The Caribbean Startup Ecosystem: A Leapfrogging Opportunity
The Caribbean region is at an interesting juncture in its development and evolution. In fact, I recently attended the startup ecosystem event ATECH Conference where I participated as a guest speaker. I’ve come away from this event quite enthusiastic about what will come out of this region in the way of innovative startups. Other speakers included Ray Walia, Managing Partner at Launch Academy; Oscar Kneppers, Founder of the RockStart accelerator in Amsterdam; and Angus Nelson from Crowd Companies, among others. The event was organized by Liv Group CEO Varelie Croes and co.Lab founder Tristan Every.
This was an amazing kickoff in the effort to fortify the Caribbean Startup Ecosystem. It’s difficult, for me, not to get nostalgic about the Colombian ecosystem five years in the past. Back then, I had decided to run a chapter of the Founder Institute, an idea stage incubator, in the country (which I still run today) in an effort to bring Silicon Valley-level mentoring to idea-stage startup founders in Colombia. Much as is the case today with the ecosystem in the Caribbean, the startup ecosystem in Colombia was incredibly small in 2010. By Silicon Valley standards, it is still minuscule and, even more challenging, Colombia still can point to few big outcomes (e.g., building a big company using local talent), but there are some key learnings from which the Caribbean can benefit.
One lesson is to obsess less on quantity and focus much more on quality of startups and the support provided to these. Neither group should be ignored, but the research on this subject is pretty clear and points to the incredible influence played by the few home run startups in seeding future founders from their employee ranks. Additionally, executives from these startup success stories, support the ecosystem by becoming angel investors and advisors.
For this reason, ecosystem builders need to balance the support given to idea stage startups with support for those few companies that start to break away from the pack. Their needs are quite different and the latter will require high caliber advice on topics such as startup scaling, international expansion and management and leadership skills. I’ve seen much more emphasis on the former and underwhelming efforts on the latter. This is unfortunate, because some studies have shown that the key to building stronger ecosystems came from building on top of winners.
This is where I believe the Caribbean can leapfrog other ecosystems. Thanks to its proximity to the U.S., English as a common language and an international mindset, this region has an advantage when it comes to attracting high quality mentors with strong track records. The region also boasts incredible talent to support this nascent ecosystem. In addition to Varelie and Tristan, I have the pleasure of knowing two impressive Caribbean ecosystem builders, Marcos Polanco and Ramphis Castro, both originally from Puerto Rico.
Before continuing their impressive careers in Silicon Valley and New York, respectively, they were actively working to accelerate and train a new generation of entrepreneurs in the region. They mentioned a number of startups to watch in the region. These include Blimp, a team productivity tool, uDiscover, a music discovery tool, Spotery, a site for finding work and activity spaces, and iGenApps, software for building your own mobile app.
It’s still early days, but examples do exist. The excellent access to talented ecosystem builders, great location and language advantages and the ability to learn from other ecosystem builders, I believe, form the foundation to help the region leapfrog onto the global stage as a new world class startup ecosystem.