Land of Unicornios
This article was originally published on Linked'In
Argentina, the comeback ecosystem
Estoy romántico y repleto de clichés – Gustavo Cerati
Yes, things are looking rosy in Argentina’s entrepreneurial sector. I’m just back from Buenos Aires, a lucky opportunity to be immersed in the varied networks of investors, innovation platforms, and corporate and university accelerators. The 'Ministerio de Producción' invited 12 judges to evaluate VC funds and accelerators for a promising new initiative of its Secretary of Entrepreneurs. Along with colleagues from Mexico, Brazil, Panama, Uruguay, the United States, Germany and Israel, I spent four energizing days meeting with Argentina’s emerging entrepreneurs.
Earlier this year, the Argentinian congress passed a new Entrepreneurs’ Law, the ‘Ley de Emprendedores,’ providing a comprehensive set of tools and policies to spark one of the most fascinating ecosystems in the world. With a new and friendlier regulatory environment, community and education initiatives, financing support, tax incentives, as well as social innovation and internationalization programs, Argentina is a great place to start a tech company. After all, it is home to 4 of the 6 Latin American unicorns.
Argentina’s supportive business climate has kicked in years after successful initiatives in Chile, Mexico, and Colombia— and quite late to the tech party that has lifted ecosystems throughout developing economies. So, what’s all the fuss about it?
In one word: talent. Argentinians are resilient, ambitious, and full of imagination.
A century ago, Argentina was the world’s tenth wealthiest nation, in per capita terms. This prosperity began to falter in the 1930s, and periods of stagnation and crisis left the country lagging behind more modest emerging economies. More recently, decades of political instability, corruption, chronic inflation, and isolationist policies effectively crippled Argentina’s private sector.
Tech entrepreneurs have navigated adversity since the first founders started building companies for the Internet. Financing is never easy to find, talent is difficult to develop, markets are not always accessible, and the rules of the game keep changing. But if you were based in Argentina and managed to raise capital, you were only halfway there—you would still need to repatriate the capital and provide a reasonable path to liquidity to foreign investors.
Marta Cruz is a great example of the resilience you find in Argentinian founders. Much like a startup nation, Argentina is a nation of immigrants and entrepreneurs that are used to jumping at opportunities. Perseverance is a must if you’re cutting corners to get ahead—and ducking to avoid friendly fire, at times.
In 2011, Marta Cruz joined forces with Ariel Arrieta, Gonzalo Costa and Francisco Coronel to launch NXTP Labs, following in the footsteps of Linda Rottenberg, who founded the influential Endeavor accelerator 10 years earlier. Marta, Ariel, Francisco, and Gonzalo envisioned NXTP as Latin America’s first regional seed accelerator. There were other independent accelerators facing far more stable environments, but these focused primarily on their local markets: 21212 in Brazil; Mexican.VC and Venture Institute in Mexico; and SocialAtom in Colombia.
Fast forward to 2017 and nearly 200 investments later—NXTP Labs continues supporting founders in 15 countries and is raising a $100 million a series A and B fund. It’s the first seed accelerator in the region with such a large follow on program. They’re succeeding not because it was easy but because Marta and her partners persevered.
Argentina is not home to the region’s biggest tech companies by chance. Founders swing for the fences, in part thanks to some great role models: Marcos Galperin started the largest e-commerce company in the region; Roberto Souviron grew Despegar to dominate travel; Alec Oxenford has disrupted three industries globally; and Wences Casares has changed the fintech industry. Many of these visionaries have become mentors as well as angel and VC investors, creating what Endeavor calls the multiplier effect: the positive feedback loop of successful entrepreneurs helping and inspiring new generation of entrepreneurs, who will in turn become role models themselves.
One of the most ambitious entrepreneurs I met last month is a civil servant named Mariano Mayer. After 15 years working as an attorney for entrepreneurs, he joined the Buenos Aires urban government in 2013 to establish a new ‘Innovation Plan’ for the city. He tested a new approach to public policy that would give him learnings and credibility to launch a national agenda.
When his boss Mauricio Macri won the presidency in 2015, Mayer was appointed Secretary of Entrepreneurs and SMEs to foster entrepreneurship. His ambition of creating a global innovation hub is proportional to the potential for creating a highly fertile landscape for high-impact entrepreneurs. He was able to convince the Argentinian congress that the best path to development and to alleviate poverty is to support entrepreneurs. Yes, Mayer is swinging for the fences.
Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars – Norman Vincent Peale
This level of positive thinking is found throughout Argentina. Argentinian literature is one of the most prolific and influential in the Spanish-speaking world. Per capita, there are more bookstores in Buenos Aires than in any other city in the world. The country’s singer songwriters are among the most famous, its publicists and film makers among the most ingenuous. Excluding food, maybe, most Latin Americans agree Argentinians are a creative bunch. They can imagine a future or a new world and take us all there with skill and grace.
The world’s most influential entrepreneurs, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs to Elon Musk, could visualize a future and had the power to make their dream materialize with hard work and risk taking. The combination of these features is essential. In founders, I think it’s harder to identify the true visionaries, though.
Emiliano Kargieman jumps out as one of these interesting visionaries, in my view. After launching several tech startups and impact organizations, Emiliano imagined the power of a constellation of small satellites around earth. While attending Singularity University in 2010, he planned to create a network of affordable micro satellites capable of taking high-resolution images in real time anywhere in the world. The potential and early traction allowed his company, Satellogic, to raise $30 million from Valor Capital, Tencent Holdings, and Endeavor Catalyst, among others. Today, it is considered one of the most promising startups of the new space revolution led by SpaceX.
Since 2012, the VC firm I founded has backed outstanding entrepreneurs from all over the world who are changing industries in Latin America and elsewhere: a brilliant Swedish serial entrepreneur, a genius Colombian mathematician, a Russian execution master, a Spanish visionary, and many more.
As we explore Latin America’s investment opportunities, it’s the pitches from Argentinians that always stand out. When they raise capital, Brazilians make you dream, Chileans prosecute the investment case, and Mexicans invite you to join a mission. But Argentinians fight you—they’re that intense. In general, their passion for the product and their vision can be almost too strong. It’s not that they don’t recognize your insights or feedback; quite the opposite. They just love proving you wrong. That passion when pitching is the same energy that allows these founders to build monster companies against all odds.
When we started hunting for Unicornios in 2012, our inexperience and naiveté led us to look hard for the next great company — a groundbreaking business model or technology with great economics solving a big problem. It wasn’t until recently that we realized we needed to find the dreamers instead. Today, like a lot of local and international colleagues in Latin America, we’re looking for the Lionel Messi of entrepreneurs. Rosario, Cordoba, Santa Fe, Mendoza, La Pamor Buenos Aires seem like great places to start looking for someone who will pitch hard, and then swing for the fences.