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Drift’s co-founder discusses facing the unknown

Veronica Brezina

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Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman (left), associate professor of sociology and senior advisor to the president and provost on diversity and inclusion at USF, moderates a discussion with Drift co-founder and CTO Elias Torres. Screengrab.

From a struggling Latino immigrant to establishing a unicorn company in the U.S., Drift CTO and co-founder Elias Torres has learned to face self-doubt and adversity – a journey he hopes will draw inspiration.

“I’ve lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the decisions I’ve made … I sold things I shouldn’t have sold; I didn’t invest in things I should have invested in; I didn’t go to companies I should’ve gone [to],” Torres said during a conversation panel at the University of South Florida.

“I look back and count the mistakes I have made – it doesn’t matter. Those are failures, but it doesn’t mean I’m a failure,” he continued. 

The Tampa-raised entrepreneur of Drift, which reached a $1 billion-plus valuation last year, opened up about embracing his failures and successes during the USF event as he is an alumnus, graduating in 1998.  

At 17 years old, Torres arrived from Nicaragua to the U.S. He didn’t speak English and attended Leto High School in Tampa. Through the USF Latino Scholarship Program, he was then able to study at USF. He later attended Harvard University. 

“I think we struggle in our communities. The family pulls us to stay together, don’t go far, and then we are afraid of taking risks and going somewhere else where we don’t know anybody and the weather is different, where there are people who look less like us,” he said. “I still stand by the decision I made, and I want to do good by it.” 

Torres has taken on numerous jobs ranging from cleaning houses to flipping burgers. While in college, he started working for IBM as a software engineer. 

“I was frustrated because I didn’t feel they had the passion …When you’ve been working there for 20 years and you have families and all kinds of other priorities, you don’t have the energy to build. I had more time and a different drive. Because that didn’t match, I had to go somewhere else to look for it,” he said, explaining how during his 10 years at the company he watched people leaving IBM to join startups.

He said a former IBM worker had joined Google before it became a global, household name. At Harvard, he saw people hop on the opportunity to work at Facebook when it was in its infancy. 

“I missed the first wave when I was working at IBM, and I didn’t want to miss the next wave,” he said, explaining IBM would offer him raise after raise to entice him to stay; however, he eventually made the jump to exit the company.

“I left for a company with 10 employees, no revenue, and died a year later and there was a recession,” Torres said about joining Lookery, a startup that collected demographic data about users and sites around the web and sold the information to ad networks. The startup was formed in 2007 and failed in 2009. 

Torres worked at other startups since, including serving as the vice president of engineering at software company Performable, which was acquired by HubSpot.

Performable was founded by David Cancel. Torres and Cancel were already acquainted with each other as Cancel previously was asked to help recruit Torres, then at IBM, for a company Cancel knew.

Through the years and Performable’s acquisition, the duo formed a strong relationship, becoming co-founders of Drift. 

In numerous publications, Torres credits Cancel with propelling Drift’s growth, and also notes that the pair shared a commonality of being Hispanic entrepreneurs in the tech industry. 

In providing insight to USF students about Drift climbing up the totem pole to becoming a unicorn company, he said, “By the time Drift grew to a $1 billion company, I owned a much smaller percentage than I did at the beginning. There’s a lot of pressure, less control, I cannot make all the decisions, and so forth.” 

He asked the students if they’d rather continue to have 100% ownership in a bootstrapped company or if they would try to achieve something that 99% fail at and get a small percentage of. The answer: It depends on the individual. 

“Learning how to build a business that is profitable is a great thing to learn, but there’s a lot of money out there that helps you grow faster, but there are caveats that come with that,” he said. 

He also encouraged the crowd to take chances, build relationships and curate their own paths rather than assuming they must follow a traditional route.

Today, Drift is based out of Boston and has an office in Tampa. 

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