Tiago Sottomayor: Reshaping Employee-Engagement through Gamification

The 10 Most Innovative Tech Leaders Shaping the Future, 2024

Tiago Sottomayor is the Chief Technology Officer & Board Member at vaibe, responsible for defining high-level strategic decisions and crafting comprehensive technology-focused strategies. Under his exceptional leadership, vaibe has quickly become a competitive player in the employee-engagement space. Along with his ingenuity, Tiago’s caring attitude has been instrumental in creating a work culture where employees feel empowered and motivated to deliver their best.

Throughout his career, Tiago has helped people grow, achieve great results, and become leaders. Now, he sees people who previously worked under him reaching out, expressing their desire to work with him again. This, he says, is the best recognition he has received as a leader.

Life before vaibe

Tiago started his journey with vaibe in March of 2022. He brought with him 12 years of consultancy experience and a proven track record in optimizing performances across multiple projects and teams. Prior to joining vaibe, he was working as the Delivery Manager & Squad Lead at BJSS.

After completing university, Tiago moved to Madrid, Spain to gain international exposure. There, he worked for a little longer than 6 months. Although he worked for a brief period in an international environment, it provided him with invaluable experience.

Tiago went to Madrid without any intention of building his career abroad. He always had a return ticket. Once he returned to Portugal, he joined a consultancy company, where he started as an intern. “After my eight-month internship, I had what I call a mix of choice and luck,” he says. “I made the decision to stay there.”

At the consultancy company, Tiago met an “extraordinary” mentor, Hugo Pedro. He took him under his wing and pushed him to become the better version of himself at every step of the way, allowing him to grow and fail in a safe environment. He mentored Tiago for more than seven years.

At the age of 24, Tiago became a Team Leader at the company, leading people over 40 with much more experience than him. It was challenging as well as a great opportunity for him. Now, when he looks back, he feels that his team leadership days set the foundation for everything he is currently doing as a leader.

Hugo promoted Tiago to Professional Services Manager just before he left the company. In this role, Tiago oversaw over 150 people and more than 30 projects.

Lessons Learned from Mistakes and Challenges

Over the years, Tiago has faced multiple challenges and setbacks. He has always viewed them as opportunities to learn valuable lessons. For him, failures are an integral part of the growing and learning process, teaching a person more than success. And, fortunately, he says, he has always had the support of someone, guiding him through his failures.

Tiago recalls one of his mistakes from the initial days of his career. When he began managing projects, the first thing he did was super-organize his email inbox. “It was pristine, with lots of rules for routing emails to the correct folders,” Tiago remembers. Among these rules was one to ‘mark as read’. One day, a client called him, requesting an urgent response to an email he had sent 2 weeks prior – an email Tiago had not seen until that phone call. This mistake made him remove the ‘mark-as-read’ step from his rules.

Another mistake that taught him a valuable lesson involved failing to intervene at the right time. A few years after he left Madrid, he got the opportunity to work with a Spanish client. During a meeting to kick off the project, someone from Tiago’s company said something that put the project in jeopardy. Tiago, however, chose not to intervene because of his rusty Spanish. This proved to be a big mistake when he later tried to correct his colleague’s statement, complicating matters for everyone. This experience, he says, taught him the importance of raising flags sooner rather than later.

One of his first leadership roles taught him not to micromanage. When he first stepped into a project management role, he began to micromanage and control everything. He became super-focused on getting everything completed at the right time, leaving no room for creativity or mistakes. “By doing that, I was killing myself, working close to 18 hours a day,” he recalls. “I was not even allowing the team to understand the impacts of undiscussed, unscoped, or unnecessary changes.” Once he realized that, he changed his approach.

About the Startup vaibe

vaibe is a gamification B2B SaaS startup founded in early 2023. It currently employs about 33 people across engineering, product, marketing, sales, and customer service from Portugal and the world. It follows a fully remote work model. According to Tiago, the company has customers in the U.S., Canada, Portugal, Germany, and France, with multi-year contracts. “We’re helping more than 12,000 users with their employee engagement,” he adds.

The company’s mission is to help companies improve their employee engagement, applying gamification concepts to any success-related KPI that is impacted by human behavior.

vaibe focuses on employee engagement because, as proven by multiple studies, a higher employee engagement leads to higher productivity, fewer errors, and ultimately, a higher bottom line. Tiago highlights that it is also the foundation of every successful company. “The employees of these companies aren’t just employees,” he says. “They are also the company’s advocates, promoting the company with pride.”

Tiago also highlights that vaibe’s primary focus is on employees who are normally overlooked when it comes to engagement; no one cares about their well-being as well. These employees, he adds, are crucial to the world. They work in warehouses, contact centers, cleaning, hospitality, and last-minute delivery services.

Key Contributions to Facilitate Company’s Growth

As someone who believes in the potential of people, Tiago is passionate about empowering them to achieve their best. Under his leadership, vaibe hires talent based on soft skills such as willingness, communication, and ambition. “I took some (calculated) risks, hiring people straight out of university, and they’ve been incredible,” he says. Tiago also brought in individuals without a “perfect” university record or a college degree. This hiring approach of his has led to the formation of miscellaneous and heterogeneous teams. “It helped us to challenge our beliefs about how our product should be and build a better version of it every step of the way,” Tiago says.

He points out that he, too, lacks a “perfect” university record. He initially chose to study economics, but a “lucky episode” led him to switch to an engineering/technology degree, which he found immensely enjoyable. However, he did not fall in love with engineering or technology. “I’m not a typical chief technology officer who thinks technology is the holy grail,” Tiago says. “Technology is just an enabler for people to achieve something.” As the CTO at vaibe, his primary focus is on people. This, he believes, is a rarity in the technology space.

In addition to the creation of a heterogenous team, the other key contribution of Tiago is the lean development of vaibe. His decade-plus consultancy experience enabled him to play a pivotal role in this. He informs that their MVP was far from perfect, although it was the best version that they could build at the time with the information and knowledge they had. “So, our lean approach, where we had just enough people to build it until proven, was a plus to help us reach where we are now,” Tiago says.

His consultancy experience also enabled him to introduce the culture of cost-consciousness in the company. It helps the company manage its limited budget effectively. “For example, we manage cloud costs carefully, which allows us to spend money on other areas, such as team training,” Tiago explains.

Brief Introduction to Partner

Tiago Sottomayor developed vaibe with Nick Retzmann, who serves as the Chief Growth and Product Officer and a Board Member at the company. He is a seasoned executive with a keen focus on fostering organizational development. He is responsible for steering the company’s growth trajectory and developing an outstanding SaaS product.

“Nick is dedicated to fostering a culture of innovation and collaboration, prioritizing the principles of a growth mindset and fostering strong thinking partnerships,” Tiago says. “By instilling these concepts into the fabric of vaibe’s culture, he empowers individuals to think entrepreneurially and make informed decisions, thereby propelling the company towards sustainable success.”

vaibe is not Nick’ first venture as an entrepreneur. After attaining a double bachelor’s degree in economics and politics, with a major in statistics and econometrics, he founded his first company, which specialized in providing outsourcing and logistics services bridging Germany and China. Subsequently, Nick completed his master’s degree at the world’s first business school, ESCP. Armed with an advanced understanding of business principles, he delved into the realm of strategy and M&A consulting.

Later, indulging his entrepreneurial passion, Nick invested in, nurtured, and expanded multiple ventures in collaboration with well-known company builders. He was driven by a strong commitment to working alongside founders who possessed unwavering belief in their products, catalyzing transformation across various industries. “By helping these founders through venture capital rounds and developing growth strategies together, Nick solidified his standing as a dynamic and capable leader, poised at the forefront of innovation and success,” Tiago says.

“With vaibe, he created a strong relationship between the venture and an international technology group, which has more than 12,000 employees at over 100 locations worldwide,” he adds.

The Leadership Approach  

As a leader, Tiago does not fixate on working hours or when people start their work and finish it. “I care about them,” he says. “So, if they want to accompany a relative to a medical appointment, I tell them to do that.”

He believes in creating a safe space that allows everyone to try and fail – failure is acceptable and not frowned upon. Such a space, he says, has maximum freedom as well as maximum responsibility, and offers a fun work environment. “I can say from my experience that a secure and happy team delivers great outcomes,” Tiago points out.

Tiago does not seek perfection from his employees. He quotes Chef Blumenthal’s words, “The word perfectionism has no place in creativity. It is the enemy of creativity. It breeds fear,” to highlight that the quest for perfection interferes with innovation. And, according to him, cooperation is crucial for making innovation happen. “Because of that, for me, it is super important to foster a “help each other” culture, which helps fuel rapid growth,” Tiago says.

A CTO’s Day at Work

As he is the CTO at a startup, Tiago does not have a typical day. He oversees multiple projects – these are not just limited to technology. In addition to influencing all the technological aspects at vaibe, he also helps in other areas as well, such as marketing and sales, and a bit of HR/recruitment and Finance. The non-typical aspect of his work is what drives him, allowing him to grow and gain expertise in different areas.

For example, currently, he attends weekly meetings with his engineering leadership team, where they share the status of their product development and timeline, planning eight weeks ahead. Recently, he returned from an international tradeshow where he handled Product Demos. “Showcasing our product helped in the sales process – which is something new in my career,” Tiago says. “If you had asked me 10 years ago, ‘How do I feel about helping with sales’, my answer would have been: ‘It would never happen’. Now, it is one of the most enjoyable parts of my day.”

In addition to defining the strategy, Tiago helps the company’s people to become the best version of themselves. He also steers the “ship” in order to achieve their goals – such as becoming a leading B2B gamification startup that helps other companies improve their employee engagement. “I also provide all the information to our board and shareholders,” he adds.

Working at a startup is hectic and demanding, yet Tiago makes sure to maintain a balance between his personal and professional life. This is one of the “biggest” life changes he adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier, he never prioritized work-life balance and worked long hours, as he enjoyed his work.

He still enjoys his work, but now, he also values his work-life balance and blend. He takes time out for himself, for example, to go to the gym daily. He regularly travels, but this not affect his work. For instance, during his visit to Bali, he enjoyed the beach during the day, and then, he logged in at 5 p.m. to start his work day in the same time zone as the team in Portugal.

Bridging Personal and Professional Life

Success, for Tiago, means being happy in both his personal and professional life. He believes focusing on success in one aspect often creates problems in the other. One might achieve great things professionally, but if they are not successful in personal life, true success will remain elusive, according to him. “So, currently, I define success as a bridge between personal and work life,” he says.

For him, success also means feeling good about oneself, living in the present, enjoying daily activities, waking up with a smile, and not dreading Mondays. And he sees success as a journey rather than a destination. “Sometimes you feel successful, sometimes you don’t, but how you handle those feelings is what makes it impactful,” he says.

And Tiago is a “simple person” with a simple goal – to be happy on the bridge between personal and professional life, especially by living in the present. Personally, he also wants to continue enjoying his time with his girlfriend and friends by indulging in what he likes the most – good food and wine and travel.

Vision and Plans for the Future 

Tiago and his team envision a future where workplaces are not only productive but also inspiring and enjoyable. They want to establish vaibe as a global leader in the employee-engagement space through gamification, setting new standards for creating dynamic, collaborative, and fulfilling work environments.

By leveraging technology and gamification, coupled with a commitment to continuous improvement, Tiago says that they aim to make their product the catalyst for a positive transformation in organizational cultures across the world, where every employee’s potential is unlocked, and success is achieved collectively.

“We want to deliver a technology platform to our customers, which will allow them to use gamification and promote what we call ‘success psychology’ in companies,” he explains. Though this term does not officially exist in psychology literature, Tiago says that it is “self-explanatory” and offers a simpler explanation of their vision.

Advice for Aspiring Leaders

For aspiring leaders in the industry, Tiago has a simple advice – “Give 110% to everything you do.” Whether it’s work or personal life, make sure to give your best, he tells them. He also reminds them to have fun while doing that. “If you’re not having fun, try the second best: learn,” he says. “If it’s none, just move over – It’s not worth it.”