A New York City native, Lisa Besserman first arrived in Argentina in 2012, trading the winter of the Northern hemisphere for the sun of the South American summer. The tech company she was working for at the time had given her the option to work remotely and despite not knowing much Spanish, she decided to head to Buenos Aires.
It didn’t take her long to integrate. In no time at all, she had discovered a vibrant Internet start-up community of entrepreneurs, founders, and programmers.
But Besserman quickly realised something was lacking. There was no real support system, no community for those who wanted to begin a start-up on their own for the first time, making it difficult for local newly established businesses to grow globally.
The realisation prompted Besserman into action, creating Startup Buenos Aires, a hub that provided a free community for people interested in setting up an Internet start-up firm. Now, five years down the road, Besserman has become a leading expert in a landscape that has changed considerably.
In a telephone interview with the Times, Besserman discussed how the community has transformed itself since she first arrived, the effect of new government policies and the local industry’s bright future.
How did Startup Buenos Aires work at first?
It evolved into a centralised location for start-ups in the city. It was the first of its kind to exist, and many people wanted to be involved. We created three platforms revolving around education, community, and resources, which is where we focused most of our energy. There were educational classes such as workshops for entrepreneurs by entrepreneurs, so people could get the necessary education to become one, or to learn how to code, run a crowd-funding campaign, or learn how to make a pitch or write a press release.
We would host, promote and curate events for the community in the city, creating the only community calendar so people could have a centralised location where they could connect with other people have their events. We also partnered with companies such as Facebook and Google to help with their accelerator programme. We served as a conduit to Argentina, providing opportunities locally and around the world.
How does the start-up scene in Argentina compare with the rest of Latin America?
I think Buenos Aires has one of the most robust start-up communities, especially now that the government is involved in helping foster the ecosystem. It is true that it has the richest human capital, in terms of technology, raw human talent, and innovation that has been proven as most of the unicorns from Latin America originate from Argentina. Out of seven unicorns that are from Latin America, four were founded by Argentina. As a model, Argentina is way ahead of the curve in the region.
Is the scene changing now that a more business and investor-friendly administration is in power?
Yes, it’s incredible. Argentina always had that innate capability of a global world power to produce entrepreneurship and start-ups. But the previous government created many obstacles and barriers, but now with this administration, things are changing. Human capital is one of Argentina’s greatest assets, and they recognise that by opening borders and lowering barriers, it will help Argentine become a global player in the markets again, as it was years ago.
What are the new policies?
Well, you have the Ley de emprendedores (law for entrepreneurs); there are funds for US$15 million that are being handed out to various accelerators as a way to invest in the local start-up community. There are new educational initiatives such as BA emprende, for helping new entrepreneurs. They also have social entrepreneurial programmes, as well as their new IncuBAte fund, that will give US$10,000-30,000 in seed funding to those start-ups selected.
This will definitely change how the City operates. Through these programmes, the government is putting their money were their mouth is, and they are investing in resources, time and finances in allowing the community to grow, giving entrepreneurs the support they always needed. All these initiatives and programmes have impacted on how the city is growing.
Is there an Internet start-up that has recently benefitted from these initiatives?
One of the success stories is Bluesmart. These Argentines started in the United States, having incredible success in their crowd-funding campaign, by participating in the Y Combinator seed accelerator. But after the government’s new laws, they moved their offices to Argentina, and now they employ an entire team in Buenos Aires because of how business-friendly it had become.
For you, what is the most important change the new government has made?
I think the entrepreneur law in which you can start a new company in 24 hours, setting up its tax structure and its registration. It allows entrepreneurs to begin executing instead of being held back by bureaucracy.
And are there factors that are still holding back the start-up industry in Argentina?
The technology infrastructure isn’t adapting as fast as the innovation in Argentina. Problems such as faulty Wi-Fi, the slow financial institutions, many things that should be automated but aren’t yet. That takes time, but times are changing in Argentina. I think the infrastructure needs to improve to match the pace of the global start-up community’s level of innovation.
What about the availability of capital for start-ups in Argentina?
There are various institutions, pre-seed, and seed funding, from incubators and accelerators, such as NXTP Labs. Wayra provides lower seed funding; there are Patagonia ventures, Kazak. What we have seen in the past is that start-ups scale as much as they can but when the time comes to raise the real capital they leave Argentina and move to the US, London or another place where they have more access to financing.
Do you think that is beginning to change?
I think we are in the process. On a regional level there are many more investments. But it’s going to take some time, and we’ve had some really great changes taking place. And I think the rest of the world is still evaluating whether it’s a safer place to invest as it used to be a really risky region to invest in for many years.
Some of the Internet start-up success stories from the country seem to be copycats of US companies. E-commerce site Mercado Libre is based on eBay, airline company Despegar is based on sites in the US, etc. Are there any so-called ‘disruptors,’ companies that are forming new technologies or creating new markets? I think there are copycats and that’s fine because the originators of those companies lost out on a big Latin American market.
Just because the model is similar, it’s still a completely different market, and the Argentine unicorns also are disrupting the model, it’s just that it’s on a different continent. I do think there are a lot of innovators.