Startup Profile: Agora
Some of the most famous entrepreneurs and business leaders, such as Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates, dropped out of school to start their own businesses. We idolize these people for their accomplishments, but also for having the gall to suspend their education and put all their eggs in one basket by pursuing their careers. Having a recent YU student, in essence a peer, who followed the same initial steps in his career, is a totally different situation though.
Adam Moisa founded his startup, Agora, in 2013 while still a YU student. Agora allows users to create, edit, and collaborate on documents on three cloud services, Dropbox, Google Drive, and Box, all from one place. As Moisa, the CEO of the company, explains, his product is also “plug-and-play for any future cloud storage service we want to integrate,” which is enabled by the patented technology they developed. He also shared that he’s “been happy with the feedback we’ve gotten thus far from users, investors, and potential corporate partners.” With Agora’s recent launch to Beta, or testing stage, The Commentator decided to look at Moisa’s story and future vision for the startup.
When asked how he started a company that now employs 19 people while still a student at YU managing a dual curriculum, Moisa answered that when he “first had the idea for Agora, the time commitment was minimal so balancing school and work was pretty easy. I was able to go to class, do my homework, and study for tests but I always made sure to dedicate a set amount of time each day to focus on the business.” Moisa related that he took advantage of YU’s professors and deans, seeking their advice and guidance as he devised his plan for Agora. In fact, it was these conversations with YU faculty that led him to the partners that he still works with today. But, as he got more serious with Agora and brought in two other people to work with him, “things began to get more ‘real’ which is when I had to sit down, weigh my options, and ultimately decide what the best decision was for me personally and professionally,” according to Moisa. Looking back at his time at YU, Moisa thinks that while “being a student has its challenges but the amount I gained both in and out of the classroom is something I don’t think I’d have been able to find anywhere outside of YU.”
Having left YU, Moisa was free to work on Agora full time. But that’s not to say that things automatically got easier, or that the product built itself. On the contrary, Moisa had to face a whole series of issues as he built up his company and created a functioning product. And, as is often the case with startups, financing his company was the largest challenge Moisa confronted. But, he adds a caveat that financing his project “led to an amazing learning experience and an incredible development team.”
Another issue that Moisa confronted was building up his dev team (computer programming and engineering). When building a software product such as Agora, a large and experienced dev team is needed so that the finished product is functional and enjoyable to use. Agora’s CTO, Ronan Weinberg Waks, “had the idea to build our development team in Argentina, his home country.” There, he’d be able to employ a dev team that would cost less but be just as talented as a U.S.-based team. But, Moisa describes, “this led to a slew of other issues such as the fact that, although we consider our dev team ‘in-house,’ there are cultural differences, a language barrier, and a physical divide.” However, Moisa felt that learning to work with another culture was an even bigger challenge than the language barrier or physical divide. “You can always sleep less or find a translator, but there’s no quick fix for proper communication.”
Thankfully for Moisa, these linguistic and cultural differences between his domestic and foreign employees were not insurmountable. He describes how Agora “overcame this by learning about their culture, how they worked, how they thought, and it heavily influenced the way we ran our business. We learned new ways to communicate, both literally and figuratively. We use tools that keep the current agenda and tasks very clear to the entire team, especially knowing where we stand on those tasks.” For Moisa, the result is extremely beneficial for the company in that they not only built an “incredible product,” but also one “with a powerful foundation for future growth and iteration.” And, it’s “all at a much lower cost than we thought imaginable,” adds Moisa.
The aforementioned dev team based in Buenos Aires is only one part of the larger Agora team, which also works out of offices in Ukraine and New York City. As CEO, Moisa’s role, in his own words, is to “understand and define the bigger picture of Agora.” This includes “exploring new opportunities, building partnerships, raising capital, paying bills, and my least favorite - dealing with lawyers… my wife is a lawyer though so I have good practice.” Doron David, Agora’s Chief Operating Officer, oversees the day-to-day activity of the company, enabling the rest of the team to focus on their respective roles. Ronan Weinberg Waks is the company’s Chief Technology Officer, and his job includes manages the entire development team out of Buenos Aires, recruiting new engineering talent, and deciding what technologies to use to build and optimize. His dev team includes project leader Matias Dumrauf, who handles architecture and daily team management. Working under Dumrauf are six backend and frontend developers, a satellite dev team of two people working out of Ukraine, who are responsible for Mac and Windows versions of Agora, and a mobile dev team of three people handling iOS and Android programming responsibilities. Beyond dev responsibilities are the Director of Marketing and a three-person design team. According to Moisa, the Director of Marketing Matteo Balzarini “creates and implements all marketing initiatives and schedules related to branding, messaging, and ultimately reaching new potential customers.” The design team is “responsible for design of all versions of platforms, landing page/blog, and all media related content.”
“Moisa wants Agora “to be the platform one use to manage and work with your files online. When you need to get a file, think Agora. When you need to edit on a file, think Agora. When you need to share files or work together on files, think Agora.”
As mentioned earlier, Agora just launched their product into open beta stage, and users are free to sign up and use the software. That hasn’t stopped Moisa and his team from planning new features and fixes for Agora. In the short term, Moisa plans “to continue adding new features to Agora that will not only help grow our user base but retain those already using it. Since we’re building a product for people, we always build features with users in mind and based off of user feedback.” Moisa delineated his process for considering new features based on customer feedback. “When we get suggestions or requests for new features we always have to ask “why,” not to reject the feedback, rather to truly understand why and see if this is a unique case or something needed on a wider scale.”
With people now using Agora on a daily basis, Moisa related that his team now has to focus much more on hitting their deadlines. “Generally speaking, deadlines are lax in the world of technology and we’re taking what we’ve all learned from mistakes we’ve made along the way to refine the way we operate in all aspects of the business.” According to Moisa, once they refine their product and ensure that users are happy with it, they’ll begin scaling up to larger, enterprise customers.
These shorter-term goals are critical for Moisa to ensure that the company gains customers and reaches its potential in that sense. But as a larger, long-term goal, Moisa wants Agora “to be the platform one use to manage and work with your files online. When you need to get a file, think Agora. When you need to edit on a file, think Agora. When you need to share files or work together on files, think Agora.” Moisa sees himself working on Agora for a long time, with the size of the Agora team and platform the only thing changing between now and then.
For the aspiring entrepreneur in the ranks of YU, Moisa also included his thoughts and recommendations. “First and foremost, I do not recommend dropping out of college prematurely. Really make sure you have your cards aligned…make sure you really understand the consequences of such a decision.” Moisa also cautioned, “being an entrepreneur is really tough. If you do it right you’ll end up working harder and longer hours than most ‘mainstream’ jobs out there.” Lastly, Moisa advised people to get good partners and establish a strong team. Moisa added, “Without my amazingly talented partners, Agora would not be where it is today.”