At the beginning of December, a group of 34 Colombian software designers, mobile app developers and gaming designers participated in an exploratory tour to Silicon Valley – meeting with executives at Google, Facebook, Pixar, Apple and Cisco.
The trip – which was organized by Proexport Colombia – featured several key takeaways, including alternative business management and process approaches, leading-edge ways to market and sell software and the need for Colombians to worry less about certifications and focus more on serving core business needs.
This was the second such trip of its kind (a smaller one was held in May 2010). “At the end the feeling was that they (the US companies) could work with the Colombian firms and enter the market. The experience was very inspiring,” reported a representative from Proexport.
Understand What Matters
The main takeaways from the event included understanding the way that firms in Silicon Valley structure their business models, the importance of risk taking and reducing the widely held fear of failure and the need to focus on the business opportunities in the US. Peter Darling, Vice President of US Market Center (US-MAC), stressed the importance of Colombian firms having a presence in Silicon Valley, understanding the needs of US clients and responding to them quickly.
Cross-collaborating between US and Colombian companies was a key theme. Proexport will be organizing a trip for representatives of US firms to visit Colombia so they can see firsthand the type of software services and development being done in cities like Bogota, Barranquilla, Cartagena and Medellin.
“We Latins tend to “beat around the bush… We take a longer time to close business. In the US it is straight to the point” – Jorge Enrique Umana, an executive with Azuan
Gustavo de la Vega, CEO of Proactive Consulting – soon to be rebranded as Nativapps – a developer of cross-platform apps, benefited from the access to people and companies that individuals would not normally be able to meet. “Now we are developing four or five business leads. This event is really important to get awareness in the US about what Colombian companies can do,” he said. With a development center of 80 engineers in Cartagena, Proactive Consulting established an office in San Jose, California under the Nativapps brand to help forge direct connections with US clients. Having been part of the first trip to Silicon Valley, de la Vega used this opportunity to consolidate his relationships with US contacts and the market. Currently he travels to the Valley two or three times annually, but given the success he has had, that will change to monthly in 2012.
de la Vega observed that in Silicon Valley, a startup can begin in a garage or basement with no funding and concentrate solely on developing the product before formalizing the structure or thinking about an office and attracting investment. He also noted the “union between artists and geeks” which fosters creativity and innovation, especially in design. Perhaps most importantly he saw how important it is to create apps and software with a simple user interface and usability.
One of the main challenges that is seen across Colombian industry is the lack of understanding of effective marketing. While Proactive Consulting has quality products that can compete in the US market, according the de la Vega, the company has a deficient comprehension of how to market them. “That is the key more than technology – marketing and understanding the US market because it works differently from the Colombian market,” he said. “In the US every one wants to pay with a credit card, download the software and use it. In Latin America they expect you to send an engineer to show them how to use it. The software needs to be so simple so that you don’t need guides to use it.”
Culturally, Colombians tend to believe that they must obtain degrees and certifications in order to be taken seriously. This is a point of contention for de la Vega, “If you check the big companies like Facebook and Google they are not trying to get certifications – they are focused on the business. In Colombia they think if they get a lot of certifications they will be better, but you need to create the product in order to get better.” However, certification is definitely required if a company is developing security products or doing business with the government, he stated.
English language skills continue to be a challenge in Colombian industry, including technology. Having recognized this, Proactive Consulting contracted an institution with American teachers to train its staff in Cartagena.
Get to the Point and Innovate
Jorge Enrique Umana, Business Director of Azuan, a software developer, noticed that the ways of conducting business in the US are very different from Latin America. “We Latins tend to “beat around the bush,”” he said, “We take a longer time to close business. In the US it is straight to the point.” He believes that Colombians will have to adapt this approach if they hope to successfully conduct business with the US and Europe.
Umana echoed de la Vega’s concern that English language proficiency is not up to par, but observed that the Colombian government is trying to address the issue. While the technology infrastructure received a lot of attention from the federal government, with 50% of the population enjoying Internet access and a national push to make it available to all citizens, Colombia is still far behind the US when it comes to e-commerce and e-banking, Umana said. Physical infrastructure, such as roads and transportation, also has to improve within the country. Due to the devastation caused by an unprecedented rainy season, most of the funds are being spent on repair as opposed to improvement.
The university system, Umana observed, doesn’t prepare students for the real world so that it takes longer than it should for a new graduate to adjust to the work environment. “We have to change that approach,” he declared, “We (Azuan) are connecting with students in order to gain as much time as we can with them. We are trying to bring the company much closer to the universities and create research groups within the universities.” By doing so students are encouraged to be creative and innovative while still at university, which gives them a solid base for entering the job market.
Learn From the Best
With production operations based in Bogota, and sales offices in Panama, Mexico, Brazil, China and Colombia, Brash 3D is one of the biggest companies to have had representation in Silicon Valley. Luis Martinez, CEO of the stereoscopic production company, echoed de la Vega’s appreciation for the fact that Proexport opened doors that would have been inaccessible otherwise. This being his first trip to the Valley, Martinez was very happy to get an up close view of how companies like Facebook and Google operate.
He realized how important it is to be really close to the biggest companies in the industry in order to learn from them and work with them. “For example,” he said, “I learned a different model of managing employees from Pixar. We usually check the quality one time a week but at Pixar they do it every two days. This way they are managing the process and always controlling the production pipeline.” Another thing that struck Martinez was how these large firms provide everything to meet employee needs, such as food, beverages, dry cleaning, fitness facilities, doctors and even gum. This allows the programmers to be more productive, so much so that many of them don’t have time to take advantage of all the benefits. “In Colombia no one would work,” commented Martinez, but seeing what is available inspired some ideas as to how his own company can improve productivity.
In addition to curiosity, Brash 3D’s products also generated interest from potential investors, and collaborators. “One guy was interested in seeing if they can do production in Colombia and send it to the US,” said Martinez. “We had a positive reaction from really important people when they saw the product, like the 3D ads we are doing for movies,” reported Martinez, “They asked a lot of questions at Pixar.” Overall, Martinez believes that the US attendees did not expect the quality of the Colombian tech products and were surprised at what was presented to them.
Obtaining a visa to visit the US for Colombians can normally be difficult at best, but it was streamlined for the participants given that this was an official mission sponsored by a Colombian governmental agency. In the first quarter of 2012 Proexport will open registration for the next mission to Silicon Valley and there are hopes that in addition to a new group, the 24 companies who participated in this round will attend again.