Founder of $450 Million Company Grew Up Without a Phone

"I used to spend more than two hours on public transportation to get to school every day"
Andrew Thomas August 18, 2018

This man faced more obstacles than one can imagine to attain success. However, with a lot of ingenuity and determination, he has become one of the most successful businessmen in the world.

Flávio Augusto da Silva grew up in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, under some of the toughest conditions conceivable.

He lived in a 700-square-foot apartment with both his parents, his two sisters, and his grandmother. Space was tight, and they had to share only one bathroom.

Augusto da Silva was serious about his education, and went to great lengths to learn.

(Courtesy of Astrid Heine Hax)

“Before high school, I used to spend more than two hours on public transportation to get to school every day,” he told Humanity in an email interview.

Having grown up in a poor community, he had an ardent desire to make a professional career for himself. In 1991, when he was 19 years old, he got his first job in telesales selling English language learning courses.

“I was actually very happy because I got the job. It was my first professional experience. The thing that attracted me the most was that I could be promoted as long as I got better results in that job,” Augusto da Silva explained.

However, his new job required him to have a phone.

(pixabay)

Even if his family could have afforded one, there was a long waiting list to get a phone in the city.

Nevertheless, Augusto da Silva was an innovative young man. He used his initiative and came up with a clever idea to overcome this obstacle.

He went to Santos Dumont Airport in Rio and used the public phones there.

(pixabay)

For at least three hours a day, he made sales calls, using his own money to pay for them. The airport became his office.

“There were at least two good reasons to use airport public phones: first, it was a better atmosphere compared to the public phones in the streets.

“Second, we also had air conditioners, bathrooms, and also the charming announcements that impressed the clients on the phone while we were trying to set an appointment with them,” he explained.

Some people might have seen this work environment as a problem. To Augusto da Silva, it was the solution.

After three months he was promoted to a junior sales manager position, and got his own office.

He worked for the company that hired him for four years, and earned a number of promotions, rising quickly through the company.

But after four years, he saw another problem: the managers weren’t willing to invest to improve their product. For the ambitious young man, this was a major issue.

So he quit his job and started thinking about the future.

(Courtesy of Astrid Heine Hax)

Nearly all English language courses at the time were geared toward teenagers and young adults going abroad.

He had a forward-thinking idea of what the market in Brazil would look like in terms of selling English language courses, but it was an alternative idea.

Augusto da Silva predicted that there would be a large influx of foreign businesses into Brazil, and knowing English would be required to get a good job at one of these companies.

(Courtesy of Astrid Heine Hax)

“In fact, trying to convince people in the ’90s in Brazil that in the future to speak English would be a requirement to get a good job was extremely challenging,” Augusto da Silva recalled.

That’s when he set out on his own. He started his own English language course company called Wise Up in 1995.

“I believe this was the most challenging thing I ever made in my life,” he recalled.”I didn’t have any kind of financial support from our family and also hadn’t accumulated enough money to start the business.

“The only alternative I had was to take a $20,000 [overdraft] loan from the bank, paying a huge interest: 12 percent per month.”

The money was only enough to refurbish his new company’s office.

Faça o mundo entender você. Faça Wise Up.

Posted by Wise Up on Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Augusto da Silva relied entirely on enrollment fees from new students to pay his 18 employees, rent, and expenses.

Nevertheless, his intuition and his gamble paid off.

“At that time, a lot of international companies landed in Brazil, and English was required for the best job opportunities as we said years before. It happened!” he recalled.

Suddenly there was demand for his product and he was perfectly positioned to take advantage of it.

“We reached more than 1,000 students in the first year. A huge success,” he remembered.

The business had taken off. Within the first year he opened a second location in Sao Paolo. That school enrolled 1,500 students in less than a year. A year later, Wise Up was making $500,000 a month.

Over the next three years, Wise Up opened up 24 new locations.

After 18 years of building a successful company, he decided it was time to sell.

Augusto da Silva sold Wise Up for almost $450 million in 2013 at age 39.

(Courtesy of Astrid Heine Hax)

His fresh start meant Augusto da Silva could refocus his efforts on giving back.

“During 2013, I dedicated my time 100 percent to Geração de Valor, which is a non-profit organization that promotes entrepreneurship as a way to change people’s lives,” he explained.

“I focused my time on producing content to help young people to start their own business.”

In a strange twist of fate, things weren’t going well with the new management of Wise Up, and in 2015 the owner made him a good offer.

He bought his original company back.

Augusto da Silva has no regrets.

“I feel very comfortable because this is a business that I really know deeply very well,” he said.

And the company has continued to grow under his leadership.

“We are growing organically in the last two years since I came back. In total we have more than 420 schools today and we have a lot to do, expanding organically and also acquiring new competitors.”

Today, Augusto da Silva divides his time between his business, wife and children, and Orlando City football club, of which he is the majority owner. And through it all, he remains humble.

“I’m as happy today as I was at the time when I had no money,” he said. “That means if I lose everything one day, I will remain rich.”

(Courtesy of Astrid Heine Hax)