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Francis Rafal: a visionary and entrepreneur - Getting to know the CEO and co-founder of Totoy app

Interview by Ralph Chan


Official documents such as doctors’ letters or letters from authorities are notoriously difficult to read. Even people whose native language the document is written in find it difficult. The problem is even bigger for people with a migration background who may not speak the language or do not understand the documents due to other handicaps. Roots & Wings had the privilege to talk with Francis Rafal, the CEO and co-founder of Totoy, who developed an app to provide a remedy to this situation. 



Who is Francis Rafal?

I've always been interested in computers. As a child, I programmed my first websites and tried to learn HTML and C. During my community service, after graduating from high school, I ran a computer course and taught seniors how to use computers. At the same time, I started producing and editing videos as a hobby and uploaded my first videos to YouTube. At some point, my first customer came to me and asked if I could make a video for him too. I actually founded my first company out of necessity, because I was looking for a legal way to produce videos in order and earn money from them. My hobby turned into a career. 


After two years, my film production company Rafal Studios was actually doing so well. We produced commercials and short films. Unfortunately, however, this film production failed because I didn't really have the skills in liquidity planning at the time, and I realized too late that it was no longer suitable in terms of liquidity. Furthermore, we also had three payment defaults, because customers didn't pay for finished videos. I had to lay off all employees and was €100,000 in debt. 


Over five and a half years I paid off this debt privately by co-founding other companies, including Content Creation School and Ninjawerk. Content Creation School was a training company through which we taught companies how to produce video content themselves, including using their mobile phones. Ninjawerk is a hardware startup for film accessories with which we developed a gimbal, a stabilization system for cameras. 


The Content Creation School no longer exists because after I paid off the debt, I realized that I wanted to go somewhere else with my business, so I liquidated both the Content Creation School and Rafal Studios. After Content Creation School, I wanted to focus more on my interest in software and really learn to program. And that's how I came across the new programming school in Vienna, 42 Vienna, where I've been learning programming since 2022. This is also where the idea for our app, Totoy, came from, and where I met my Totoy co-founders.


How did you become interested in entrepreneurship?

For me, entrepreneurship basically consists of two tasks: do good and talk about it. By “do good” I mean create a good product or service that solves a problem. By “talking about it” I mean bringing this product or service to customers. What's special about Totoy is that it's the first time I've co-founded a social business. 


Basically, there are three types of organizations. Profit-first organizations, which are organizations that are purely about profit, i.e. companies. There are impact-first organizations, i.e. organizations that want to bring about a specific social or ecological change; these are NGOs. And social businesses are hybrid organizations. A social business wants to bring about social or ecological change, but at the same time be economically sustainable. And that's what we want to do with Totoy: We want to solve the problems of functional illiteracy and invisible language work with an economically and technically scalable app.





Can you talk more about the development of Totoy App?

The idea for an app that explains letters from authorities using artificial intelligence came about by chance in 2022. Over dinner, a colleague and I talked about our experiences of having to translate and explain letters from the authorities and complicated documents for our parents since we were kids. Our parents can read and write German but have problems with complicated legal terms. The idea initially disappeared, but as I was studying software engineering at the programming school 42 Vienna, I had gathered enough skills to build a first prototype of the app in March 2023, using only the Apple Shortcuts app. 


This is an app on the mobile phone that you can use to program using drag-and-drop. I showed this prototype to my parents, who were really excited about it, and then I showed the app to my fellow students Simon Hoffmann, Marcel Koller, Benedikt Hielscher and Michael Perger. After the first demo, the five of us decided to work on the app full-time alongside our studies. In September 2023, we released the app for iPhone and Android. It was named "Totoy" because my parents have been asking me since I was a child in Filipino, "Totoy, ano ba 'yan?" which means "Little boy, what does that mean?”


What is the app actually about?

Totoy is basically the answer to a problem that has been close to our heart for a long time. As a child of Filipino immigrants, I was often the bridge between complex letters to the authorities and my parents, who knew German but struggled with the legal details. This experience led me and my team to develop Totoy — an app that not only translates but also explains things in simple language. In contrast to conventional translation apps, Totoy goes one step further: With Totoy on their mobile phone, users can scan documents in 95 languages and the app explains them in 18 simple languages.

 

We are trying to solve two problems with the app: functional illiteracy and invisible language work. A person affected by functional illiteracy has difficulty understanding complex texts such as contracts or a medical information sheet. With Totoy we want to help these people become more independent. Furthermore, many migrants are so-called functionally illiterate in their second language. This means that they have a high level of language competence in their native language and understand complicated texts but have problems with letters from authorities or doctors' letters in the local language.

 

The children of those affected are often used as translators, but they also fulfill the function of family lawyer or family tax advisor. With Totoy, we want to relieve migrant children of the invisible language work and enable them to have a childhood without adult responsibilities. Over the course of the year, we will have 50 languages and gradually develop Totoy into an AI assistant for all things official. A grant from the Vienna Business Agency, which we have received, is helping us to achieve our goals.


Do you have any advice for new Filipino entrepreneurs of your generation? Are there any mistakes to avoid or things you can advise them to do?

Entrepreneurs have one main task: make sure that the company doesn't die because it runs out of money. And the most important tool for this is liquidity planning. I wish I had known that before I started my first company. And accounting is not the same as liquidity planning. Accounting always deals with the past. Liquidity planning for the future. Accounting can be delegated to a tax advisor. Nobody can do liquidity planning for you, which is why you should definitely learn this skill. And all I can say is: Building and running a company is not easy. Every day you have to fight with new stumbling blocks. You need resilience and you have to build it up, even with external help such as a psychotherapist or coach. But if what is said about Filipinos is true, that they are particularly resilient, then they are actually the ideal founders.


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