Colombia’s Entrepreneurial Ecosystem: Interview with Alan Colmenares

The next person I visited in Bogotá was Alan Colmenares. He’s the Director for the Founder Institute Colombia, Program Director for SocialAtom Ventures, the Founder/Principal at Tropical Gringo, and is an advisor and investor in a host of companies. He’s worked in Silicon Valley, on the east coast of the US, and in Latin America. He’s also the man who almost everyone else I spoke with in Colombia told me I must speak with, so I was very excited to meet him and pick his brain.

Alan is from the United States but has Colombian parents and has been living in Colombia for the past 18 years.

The first thing that Alan had to say about Colombia’s entrepreneurial ecosystem was that,

“it’s really far behind,”

and he thinks a large reason for that is the fact that,”everything is really slow. Things move slowly in general here,” and that includes entrepreneurs.  According to Alan,

“the speed of execution is the biggest difference [between Colombian startups and U.S. startups].”

Along those same lines, he notes that,  

“there is also a knowledge thing here – people want the expert to tell them what to do instead of just going and doing it. They don’t understand that they can do things by themselves.”

 

In addition to these cultural components slowing Colombia’s movement towards a fully developed startup scene, “internet penetration is lagging….[and] it’s harder to convert customers. People are much more scared to purchase, which is not the case in Brasil or even in Chile,” Alan told me.

Despite the setbacks, however, Alan sees Colombia as well-positioned to become a hub of startup activity.

“I actually see an amazing potential, although it has not yet been realized,” he said, “for Colombia to be a great launchpad in Latin America…It’s not a homogeneous region, which makes it much more challenging, but if you can actually pull it off it makes it much more valuable…

If you look at the size, it’s small enough to be something that you can manage, almost like an MVP market, but it’s big enough that it can mean something. It’s really a unique market to launch stuff out of out…

…That’s the promise. Let’s see if it comes to realization.”

Alan doesn’t think Colombia will be able to develop its ecosystem into a fully mature and self-sustaining one in the near future. However, as an investor, he sees great potential right now, even while the ecosystem is still young.

“I think it’s going to take awhile to get there,” he said, “but, in the meantime, in the next 5 years, I think there are great opportunities to invest in people who get it.”

Want to be one of the entrepreneurs who gets it? Alan recommends that entrepreneurs,

“don’t wait for the expert [to tell you how to build your company]…In history we’ve never had a time when you can have so much access to so much information, but people just haven’t caught up in their habits,” he said.

Go out there, find the information you need, and get moving. He also recommends that entrepreneurs let go of their perfectionism so that they can push forward. Today’s startup marketing techniques don’t require the crazy investments of billboards and television commercials, so new entrepreneurs shouldn’t seek perfection before getting the word out. They should get their product in front of as many people as possible and take advantage of that user feedback.  

At the same time, new entrepreneurs need to be able to look to the future and the big picture while working on operational excellence and not just trying to come up with a super innovative idea. As an investor, Alan says,

“the biggest obstacle to me is not valuations, it’s deal flow. There’s tons of deal flow but it’s a lot of garbage…I see a lot of people focused on one little thing but they don’t have a clear idea of why that’s interesting…The ones that are interesting to me are guys or women who can create amazing stuff and have a big vision: they say okay, we’re focused on this one little thing now but once we get it going we want to go here and here.” 

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