Startup culture in Bogotá: An inside look


BY  on August 17, 2014

We knew Bogotá was big. But as we descended into the city, no amount of Skype calls or email threads could have prepared us for the sheer expanse of Colombia’s largest city and talent hub.

Andrew Mewborn, left and Armand Pizzicarola, right, with Paula Gutierrez, director of ImpactHUB Bogotá

Because of our prior time working on a startup out of the ImpactHUB in Seattle, we knew the organization had a global presence and decided to start out trip by paying a visit to the Bogotá location. We arrived during their lunchtime, which is significant because in Colombia, lunch is taken very seriously. Luckily, the startups at the ImpactHUB were having a joint lunch and we were able to join in and introduce ourselves to most of the ImpactHUB community in Bogotá.

The members of the co-working space and community ranged from individuals working in documentary productions to teams working on recycling initiatives. The biggest difference, though, was the diversity of the members that had come to Bogotá to grow their ventures. We met people from France, Canada, India and the U.S. who all had their own reasons for coming to Bogotá.

Paula Gutierrez is doing an awesome job running and growing the space. We were surprised to see that the doors are all unlocked via fingerprint panels — something we may have to introduce to our lunchboxes.

"Keeping true to startup workspace fashion, words of encouragement and a plaques of past startups who called the HuhBog home."
Keeping true to startup workspace fashion, words of encouragement and a plaques of past startups who called the HuhBog home.

The next spot we paid a visit to was theHUBBog; Bogotá’s first coworking space. One of it’s “grads,” if you will, is considered one of the most promising startups to come out of Colombia:Tappsi. Among other startups currently working out of the HubBog is Glubers, which you can read more about here. When we sat down with Rene Rojas, co-founder and CEO of the space, we were able to dive into his view on the investor network and what we can expect out of the startup landscape in Bogotá.

Our immediate takeaway regarding the investor network in Colombia is that it has a long way to go, but it’s making the moves necessary to move forward. Currently, there is no accreditation process for individual investors — most financing is institutional and is locked up in the hands of large investment syndicates who who take risk very seriously. It seems that there are two sides to this coin.

On one hand, it can protect against ridiculous valuations of startups that are pre-revenue. But on the other hand, it makes access to capital that much more difficult for startups who simply want to innovate and grow a user base without having a solid “plan.”

Depending on how you view the topic, the Colombian government is helping to alleviate some of the risk investors take on. The government wants to pump millions of dollars into innovation over the next couple of years, regardless of whether they’ll see a return or not. One mechanism they are using is an investment match program. If private investors inject X amount of capital into a startup (or half of what the startup actually needs), the government will match that, reducing risk on the investment firm’s side and properly funding the innovators allowing them to focus on what they do best: innovate.

Also playing a role in investing in the Colombian talent pool is Polymath Ventures.

Their model is slightly similar to that of Betaworks and other “startup studios” that are popping up around the globe. We got a chance to have beers with Ash Kirvan, a partner in the firm, to talk about what they’re doing. In their words, Polymath’s goal is to “design the venture concepts in-house, find the right founding talent to lead them, work full-time alongside the founders, and bring together the necessary capital to ensure their success.” They, as we’ve noticed as well, see a promising future in the Colombian talent pool and look to grow their hand-crafted and heavily-vetted ventures in the massive Latin American market.

Entrepreneurs in Bogotá are downright stoked to jump into the startup scene.

Individuals like Alexander Torrenegra are leading the way in creating a culture where innovators can thrive. As an icon for many eager Colombian entrepreneurs, Torrenegra founded Bunny, Inc and Torrenegra Labs, putting Colombia on the map in the startup world.

His efforts to invest in, mentor and spur Colombian entrepreneurs to pursue the market is similar to what we have seen take place in the past few years in the U.S.

Individuals like Paul GrahamAlex OhanianDave McClure, Marc Andreessen, etc. are giving back to the startup community through organizations like Y-Combinatorand 500 Startups and we see Torrenegra’s efforts in a similar fashion. It will take a couple more successful exits by Colombian entrepreneurs, like Torrenegra, to give back to the startup community and really churn out more promising ventures.

There’s no doubt it will take time for a startup landscape in Bogotá to mature. As with individual organizations entering the market after the “first-movers,” we hope the decision-makers in Bogotá’s startup landscape can play the role of the “fast-follower” and learn from any mistakes that may have plagued Silicon Valley’s rapid growth and the dot-com bubble.

Although seemingly weathered in our startup landscape, the lean-startup approach is alive and well in Colombia. Coffee shops are bustling with entrepreneurial meetings. Offices are walled with whiteboards and post-it notes. Tech meetups are supplying beer and pizza, and casual dress is infiltrating the workplace. All the stereotypical startup practices are evident in Bogotá — and we like that. It takes us back to our early college days when we were getting our feet wet in Seattle’s tech scene. So much was discovered and so many lessons were learned through failures.

As we hopped on the bus to Medellín, there was a sentiment of appreciation for those who were so eager to tell us their story.

A feeling that the individuals determined to push their ventures to a marketplace less willing to early-adopt than our own, were undoubtedly destined to succeed. In traditional Yumas fashion, here’s a massive shoutout to the entrepreneurs, mentors, investors and friends we met in the awesome city of Bogotá. We will return.

Armand Pizzicarola and Andrew Mewborn are a students of the world, startup enthusiasts, and writers/podcasters for Yumas. Keep up with their journey on Twitter @yumas_, subscribe to their podcast on iTunes, and/or drop them a note via email.