Michael DeFranco – Founder and CEO of Lua

I think you experience different types of failure every day and you learn, grow and build from there. Everything takes three times as long and twice as much money to build as you anticipate, so level set your expectations early on and don’t get discouraged.

Michael DeFranco is the Founder and CEO of Lua, the mobile-first communications solution for high-performance organizations that facilitates streamlined collaboration = permeating all levels and departments. He began his career at iMapData, an enterprise software company that provides security solutions to the U.S. government and Fortune 500 corporations. He started as a research intern at iMapData and progressed to become the Head Research Analyst for Legislative Intelligence, where he was responsible for intelligence verification, database design and case studies for U.S. and foreign government clients.

To bootstrap Lua, Michael built databases to help launch Bloomberg Government. He continued to work with Bloomberg Government for its ongoing research efforts. He is a participant of the United Nation’s World Forums on Education, a community member of General Assembly, a board member of Halawai (a non-profit organization focused on fostering the Hawaiian and Pacific Island community in New York City) and a New York Leader of the Foreign Policy Initiative.

Michael is a native Hawaiian and a graduate of Wesleyan University where he received a B.A. in International Relations with a focus on Nation Building and The Arab-Israeli Conflict. Michael also studied at the London School of Economics and spent two summers studying Mandarin in Shanghai.

Where did the idea for your company come from?

I was initially inspired by work I had done around Hurricane Katrina. The child of two software entrepreneurs, I was not averse to tackling big challenges, and with Katrina we looked at everything from traditional maps to the path of the storm to oil rig locations and used that data to make recommendations all the way up to the White House.

What does your typical day look like?

The best advice I was ever given by a fellow CEO was, “only do what only you can only do”. Over the last year we’ve doubled in size and I have selected industry experts to lead each department in the company, from sales to marketing to engineering and product. I spend time with each team every week and work on what I can personally do to make each team perform better. I also spend a lot of time creating feedback loops between all of our divisions, especially as we grow, to ensure that we are all synced and following the same mission. This includes reviewing and tweaking our sales strategy to reworking our product roadmap, always thinking 6-12 months down the line.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Using a phrase from one of our mentors, Joel Spolsky, we “eat our own dogfood,” meaning the Lua team uses the Lua platform each and every day. This keeps us honest with ourselves. By doing this we’re able to see how usable our product actually is, catch bugs before we release new software, identify what can be improved, and create our next features before our clients realize they want them. This has been the case time and again, from adding two-touch conference calling to developing a smartwatch app – staying ahead of the curve means staying excited about what you’re doing, and fighting complacency. We also have a great group of clients that from day one have been fearless about testing new concepts in the field before they’re publicly available.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

It should come as no surprise that the enterprise mobility trend is most exciting to me, as I founded my business because of it. I’m thrilled to see companies of all industries and sizes offering their workers unprecedented levels of autonomy, allowing for higher internal morale while also easing global expansion for any business that employs smartphone owners. When your workers can go anywhere, the possibilities for your company are endless – we hope to help businesses get there. As a daily user of a Samsung Gear, I also see massive potential for wearables in hands-free work environments like hospitals, warehouses and hotels.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

My weekly practice of Hawaiian “Papa Oli” or chanting. Once a week I Skype with the gracious master chanter Dr. Pualani Kanaka’ole Kanahele who calls from Hilo, Hawaii. She’s been teaching me our ancient oral history and training me in the chants of the old days. This allows me to use a different part of my brain, train myself to use my voice in challenging ways, push myself to memorize long verses and find a peaceful meditative space. Grandma Pua’s transfer of wisdom is what keeps me going every week, I can’t thank her enough for what she is gifting me with and I share a few of these chants with our company. We start each Monday morning with a Hawaiian War Chant, “I Ku Mau Mau!” Finding your peaceful inner space is imperative to staying productive week after week, and I encourage everyone to find their own.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I started Lua while an undergrad in college. I was always playing with computer parts growing up to find interesting ways for them to work together. I did work as a waiter in an Italian restaurant for many years while in high school and college. Serving the public is challenging, it taught me patience. I’m forever grateful for those lessons and I learned how to make a great marinara sauce.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

As a first time founder, I’m grateful for every lesson I’ve learned along the way. Lot of the times I learned them the hard way and that’s okay. As I’ve been told many times along this journey, there no class on learning how to be a CEO. This is a trial by fire lifestyle and it gets scorching hot sometimes, but I still have my eyebrows. Basically, I wouldn’t change very much. You learn through trial and error, so I happily share advice about the lessons I’ve learned to any aspiring entrepreneur who asks. Strauss Zelnick taught me the lesson of sharing knowledge and giving back and I take that to heart.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I make sure to talk to our customers directly and as often as possible – to the point where most of them can message me directly through Lua. It’s an unpopular approach (for now) and I’ve been told repeatedly that my company and I will “grow out of it.” However, at the end of the day, the individuals who make up Lua as a company are incredibly smart, talented people, but they’re just that – people. We don’t pretend to know everything, and we haven’t worked in all industries, so it’s exciting to us to hear the thoughts of our customers and learn what they could really use. We can build features that make sense to us, but when it comes to industry specific – be it manufacturing, event management, hospital administration, military, or any others – we make sure to listen and learn from our clients.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

I encourage every member of my company to get involved in decisions, and make sure that Lua fosters a welcoming and relaxed company culture. In this way we’ve been able to make more sound decisions, anticipate client needs and function more cohesively as a group.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I think you experience different types of failure every day and you learn, grow and build from there. Everything takes three times as long and twice as much money to build as you anticipate, so level set your expectations early on and don’t get discouraged.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I would love for someone to build a great mobile experience for learning foreign languages.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

Once a month I ship poi, a Hawaiian staple root, from Kauai to NYC and help distribute to the homesick Hawaiian community out here. It’s an acquired taste but is an incredibly healthy superfood!

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I love watching foreign policy unfold in real time over Twitter. Watching the Arab Spring come to life and Libyan rebel forces coordinating with the NATO twitter account live was life changing for me.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche. Bringing a form of spirituality into your daily work life is very important so you are always striving for something higher than your personal materialistic goals.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Strauss Zelnick’s SUCCESS: A Concise Guide to Having the Life You Want
Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism
Fred Wilson’s Blog:


Lua on Twitter: @getLua
Lua on LinkedIn: