Scroll through forums like Twitter, and you’ll encounter many founders bemoaning the long nights and years of uncertainty required to be successful. But is slowly chipping away market share the only way to succeed?
Miguel Rengifo created his Web3 design studio, Index96, after years of building skills while avoiding punishing ventures and careers. He’d stayed one step ahead of burnout by changing fields whenever he was tired, but entrepreneurship never felt rewarding.
Everything changed when he switched to a business he was passionate about: designing for Web3 and helping designers in Latin America and Africa find work. Now, he’s turned his extensive networking and design knowledge into a $600,000 TTM revenue agency and talent network.
And while the crypto crash in late 2022 made many skeptical about Web3¹, Miguel defiantly believes the industry is only getting started. What else would you expect from an entrepreneur who’s done everything from founding a condom delivery app to coding for Universal Records?
Coding to Escape the Bullies
Miguel has been using entrepreneurship to escape bad situations from a young age. When he was 15, his middle-class family moved to an upper-class neighborhood in Cali, Colombia. He was frequently bullied in his new school for his modest upbringing, causing him to retreat to the computer lab where he taught himself how to code.
“The kids in class would ask me where I went for vacation when they were going to New York and stuff,” he says. “I then realized I had fewer opportunities than my peers.”
“I was broke and living in a house with 25 people in a small room that flooded every time it rained.”
By coding, Miguel escaped the judgment of his peers and found a place in his new world. He represented his school in a coding tournament and won a scholarship and internship at a well-known tech company as a teenager.
“I’m pretty sure that position was a hundred percent illegal because I was not an adult yet,” he laughs. “I knew a little about coding but mostly faked my skills during that internship. Still, it opened a lot of doors.”
Since he already had work experience, Miguel felt confident enough to quit university and moved to Bogota, Colombia’s capital, in 2013. Once in the big city, he realized new opportunities didn’t simply throw themselves at his feet. “I had to live the experience of not having money or enough opportunities,” he says. “I was broke and living in a house with 25 people in a small room that flooded every time it rained.”
Recalling his internship as a high school student, Miguel started learning about business and connecting with others working in tech. Eventually, he was lucky enough to land a job with the local branch of Universal Music. At the label, he worked on mobile apps supporting artists like Colombian superstar singer and “Prince of Reggaeton”, J Balvin.
Miguel says this was the point where he started being “somebody” in Colombia. After the appointment, he began specializing in mobile and hybrid application development while freelancing. App development would soon become his bread and butter.
Condoms in 20 Minutes
Miguel’s gig with Universal didn’t last. Eventually, his department dissolved, and the young man found himself back at square one with no money.
But Miguel didn’t quit. He started his first business as a joke in 2015. It was a condom delivery service called SinRopa – with it, anyone in Bogota could order a condom to their location in 20 minutes.
As you’ll recall, venture capital in Latin America began to rise in the mid-2010s². By 2016, SinRopa went from a joke application to raising $100,000 from VC fund, Startup Chile, which Miguel describes as Chilean YCombinator. Miguel had to move to Chile and continued working on the application for another year before quitting.
“My mindset at the start was, ‘I don’t have anything else to do, so let’s do this even though I don’t think it’s going to work,’” he says. “It ended up working, and suddenly, I was developing this application for two years. I decided to stop working on it because I didn’t want to be recognized as the condom guy online.”
“Coding is nice to have, but the design is critical too. It’s the first thing people see when they look at your application or website.”
Miguel returned to Colombia and entered the restaurant business while working on contracts as a freelance coder. But he soon soured on these ventures. “Restaurants are so complicated,” he says. “It’s exhausting finding a chef and worrying about customer service. It helped me learn about staffing, though.”
Finally, Miguel even burned out from being an entrepreneur. “I was always designing, coding, and doing things for myself,” he says. “Every time I started a new idea, I was always the developer, designer, and CEO. I became tired of always trying to build a startup.”
He believed one of his biggest shortcomings as a solo operation was that he was too focused on code. “Coding is nice to have, but the design is critical too. It’s the first thing people see when they look at your application or website. I decided I needed to focus one hundred percent on design.”
Designing for Mercado Libre and Flipping NFTs
Miguel believed his next step forward was to stop running his own businesses and sell himself as a corporate designer to large organizations. During this time, he also moved to Bali, Indonesia, as part of a spiritual journey to improve himself.
Miguel would pitch himself as an experienced designer using portfolio pieces he pretended to have made for large clients. He finally broke into the market as a design consultant for two Latin American companies in 2020. From there, he spent the next two years working in increasingly senior roles for larger and larger businesses. His most pivotal gig came in March 2021 when he worked for four months as a senior UX Designer for South American ecommerce giant, Mercado Libre.
“The people working in Web3 right now are very talented. Some of the most talented people in tech.”
In 2020, Miguel was looking for new investment opportunities so he started flipping NFTs on popular sites like OpenSea. Like many in tech, he became enraptured with the world of Web3. If you’re unfamiliar, Web3 is the shorthand for Web 3.0, which many believe will rest on blockchain technology such as that behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum.
“The people working in Web3 right now are very talented. Some of the most talented people in tech,” Miguel says. “I started doing research and decided decentralized information was the future. Certain projects in Web3 may drastically improve people’s lives.”
Miguel felt the old itch to become an entrepreneur creeping up again, but he’d become comfortable working lucrative jobs for large corporate clients. He finally got the push at the end of 2022 when his girlfriend of four months pushed him to start a new project with her so they could travel more.
“She told me she was tired of being a personal trainer in Australia and wanted to travel around the world. I was to start this studio and do my own thing again. So I started a new company.”
In 2020, Miguel turned his freelancing network into a Web3 app design agency he called Index96, becoming one of the first design agencies for Web3 on the market.
While getting his first clients was challenging, Miguel already had experience starting from zero as a designer. He and his girlfriend sent more portfolio pieces created for fake clients to Web3 creators until they got their feet in the door. They also became extremely active in popular Web3 forums on Facebook.
“I’d say finding our first clients was our biggest challenge,” says Miguel. “We’re not a cheap agency at all. We started seeing value in what we do, and now we employ front-end developers, project managers, and more. Every time we received a no, we were a step closer to someone saying yes.”
In three months, Miguel won ten clients scattered around the world in regions like Dubai, USA, Canada, Belgium, Colombia, and Bangladesh. He also caught wind of another business idea.
Turning an Agency Into a Recruiting Pipeline
Index96 quickly became a steady source of income. But Miguel knew better than to let one business dictate his future.
While he’d worked as a contractor in 2020, Miguel built a network of freelance designers in both Latin America and Africa who helped him complete projects. Once he started Index96, he created another agency called First Layer, connecting his contractors in Nigeria and Colombia with startup clients searching for employees.
“In places like Africa and Latin America the opportunities are few but there are so many good designers.”
“We found this big hole where clients say they want a full-time designer in their company they can trust but have no idea where to find them,” says Miguel. “Our employees love it because in places like Africa and Latin America the opportunities are few for native designers. They don’t know the right people, lack a portfolio, or don’t have someone to mentor them.”
If you’ve read any of our other marketplace startup articles, this is a prime example of how to get a marketplace off the ground. First Layer and Index96 have developed a fruitful working relationship. Miguel says he finds his designers on Twitter, and then to assure designer quality, asks them to do a project test via his design agency.
“I don’t do traditional interviews. I just ask new designers to do work through Index96 and I pay them like normal employees. After the third month of training, companies can hire them. We charge companies a monthly fee for the first few months of mentoring and finding a designer.”
Will Web3 Crumble as Crypto Falls?
Despite cryptocurrency’s historic price crashes in 2022 and growing uncertainty towards Web3, Miguel is happy with the industry and thinks it will carry on regardless of the success or failure of crypto.
“It’s good that this crash is happening right now before too many people are involved,” he says. “Right now it’s mostly affecting people in tech. We’ve hit the bottom, and now we have to learn about what we did wrong and how we can do better.”
Finally, Miguel’s advice to other struggling founders looking for their niche is this: focus on doing the things you enjoy doing rather than copying others for money.
“I would tell other founders to do things because they actually want to do them, not because other people are asking them to do it. So many founders do things just because someone else is doing them. When you follow everyone else, it’s hard to stand out.”
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