We sat down with Rodrigo Zerlotti, Avalara GM for Latin America, to learn more about him, and about Avalara’s plans in this exciting region. Here are excerpts from our lengthy discussion:
Avalara: Tell us about how you chose this career?
Rodrigo Zerlotti: I’ve always enjoyed technology, my entire life, since I was a kid. To get closer to technology, I found physics. When I finished studying physics, I decided to study space engineering. I worked a lot with rocket science (yes indeed!) especially rocket trajectory. My dream was to work in some important science center, similar to NASA, which is why I moved to the United States and began my PHD in Aerospace Engineering. At the same time, the world of computing was beginning to boom. That’s when my interest in computer technology was triggered.
I eventually abandoned my aerospace engineering PHD and began to take computing courses at the University of Texas to fully enter the world of technology. I considered myself lucky, since UT’s program and I were mutually interested in specializing in computer programming. Also, coincidentally, this was happening at the same exact time that the Internet was taking off (early-mid 1990s). Since I had so many ideas and projects in my mind, it became clear to me that my next step would be to become an entrepreneur.
In 1993-94 in Austin, Texas I became interested in creating new projects and setting up my own company. I worked with some Internet startups at the time, mostly for my own learning experience. I was a program developer for Radian International, but also worked at Anything Over Night, Up To Date, and DBlive was my last job in the U.S. before I moved back to Brazil.
Avalara: What was your job role within these companies?
RZ: I was responsible for technology strategies. I would create products or I’d learn how to use the company’s technology in the most efficient way possible. This was also a time where I explored management. As a manager, I discovered how to lead teams to solve problems; I began to understand how to operate a company.
Then an opportunity came along to bring a new technology that was starting to appear in the United States to developing countries – in this case to Brazil, where I still had very strong relationships. This opportunity led me into the world of tax and accounting: bringing an American system, NetSuite, which had advanced technology in the cloud model, into Brazil.
Avalara: When did you transition from Dblive to the new world of Netsuite in Brazil? How did this transition lead you to Suiteplus?
RZ: Unfortunately, the American market was not investing in Dblive, due to economic recession. However, a fresh market growing in Brazil triggered my decision to create a new company there. In 2006, the Brazilian economy was much more stable, which gave me confidence to combine my experience in technology with my business partner’s experience in taxes. We created Suiteplus to find an American solution to Brazil’s complicated tax compliance. My business partner was Alannes Moura, who is currently a product manager for Avalara Latin America.
Avalara: Was Suiteplus your first job as an entrepreneur or was DBlive?
DBlive and Anything Over Night gave me my first access to the world of entrepreneurship. The big difference between these companies and Suiteplus, was that Suiteplus began in a new environment, Brazil. With Suiteplus, I had to adapt to the Brazilian way of doing business. The overall idea of Suiteplus was to create two things: the first was an American financial “ERP hub” in Brazil, and the other was to use this framework to build a tax calculation engine. But as we all know, the world of commerce is heterogeneous: companies use all kinds of invoicing and transaction systems for trade, and I soon realized that tax compliance automation would have to address this heterogeneous world.
So, we began our relationship with Avalara because I discovered the depth and breadth of its tax calculation engine, and its integrations with hundreds of other ERP, accounting and invoicing systems. Avalara also aligned very well with Suiteplus. So in the end, it was a matter of assigning the SuitePlus technology into Avalara’s own architecture, which also happened to be in the cloud.
Avalara: So, from 2006 to 2012-13 you were developing Suiteplus and Avalara appeared soon after?
RZ: Yes. We discovered Avalara after we gained recognition via Netsuite as a company that calculated taxes based on location. Avalara wanted to expand globally because their customers were trading cross-border. We had the experience and expertise in Brazil to adapt to Avalara’s solutions, and so together our goal was to create a differentiated solution for customers doing business in Brazi. It all began with Avalara’s acquisition of a Suiteplus product (Netsuite’s ERP location engine). Our partnership agreement, then paved the way for more innovation, such as the new Brazilian calculation engine made for Avalara.
Then I realized that we needed to accelerate Avalara’s expansion in Brazil, so I began putting together the strategy to acquire or develop other types of tax compliance solutions for the Brazilian market, such as content management, reporting, compliance and auditing. Today we are in an excellent position to address ALL of tax compliance challenges existing for Brazilian companies and for international companies that want to do business in Brazil.
Avalara: How does Avalara benefit your customers and partners?
RZ: Avalara, for our clients and partners, is committed to investing in Brazil, which is very good news. We want clients to have a “one stop shop” for all tax compliance solutions. We want partners to realize the benefits of allying with a global company.
Avalara: Do you believe Suiteplus’ solutions are well aligned with Avalara’s overall company goals and projects?
RZ: Yes, for sure! Today we can be one integrated company with a unique and differentiated product on the market.
My goal in the future is to expand this solution to South America. All countries are trying to make their transactions electronic. Since our our solution comes from Brazil, a country with the most complicated tax compliance process in South America, we believe we can further develop solutions for the rest of Latin America. Expansion will happen from our customers in Brazil and in other countries, as was well as from international customers who want to do business elsewhere in LATAM, besides Brazil.
Avalara: How will you decide which Latin American country to go to next?
RZ: We will follow our customers’ needs. Avalara has more than 20,000 customers throughout the world, and they certainly want to expand to South America, so we will base our decisions on their interests and needs. Today we know that our client in Brazil want to expand to other countries in South America, and this will define which countries we will work with first.
Avalara: So your next goal for 2017 is?
RZ: To find more projects and challenges in other Latin American countries.
Avalara: A fun fact that no one knows about you?
RZ: I love martial arts! I specialized in a Brazilian martial art called Capoeira, became a Mestre (highest level of this martial art), and was one of the first Masters of this art to bring Capoeira to the United States.
Avalara: What about your relationship with Carlos Kazuo? He mentioned that you guys are opposites but complement each other very well.
RZ: Yes! I believe that in some cases, opposites attract and this is certainly true for the two of us. We have different but very complementary expertise – his is tax and mine is technology. He is a thoughtful, process-oriented introvert and I am a strategist and very extroverted. We have great synergy and I believe our partnership is very good for Avalara and our customers and partners.