t a nuisance.
It was a business.
Today Tooploox has grown to more than 100 employees who work on state-of-the-art solutions for startups and enterprises, including ING, Coindesk and Lufthansa.
Louis talked to Pawel about his journey with Tooploox, the latest software trends and why launching the absolute best version of your product is sometimes a bad thing.
“I am just amazed by what open AI is doing with linguistic models that can generate knowledge about the world from text into images…You can imagine creative agencies being impacted by this technology in the future, because anybody could start using those solutions to generate images.”
🎙 Highlights Include
- What is a software development company?
- How long does a software development company like Tooploox generally work on a project?
- What are the big trends in software development in 2021?
- What should companies ask a software development company when in the process of hiring one?
- When does it make sense to hire an in-house developer vs. hiring a software development company?
This Week’s Guest
CEO @ Tooploox
Pawel Solyga is a Polish programmer and entrepreneur. His company Tooploox provides state-of-the-art solutions for startups and enterprises, which altogether amount to over $4 billion in value.
The Startup Stack’s Host
CEO, Co-Founder of Rocketplace
Rocketplace is a curated marketplace of high quality professional service providers. A 3x founder, investor, and board member, Louis began his tech career as a partner at Andreessen Horowitz. When he’s not working or podcasting, Louis enjoys cooking for his family. His pizza, he’d like you to know, is incredible.
Full Episode Transcript
[00:00:00] Paweł Sołyga: [00:00:00] A software engineer’s wife tells him, Hey, while you’re at the grocery store, buy some eggs. You know what happens?
Louis Beryl: [00:00:08] No.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:00:09] He never comes back.
Louis Beryl: [00:00:12] [Laughing} Okay. You’re going to have to explain for us.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:00:17] So there’s a dead wild loop there. While you’re at the grocery store buy some eggs. And it just in the wild, so he’s staying at the grocery store.
Louis Beryl: [00:00:28] [Laughing] I love it. That’s funny. Yeah. We’re going to have to debug that one. That is good. This week, we’re talking about software developer turned founder Paweł Sołyga. Paweł’s company. Tooploox was by his own report an accident. The company actually set out to found in 2012 was a trivia game. You could play on your phone. When funding ran low, the team shifted away from the trivia product and to Paweł’s inbox, which was flooded with requests from friends and coworkers. He figured they’d take on a few projects by their time. [00:01:00] But soon they were busy, really busy, and then they were growing and eventually the trivia app just kind of faded away. Fast forward to today. Tooploox has developed more than 150 digital products totalling over 4 billion in value. That includes products, cutting edge areas like AI, blockchain, and machine learning. I had a lot of questions for Paweł about all that, and of course, about the fate of his trivia app. So for all that much more, let’s get to the interview. I want to hear more about Tooploox. Maybe you could tell us how you started the firm. Sure.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:01:35] I, I used to be a software engineer myself. Actually. My Dad taught me back when I was in the, in the third grade. And that’s when I, when I kind of started getting into computer science and then studied computer science at some point, got interested in multi-touch. You know, a multi-touch that you have on your iPhone these days. And, uh, there was [00:02:00] like a, as a TedTalk that I watched from Jeff Hahn and I got interested during the university. I got interested in, you know, interactive surfaces, interactive tabletops, and multi-cam multi-touch in general that got me. Into more open source because I started to working on to try to explore how multitouch screens work and, and then within the open source community has started to, uh, to support them, uh, with my programming skills. And we were building software to duck sheet to multi-touch devices. And that completely okay. Change my perspective on multi-touch and I started learning. Uh, iOS programming and, and became an iOS engineer. That’s where actually my mobile mobile career started and I worked for a few companies. Google was one of them. And then I left actually I left Google to do iOS and then went through a bunch [00:03:00] of startups and bigger companies. And at some point I was, uh, I’ve got enough savings, uh, so I could leave and started on, started working on my own thing. I had this idea for, for a quiz game. Very much similar to HQ Trivia if you, that was eight years ago. So aged care is actually the best timing for that, but we started, we started working on it. I, I convinced two other outer friends too. You join me and talk to work on it. I left the full-time job and with some savings, we started working on our startup. And we always thought about creating company where, uh, that would be like more like an umbrella organization where we would have multiple products. And that would be one of them. That’s how we started Tooploox and Quizzpy. That was the game that was supposed to be a first product.
Louis Beryl: [00:03:55] So it started out as just your own startup and then how did you end up taking [00:04:00] clients of your own? And maybe you could explain for our audience, you know, what, what is it that Tooploox does today?
Paweł Sołyga: [00:04:05] So we run out of money pretty quickly. And that was when a bunch of…
Louis Beryl: [00:04:09] Startups have a tendency to do that.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:04:11] For sure. Uh, so we were one of them. And at this point we were like, okay, so what do we do? And there was a bunch of folks, uh, in my network that were reaching out to us. To help them build mobile apps. And that’s actually how we started doing services. So, you know, Tooploox is a software development company. We help companies build their products and help them get to the next level, you know, whether that’s through product development, software development, or, uh, research and yep. That’s where we started doing services that was 2012.
Louis Beryl: [00:04:46] Well, it’s been tremendously successful. You’re based in Poland who relatively, I mean, you’re not new to computer science, but you’re kind of new to running a services firm. Tell me more about where are the clients [00:05:00] coming from? How are they finding you?
Paweł Sołyga: [00:05:02] I mean, you know, 2012, fast forward eight years, we’re here, we’ve worked with over a hundred clients like you mentioned. The majority of our clients actually come from U.S.. We’ve always focused on long-term partnerships. And I always say, you know, building building products is a marathon, not a sprint. Right. And just takes time to build the product.
Louis Beryl: [00:05:24] So when you say long-term partnerships, how long is your typical relationship lasts for?
Paweł Sołyga: [00:05:28] Well, at least a year big on, there were some, I mean, on the average, I think it’s about a year, but there were some that, that lasted, you know, 3-4 years.
Louis Beryl: [00:05:38] But you’re on the other side of the world. And so how are all these us companies finding you for?
Paweł Sołyga: [00:05:43] I mean, majority is actually referrals. Actually. A lot of them are coming from other companies and their network and that’s the main, main source. I mean, some of them are coming through, you know, inbound and then our marketing. But I think we’ve, over the years built a [00:06:00] pretty, pretty good partner network and partnered with, with, uh, all the companies, uh, met entrepreneurs, um, their, uh, employees. And I think the word of mouth just works.
Louis Beryl: [00:06:13] And maybe you could describe for us what’s your like bread and butter type of client, you know, is it a, a seed or series A company? Is it a large fortune 500? And maybe you could tell us a little bit more like what’s your typical project look like.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:06:26] When we look at our services. So we’ve got kind of four main pillars of services. We work on mobile apps, we work on web apps, we have our AI, have a solutions team and then the product team. The clients that we have, and we can’t, they’re very like startups and enterprises. Most of them are actually startups at different stages. Usually it’s about isn’t it it’s our own seed and Series A, that’s the sweet spot. And I think there are just different challenges that each stage, each stage. So that’s why we tailor the [00:07:00] services each time. You know, when the company is, is like a pre-seed seed. They might need more kind of product discovery and they don’t know what they’re really doing yet. And when the company is more mature, they usually have their own engineering teams and they just don’t want to extend that. Or maybe when they’re like at the growth stage too. So, you know, seed stage Series A is usually the sweet spot because that also allows us to get there, get to know each other. And as we, as we kind of start, you usually just touch with a smaller team can grow with them. If the product is successful, if they are seeing their growth and they ned to expand, that’s where we’re growing with them as well. Because usually that means that, okay. They need more engineering and product help.
Louis Beryl: [00:07:47] I’d love to transition to, if you think about the entrepreneurs out there, the seed stage and series A entrepreneurs, maybe they’re thinking of using, you know, a third-party software development firm, like Tooploox. [00:08:00] What advice would you give these entrepreneurs? You know, there are certainly a set of opinions. That says, you know, you really need to build your technology in house. What would you say to that seed stage entrepreneur that is hearing that and considering working with you.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:08:14] You know, looking at, looking at what’s happening with remote now and COVID, and maybe I will sound like a broken record, but like the remote has changed a lot of things. And even though we’re forced to it, I think it accelerated the pace of adoption, but remote across the world. And I think that actually. Has worked to our favor, um, because a lot of the companies were not ready. I mean, they, they fought, they are not ready to do remote. They were, you know, only in the offices. And I think because of the Coronavirus pandemic, they are more willing to, to work with remote companies now and more open to people who travel. So it [00:09:00] really doesn’t make any difference whether you’re working with an external company like ours, or are you actually having an employee re remotely so, or somebody in-house right. So that’s the thing. And one, one of the recent changes that I’m seeing. There are other things like we’re taking care of all the operations. Right. So you don’t have to really worry about anything like that. We can help you grow the team too. So we do recruiting, tailored, hiring so we can help grow the team. And you don’t have to worry about that. It’s a lot of like operational costs that you normally would have to deal with. You don’t have to deal with it and not just access to talent. I think, I think that’s the biggest problem right now. Like where do you get great talent, where they get great engineers and product people. And I think a lot of the companies have struggled with hiring. A lot of venture entrepreneurs just cannot find talent quickly enough. And I think that’s one of the. [00:10:00] Um, main reasons where I think you should,
Louis Beryl: [00:10:03] How are you finding so much great talent?
Paweł Sołyga: [00:10:05] You know, Poland is well known from a top engineering talent and we’ve made our reputation here in Poland and continuing to grow.
Louis Beryl: [00:10:14] You’re giving advice to one of these entrepreneurs and they’re like, yeah, you’re totally right Paweł. I want to move faster. You know, we can work remotely with our teams. You have great access to talent. The work you’ve done is amazing. You know, what advice would you give to an entrepreneur when they’re evaluating a potential firm, you know, what are the questions they should be asking? Tooploox has a great reputation, but you know, how do they evaluate one firm from another to know that it’s going to be the right fit?
Paweł Sołyga: [00:10:41] I mean, the first thing you need to answer yourself. You know, do you know what you’re looking for? Like, do you know the problem that you want to address that you want to solve? I think a lot of, a lot of companies don’t, they, you know, they don’t have a clear definition and understanding of what they actually need to help. [00:11:00] And so I think it is, it is important the first to ask yourself, like, okay, what do I need? And am I, am I coming to that company with a solution. So I’m coming to them and I’m saying, Oh, I need like a Senior Python Engineer, which it’s a solution to your problem. Or are you saying that, okay, I have this engineering problem that I need to solve. Uh, because you know, everybody wants like Senior Engineers, but then how do they know. Eh, if they have a senior level problem to solve. Right. So I think it’s always good to see how companies approach building the team with you, right? How will they pick the right talent? We’ll work with you. And I think that touches on the engineering mindset. Uh, because depending on your, on your stage, uh, you know, if you’re a Startup, if you’re a narrative stage, uh, I think you, you want engineers who are, who know how to work with startups at the early stage, right? Who don’t, who are not afraid to make mistakes, who can release [00:12:00] quickly and, uh, just iterate quickly and are okay with. Maybe not such a perfect code because a lot of that code will be a throw away code anyway, because maybe you’re going to have to pivot or some of the functionalities will not be used by buying your users. Right. Then bigger companies on the other hand, maybe they already have a million users or something, and they need somebody who has worked scale scalability and, and complex solutions and then the engineering mindset.
MUSIC INTERLUDE [00:12:30] Louis Beryl: [00:12:30] Hey, do you like our show? I do too. If you want to support The Startup Stack the best way to do that is by subscribing and rating us on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to us. Also send Dad jokes, or if you have them actual good jokes to podcast@ocketplace.Com, feel free to send us feedback there too. Are there maybe red or yellow flags that entrepreneurs should watch out for when they’re thinking about a third-party software dev shop?
Paweł Sołyga: [00:12:56] I think the biggest problem is miscommunication. [00:13:00] Uh, so most of the issues actually come from miscommunication. And what I’m noticing here is like, and always our long-term partnership approach and like good at the trust and will try and to build. I think the feedback loop and the process for feedback is just very important and you want to be in a constant, constant feedback loop with them, right. Be open about the issues that you’re seeing, if you’re seeing any and ask them about the feedback about the relationship, about the team members. If something doesn’t work, just speak out and, and get it out there. Cause otherwise, you know, there’s just something under the table. And, and I think that’s usually leads to companies saying, um, or they don’t want to continue to working with you. And I really saying why, but I think that feedback loop is really important. Then the other thing is making sure you spend time. Like, if you were working with a top agency or like a software development company, [00:14:00] they will take care of that and help you, but like making sure that they have a good understanding of the business so that they know what they’re getting into, they understand, and they can better, kind of help solve your problems because otherwise it’s just a needle in the haystack. And I think it’s good to understand that how that small or big problem that you’re solving fits into a bigger vision of the company.
Louis Beryl: [00:14:25] You know, anytime I’ve ever worked with engineering teams, you know, we’re talking about setting clear expectations, but there’s always unknown things that arise, right? So you, you know, you might say, well, we’re going to build this and it’s going to take this long. But stuff happens. Scope changes, bugs arise. Uh, how do you deal with those changes over time when you’re working with third parties, especially new relationships.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:14:53] That’s where I think it’s good to like, when is the new relationship I think it’s good to start small. Have [00:15:00] maybe a shorter test project. Let the company prove themselves, let the team prove themselves. So I think that’s good from like the, you know, from the client perspective, but on our end like the beauty of long-term partnerships is that we’re building products together. We’re really like blurring the lines between the companies. You know, we have those dedicated teams that work with our, our clients and there’s this one team approach. We call it when we’re actually treated us as one team with them. Right. And that allows us to just plan together come up with, uh, solutions, um, different, the challenges and problems just change over time. And so I think that’s, that’s an ongoing struggle, ongoing fight. But it’s not like we, we try to avoid like fixed scope projects because exactly for that reason, like things will change. How do we actually be part of [00:16:00] whatever cycle of whatever process you have with your team and we’re part of it. And we’re, we’re talking about we’re working towards the solution together instead of just having a fixed scope and then wasting time renegotiating the scope and, and, and, and all that. So I think that’s just the approach that, that has worked for us.
Louis Beryl: [00:16:22] I’d love to hear about a project that you and your team did that, that you’re really proud of. Maybe you could tell us about that.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:16:29] There is a remote patient monitoring company. So they are doing remote patient monitoring for, uh, chronic respiratory disease. So they have like a unique sensor, stack capture, medical grade, physiological data around the clock and, and we’ve worked with them for, uh, for a couple of years now. Uh, originally they started with the customer app. They were in the more in the kind of mindfulness. Deep breathing with guidance space, you know, sensing your breathing and, and helping [00:17:00] you, uh, on that front. But, uh, the kind of the wearables, uh, market changed a little bit, you know, big players coming to play and they pivoted from. The B2C is because the B2C became a much harder tomorrow, like a B2B to C. So into more cutting clinics as, as clients and patients as a customer, too. Uh, so they discovered that, uh, the kind of the medical applications could be a bigger, a much bigger opportunity and, and, and have a bigger impact. We’ve had them with the original app. My mobile side and on the backend side, and then we’ve helped them through that transition to become a medical device company. So, you know, they’re not building a kind of support the decision tool for doctors when they can see the sensor results via dashboard and some insights about the chronic respiratory diseases. And so we’ve helped them on the, on the mobile side. When you took over the design to help them [00:18:00] design the whole experience, helping them also on the backend, you know, with the scalability of the, uh, the backend architecture and yeah. And they are FDA approved. So, you know, we work together to meet all the software requirements, kind of traceability of the product requirements. So from, from design, through implementation and testing.
Louis Beryl: [00:18:20] Yeah. And what was really cool about that project? Being, besides the fact that it was helping people who needed it.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:18:26] I mean for me, just the relationships that we build, the, the impact that that has. I mean, the whole journey. I think that’s the, and that’s the beauty of it is that it’s the whole journey and the challenge has change over time and they are still there.
Louis Beryl: [00:18:42] So I’d like to talk a little bit about the trends we’re seeing right now, obviously 2020, you mentioned this before we saw huge changes because of the pandemic. The world has moved remote…
Paweł Sołyga: [00:18:53] With the, with the remote, I think that’s exactly what I think Rocketplace, there’s a really good timing too, [00:19:00] right? Because you’re, you’re a market marketplace for some quality service providers. And with that shift, I think that’s, uh, it’s easier to connect with.
Louis Beryl: [00:19:10] Exactly. You know, our belief is that there are outstanding service providers offering a wide array of services all over the world to flukes is one of them. And so what Rocketplace enables folks to do is to find great firms like yourself and much more easily connected.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:19:26] We’ve got, we’ve got all the tools now to do remote. Like they got better so fast because they had to right. So.
Louis Beryl: [00:19:33] Exactly. You know, whereas, you know, maybe traditionally, you know, whether it was that performance marketing agency or that software dev shop, you know, you might find that in your own backyard. And certainly because of, of word of mouth, you might be referred to someone in a smaller network, but you know, the world has really gone global. Obviously you have been on this trend for a while, right? You’ve been getting us clients for close to 10 years now, you know, I mean, are there other [00:20:00] trends that are happening right now? That you and your team are seeing, or very focused on the obvious ones, right?
Paweł Sołyga: [00:20:07] The, the kind of the pandemic ones. Uh, what I’m looking at is the first one is the commoditization of AI. If you look at, you know, artificial intelligence technologies, I mean, they’re becoming ubiquitous. There are more accessible, easier to use, more affordable to, to all businesses. And, and so in general, it just getting easier and easier to do AI, to do deep learning, moreAPIs, uh, you know, AI as a service.
Louis Beryl: [00:20:37] Paweł what type of products are you seeing now that maybe they weren’t in just a few years ago?
Paweł Sołyga: [00:20:42] Just even if you look at the computer vision, like image recognition, object recognition, like sort of few years ago, you didn’t have any API APIs within your cloud providers that could do that easily. Now you, any software engineer can do AI now actually, because it’s [00:21:00] just, you have so many tools. Uh, so, and it became so much easier. Like there’s the challenges that, that once required, you know, a dedicated team. Uh, of, you know, either AI engineers or some data scientists, you know, can now be easily accessed alone to that. So I think that’s, that’s the shift I am seeing and I’m kind of watching what’s happening.
Louis Beryl: [00:21:22] I have found the image recognition to be amazing whether I’m using Apple Photos or Google Photos. I mean, I like it recognizes people’s faces. I can even search by. You know, keywords through images. It’s just incredible to see the technological improvements there. I, you know, are there other areas that you think that we’re going to see AI have a huge impact? You know, maybe this year or, you know, relatively soon.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:21:49] I am just amazed by what open AI is doing with first with the GBT3, which is a linguistic model that can generate, uh, [00:22:00] knowledge about the world from, from like text and, and that was the first one that they, that they made. And they recently Dolly, uh, which is like the version of their, their GBT3 trained to, to generate the images, uh, from text descriptions and, you know, looking at the results like we’re, it’s 2021 I’m, I’m just looking forward to what are we going to see in 2025 because the technology can combine like unrelated concepts and in the very pleasable ways and render images from text descriptions, and that can have impact on services like Shutterstock or Getty Images and, and even create new new business models. Like, you know, you can imagine. Creative agencies being impacted actually by this [00:23:00] technology and in the future, because anybody, they could start using those solutions to generate the images or, you know, creative content too quickly, or somebody could actually use. Dolly based solutions to, to generate something themselves. And that’s you as a creative agency. So that’s also some sort of a risk, but yet generated models generated. AI is definitely something on, um, I’m looking at, we’ve actually worked run on like gen generating people model photos, right? So you could like generate faces and, um, and all that stuff that we’ve, you know, in our research.
Louis Beryl: [00:23:39] And are there a certain type of project, maybe it’s a use of a certain technology or that has, has that you have seen really proliferate as you kind of look at your clients that you’re just getting asked all the time to do these types of projects?
Paweł Sołyga: [00:23:54] Not really. I think, I think the, I mean, the beauty of where we are right now is [00:24:00] that. We can mix and match that the competencies that we need, right? Because we have more where they are and the kind of product teams we try to pick the best technology that is needed. I mean, there’s more happening on, I think on the mobile side, people are looking more into cross-platform solutions, so react native is on the rise. I think that’s definitely something to, to look at. So companies are. Trying to figure out what they want to do, the React Native one or, or a native one.
Louis Beryl: [00:24:34] I could go back maybe to at the beginning of Tooploox and give yourself some advice. What would be the advice you would give yourself as a, as an entrepreneur about to start?
Paweł Sołyga: [00:24:43] Uh, I did a lot of thinking about the hope 2020 during the holiday, but I, you know, I’m a perfectionist and I like this, I like this quote. Yeah. If you’re not embarrassed by your first product release, [00:25:00] uh, you released too late. And I think it’s, it’s just something that resonates with me so much, and it, that can be applied to many other things. It doesn’t have to be just the product. Right. Just kind of, if I look at myself, you know, when we started the company just good enough is okay. Uh, and just, uh, quickly, uh, do something quickly and then maybe to read them and improve. And, uh, yeah, I think that’s, that’s the one I was. We, we, we then tried to spin off a company and, and also took too long to release the product because we wanted it to be more, to be too perfect. Right. So, uh, I think that’s definitely something to take into account. The other thing I think is the, like, I, I used to run on autopilot. Right. So kind of just not having time to think, turn off your autopilot, but I think this is really [00:26:00] important and find me time, uh, slow down.
Louis Beryl: [00:26:03] Coming from the AI guy, telling us all to turn off our autopilots.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:26:10] Yeah. I mean, AI will do the job for you, right. So, um, now, but like that’s the reflection from…
Louis Beryl: [00:26:18] I like that that? Turn off your autopilot. Enjoy the drive.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:26:21] Yeah. Slow down, you know, find some time to, for reflection and put it on, like even put it on the calendar. Have time to think and not be in the, in the, in the day-to-day all the time.
Louis Beryl: [00:26:35] Well, Paweł, I really enjoyed this chat today. Thank you for telling us more about, uh, your firm and your story. Thanks for joining The Startup Stack.
Paweł Sołyga: [00:26:43] Thank you so much for having me. It’s been great chatting with you today.
Louis Beryl: [00:26:47] For more on our conversation today. Visit www.rocketplace.com/podcast. We upload a new episode every week. So if you haven’t yet make sure to subscribe to The Startup Stack in Apple [00:27:00] Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to them. Thanks again for joining us. See you next week.
Announcer: [00:27:06] The Startup Stack, written and edited by Hannah Levy, produced by Leah Jackson.