Startup events in Colombia: some thoughts

This year I have been to a number of startup focussed conferences in Colombia and on the whole I have really enjoyed them. I will get more into detail on those reasons below.

These events are important for a number of factors, mainly in that they facilitate networking between disparate groups of people. For a place where the culture of investing in technology-based companies is emerging, this is vital. As in the daily lives of the stakeholders, their options for meeting up first-time and face-to-face are limited.

It’s also a chance to build the brand of the country, to set a narrative so that international visitors, or those who read press reports can start to gain a top level view of what is going on here.

From my experiences I do have some feedback on how conferences here can improve upon their effectiveness. Instead of trying to replicate how events in other countries operate, there are small tweaks that can be made to tailor them to the local needs that exist.

What have I liked about the events?

Inclusion

Generally the events thatI have been to have been free and sin compromiso. This is fantastic, as I have seen a lot of students and younger people there eager to lap up the occasion. The futue knock-on effects for this could be profound and there has been a really eclectic environment at the events.

Granted, there are many opportunists going just for the free food, but I will get to that later.

Local partnerships

Part of the reason that inclusion exists is because there are local partners/sponsors involved in many of the events I have been to. The parters have also often taken an active role in participating in the event.

Partnerships allows the event to be professional with online steaming options available and video screens for the crowd. This projects a strong impression on international observers and also solidifes links between established corporates and startups.

The future effects of this could be in that the larger corporates open up their own accelerators/investment arms based on feedback generated. Or, for the startup/education institutional sponsors it’s a chance to sell and recruit within a concentrated demographic. If they gain value from being involved, then everyone will win.

Breakout seminars

The events I have been to have had diverse schedules and the breakout seminars have been effective. It allows for the crowd to naturally segregate based upon their interests and fosters a strong and focussed atmosphere during the talks. A lot of the people going to these events are eager to learn and hear new opinions and views. These talks are far more multidirectional than the main speeches.

A reason for existing

I have detected narratives from the events, beyond just ‘invest in Colombia’. They are not just back-slapping parades and the themes that are being projected will stick in the minds of the attendees. In developed countries you see very defined themes for events among emerging topics (AI, blockchain etc), Colombia could soon move towards this. For example, payments is a sector that could fill a whole day’s agenda on its own.

What could improve?

The pitch events

Pitch events are a mainstay of these conferences and Colombia is no different. For the startups that get to participate it’s a huge opportunity that should continue to be championed, even if it’s just to refine presentation/confidence skills. Although I have noticed common faults, that are exacerbated when you have to sit through 15 pitches that follow the same pattern.

Firstly, I would lose the PowerPoint projections. Because the teams are likely to have all been coached together, they typically then all have the same pitch deck formats and progressions:

  • Hockey stick growth graphs
  • $billion TAM opportunities
  • Fortune 500 skill-perfect founding teams
  • Demands for $1m for 5% of the company

When the deck includes a fancy animated videos the presenter often experiences a delay and then loses their cadence and confidence rapidly.

Instead of a deck, just put the logo and contact details on a slide, shine a light on the presenter and give them the chance in a couple of minutes to pitch (concisely) what their company is and why it’s a compelling investment.

Why are people there?

I have seen events use online networking tools to allow attendees to match-up based upon their preferences. My observations have shown that they do not work so strongly, as often few people fill them out in the first place and then meeting in person is cumbersome to organise.

I am not vouching for these events to turn into traffic light parties, but a simple name badge colour coded with what the person represents (investor, entrepreneur…) would be a great ice-breaker to encourage old-fashioned introductions.

Because many people attend (especially if they are free), it can be really difficult to meet relevant people. The format of having a big hall means that when people spillover outside, it’s more like quening for a drink at a concert. The breakout events are more fluid for meeting likeminded people, so more of these would help the process.

Start later

Bogotá has pretty terrible traffic during rush hour and I have been to events that start at 8am. Due to traffic delays, frugality over paying rush hour taxi prices and waiting for car restriction periods to end, people generally drip in. It creates a muted start to the event and the flow of people into the forum dampens the atmosphere. I would say to just start at 9:30–10am and potentially even close the doors to the forum to stop disruption.

More practical stories and teachings.

When I think why people are at these events there are two broad reasons beyond the outliers (such as free food and/or ‘my boss made me’):

  • To meet someone with the view to invest, find investment, find a job, sell a professional service
  • Learn something new / gain some insights

With regard to the latter I would like to hear more real stories, war stories from the trenches. Or talks that really focus on a prevailing current theme. A lot of the talks I have heard are very thin on substance and do not really leave a taste apart from ‘innovation is great’. The form of the talks can be very high level, more akin to a politcal rally and not as intimate as would you see from, for example, a TED Talk or a fireside chat.

Many speeches generally are serving the self promotional needs of the speaker. Hearing someone from my alma-mate tenuously string in phrases about innovation into an extended pitch to sell places at the unversity was a perfect example.

More younger people talking

The inclusion at the events is great on the attendee side, but beyond the pitch events, the speaking duties are left to the grown ups. Yes, younger speakers may not have the CV chops to look good on an agenda. But, what they do have is relevant experiences operating within the current environment. They can offer more candid and inspirational insights to share with the crowd, without hidden marketing agendas.

Timing

Tardiness is a way of life in Colombia and whilst I fully accept the culture of the country, it does render event agendas useless after about 2 hours . Organisers should include more buffers to ensure that people have a clearer understanding of what is actually going on as the day progress.

A reason to keep in touch

A big annual event does come along quicker than one imagines, but the gap in-between can be deafening. The large event organisers should use the attendee list and insights gained from their flagship events to encourage smaller and more regular meetings. For example, in the form of a Meetup.