From The Editor | November 21, 2018

Software Startup Advice: Pay Off Your Emotional (Not Technical) Debt

A conversation with Vasco Pedro, CEO & Co-Founder of Unbabel


A certain amount of technical debt is just part of being in business as a software startup. Companies accept it – even embrace it – and will formulate a game plan to address it down the road. But what about the emotional debt that builds up in fast-paced, tense, high-growth startup environments?

Vasco Pedro, CEO and co-founder of artificial intelligence powered human translation platform Unbabel, explains in about 90 seconds why emotional debt can bankrupt a young company. At his company, the team tackles emotional debt by surfing (yes, surfing). Pedro admits the team members aren’t actually good at surfing, but that’s not the point – the point is the beach gives them the chance to connect and blow off steam outside the confines of meeting rooms.

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I made a very conscious effort of creating this space to develop a solid culture. I was a firm believer in something that initially I described as paying off your emotional debt. I felt that was one of the things that kills startup teams the most, was this accumulation of emotional debt.

The concept was, in a startup there is technical debt and that’s fine because you take shortcuts in the beginning from a technical perspective that you’ll need to redo later in a better way. But I felt that the other thing that would happen is – especially the founders – would accumulate emotional debt.

The idea is that in the beginning of a startup, the way I used to think about it, it’s almost like when a couple has a baby for the fist time. The baby is in constant need of attention so it’s a very stressful time. It also means that you end up having less time to have proper conversations. So, the little things, the little frictions, that happen during the week while you’re taking care of the baby, you kind of let go because you don’t have time to really talk about it. But once a big topic comes around, you end up discussing everything you didn’t discuss before – you know you’ll say “That time you did this. Or this happened.”

I felt the same thing happens in startups. As founders you have this friction during the week, a very intense phase and didn’t have the time to really talk about it. So, whenever a big decision comes around you had accumulated all this emotional debt and then you’re just off arguing about that instead of actually discussing the real thing. And so from the beginning I felt that we needed to make sure that we created this space to continuously pay off our emotional debts.