Relentlessly driving his country and economy towards a ‘developed’ nation status, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera says that while his country may have arrived late to the industrial revolution, it certainly won’t miss out on the information revolution.
With the accelerator program Start Up Chile his government have taken a bold approach. Busting through bureaucratic red tape and giving the go-ahead for officials to get stamp-happy when granting 1-year work visas, Start Up Chile dangles a $40k subsidy as bait. The program seeks to attract early-stage, high-potential entrepreneurs who will grow their companies in Chile for at least six months, using Start Up Chile as a launching platform for their globally minded businesses. Its end goal is to lead the country on a path to becoming the definitive innovation and entrepreneurial hub of Latin America. Only a year and a half since its inception, and the program is reeling in smart, passionate entrepreneurs faster than you can say Patagonian trout.
Selected from over 650 applications, there are 154 startups in the program’s second generation. With participants from all over the world, the truly global nature of the community being fertilised here is one of the program’s greatest assets. Since arriving, we have already formed friendships, (and therefore potential business connections for those of you who are a little more cynical), with fascinating people from Canada, the Netherlands, Uruguay, Finland, Estonia, Germany, and the US – the list could go on.
Start Up Chile’s people-centric approach to building an innovation hub for entrepreneurs is certainly an appealing alternative to investing millions in copycat tech valley hubs and physical infrastructure. Instead they are making relatively small investments in teams of motivated early-stage entrepreneurs from all corners of the globe. Leaders in the field of social entrepreneurship, such as the Skoll Foundation, bet on ‘good people doing good things’. Here at Start Up Chile, not only are they betting on good people doing good things, they are betting on smart people doing big things. They plan for over 1000 entrepreneurs to have participated in the program by 2014, and they are aiming for at least one of their startups to spring from obscurity and hit a home run as a $1 billion company.
Before hopping on a plane and jetting across the Atlantic, we scoured the internet for other blogs and discussions about Start Up Chile. Although the amount of positive feedback was overwhelming, particularly from the participants themselves, we encountered a few heated online debates about one particular aspect of the program. The fact that the $40k subsidy is a government grant, in other words comes out of taxpayers’ pockets, has been argued controversially in some forums. With no obligation for the entrepreneurs to stay and no equity ownership in return for the money, at first it can be hard to understand the motives behind the program and ask why foreigners are being given government hand outs.
However, the government’s objectives with this program are far more fundamental and wide reaching than immediate job creation or direct financial return. If you consider what is being spent – a relatively small investment of around USD $40M over four years – in comparison with the potential benefits of restructuring the cultural and business ecosystem, Start Up Chile starts to make a lot of sense. They are bringing in small companies with high potential, mostly tech and software, which need minimum capital while they gain traction in the market. They can be run out of a garage or an apartment. This way when a handful of these small companies take off, Chile will be a part of their explosive growth. It is clear that with such a concentrated gathering of talented people there are certain things that cannot fail to happen. Firstly, some of the entrepreneurs will fall in love with the country and continue to base their companies here. We have already met many people who are choosing to stay longer. (And it’s not only the stunning climate that is enticing us either.)
Participants are of course also enriching the local ecosystem through generating a strong startup culture within Chile. Although being an entrepreneur is becoming more widely accepted among chilenos, many still feel unable and ill equipped to pursue a path. Risk taking is not as tolerated here. The presence and interaction of Start Up Chile participants within the community is challenging these views and encouraging local entrepreneurs in Chile to take a leap of faith, to think bigger, and to think global.
With such interactions and results Chile’s ambitious goals of stimulating fundamental change in the cultural and business ecosystems and ideologies does not seem so unrealistic. International networks should continue to grow.
Like we said, they are aiming for big things. Bringing in as many highly skilled, globally minded energetic entrepreneurs as possible is a no brainer. Who wouldn’t want this for their community? It is entrepreneurs themselves who are society’s change agents. Give it a couple of years, but if all continues to go well, it will be Silicon Valley South next stop.
In the early days of Start Up Chile the headline grabbing $40k incentive was the carrot used to lure talented entrepreneurs from around the world and it still receives most of the press limelight.
In recent months this has changed. Despite the fact that the cash injection is obviously a bonus for small startups, as the entrepreneurial community here has grown, it is clear that the true value of the program lies within the growing human capital network. While chatting recently with Horacio Melo – the current Assistant Director on the programme – he said they are now able to shift their focus for promoting the program from the cash to the more intangible yet fundamental networking benefits offered to entrepreneurs and their companies as part of the flourishing Start Up Chile community. We’re behind them on that. The amount we are learning from our peers in the program is remarkable.
So what is our personal twist on the experience so far? We’ve boiled it down to three reasons why Start Up Chile is awesome.
#1. The Law of Startup Serendipity
It may be news to you, but there is in fact a law stating:
During the introductory week each of the 80+ new teams gave short personal introductions (one talented entrepreneurial maestro even played the happy birthday tune on his teeth) and an elevator pitch for their startup. It was impossible not to be blown away by the variety and sheer audacity among the startup concepts. One wackier startup even did an on-stage dissection and electrocution of cockroaches – their aim is to democratise educational tools for measuring neuro-activity. We hope that our pitch was memorable too, if only because of Dean’s live ukulele accompaniment.
Here everyone is refreshingly open about their ideas and the sense of trust is infectious. Stroll into one of the Start Up Chile co-workspaces and you’ll hear relentless discussion, pitching, brainstorming, and the whirring of a hundred brains working at top speed. It’s hard to articulate the feeling you get from being exposed to so many ideas. It is a veritable melting pot of innovative ideas and projects. Frequent meetups are organised both by the Start Up Chile team and by the entrepreneurs themselves. At these events ideas are constantly fired, parried, and absorbed around the room. From our experience the best ideas don’t form in a vacuum. Sometimes they evolve when two incomplete ideas collide during unexpected conversations over coffee.
Steven Johnson, crafter of captivating theories that span multiple disciplines, argues that connectivity is the great driver of innovation and that all great ideas come from the collision of multiple smaller ideas that then combine to form something greater than themselves. Both the diversity of backgrounds and the sharing culture within the Start Up Chile community are powerful catalysts for serendipity. We look forward to watching entrepreneurial pipe dreams transform into genuine success stories.
#2. The Kindness of Start up Founders/Founder Karma
There is also a strong peer-to-peer teaching mentality among the Start Up Chile participants. Just as we discovered that at university most of the real learning took place between the students, the same is true here with all the participants constantly trading and sharing skills. As one of the less experienced teams, we are tremendously grateful to all the entrepreneurs who have kindly loaned us their time and given us valuable insights drawn from their previous start up experiences.
#3. [It feels like] anything is possible
As we mentioned earlier, one of the program’s more tangible goals is to incubate a USD $1 billion company. This ambition is reflected in the program’s mantras. We were told emphatically at the initial presentation to ‘Go big or go home.’ The quirky blue stickers emblazoned with ‘Dare not to square or ‘Be extraordinary’ proudly appear on laptops cases everywhere. Risk taking is encouraged.
Tim Ferriss’ curious argument comes to mind. He states that doing the unrealistic in fact can be easier than doing the realistic because people have a tendency to underestimate themselves. Therefore there is often less competition for the more ambitious goals. Luckily for us, the very atmosphere around us at Start Up Chile is encouragement enough to do something that would otherwise seem too risky or too far outside the box.
Start Up Chile participants really have nothing to lose by aiming for mars. The encouragement and camaraderie between teams is exceptional. Being in an environment where bold ideas are actively encouraged, and not written off as impractical or unrealistic, radiates a narcotic tingle of possibility in the air. We feel incredibly fortunate to be here.