The car starts coughing like a 60-year-old man who smoked cigarettes all his life. With one last wheeze, the engine made its peace with the world. Dead center in a busy intersection of Havana, in the middle of our day. We, the two foreign passengers, look at the driver with the expression of a 5-month-old baby who just pooped their pants. And the Cuban passengers? Not a bat of an eyelash. Their eyes remain glued to their smartphones as they settle their butts deeper into the seat — preparing for a long wait in our colectivo, Cuba’s version of Uber pool.
The tanned, slick-haired driver looks into his rearview mirror at us. A tranquil smile stretches across his face as he breaks the silence: “RESOLVER!” My 6th-grade level Spanish guessed it to mean “solve.” The Cuban passengers echo the driver’s confidence with “chistes” — jokes. The “chistes” lighten the mood and put our driver at ease to take action. He pushes the door open of the lifeless car and dodges a series of pink and blue 1950 Chevrolets as he disappears into a restaurant.
Seven minutes later, he arises with a waiter, proudly holding a bucket of sloshing, ice water. The waiter pops the hood as the driver splashes the ice water onto the sizzling engine. Puffs of smoke arise from the potion that would hopefully revive the car. The driver rotates the key in the ignition. “Sputter”, “sputter” as the Cubans beam with hope. We, Western foreigners, were ready to move to a new cab. Then all at once, the entire car roared back to life and shook any remaining doubt, out of us.
I told local Cuban tech entrepreneurs this story after holding a “How to Grow Your Product” startup workshop in Havana at the start of July. They proudly asserted, “that is the Cuban mentality: resolver” roughly translating to “we’ll figure it out.” According to Incubate, an organization promoting entrepreneurship in Cuba,
“resolver” describes Cuban’s ethos of tenacity in the face of adversity.
At Facebook, where I work, we pride ourselves in calling this “hacker culture.”
“Resolver” is how Cubans overcome the lack of internet access despite a highly educated population, hungry to consume knowledge and information. In Cuba, the masses access the internet through government-sponsored, public, paid Wi-Fi hotspots in parks, soccer stadiums, and hotels. According to the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations’ specialized agency for information and communication technologies, only 4.1% of Cubans have home internet access. Wealthier families and businesses who want internet access buy Wi-Fi extenders to feed off the internet from public parks and hotels. And those who do not have this luxury but still want to consume media, buy weekly “paquetas” — USB sticks that bridge Cubans to the rest of the world through global news, Western media, and American movies.
“Resolver” is also how Cubans deal with transportation. Around the 1950’s cars were banned from being imported, leaving the Chevys, Fords, and Pontiacs to support the population. Despite this ban, Cubans hacked together solutions, leading to the birth of Chevroyotas and Chevrondas — Frankenstein cars with Chevrolet bodies and Toyota and Honda internal organs. Public buses exist in Cuba, and more frequently in Havana. However, with limited service, most Cubans have adopted the habit of taking .50 cent colectivos or their version of Uber pools.
Coming from a family of immigrant entrepreneurs and now Silicon Valley, I have seen successful entrepreneurs embody a mindset of grit, persistence, scrappiness, and collaboration — all quite similar to Cuban’s “resolver” mentality. The entrepreneurial spirit thrives in Cubans. When the government officiated self-employment or “cuentapropistas” in 2006, it opened up the doors for Cubans to formally exercise their entrepreneurial upbringing. Between 2010 and 2015, cuentapropistas rose from 150,000 to 500,000, according to the World Policy Institute.
During my trip to Cuba during the July 4th weekend, with the help of visionary Cuban entrepreneurs, and Cuban fanatics, I hosted a startup workshop on “How to Grow Your Product.” The aim was to equip local entrepreneurs with tactical ways to grow their products and businesses. Despite a nascent startup ecosystem, I quickly realized I did not have to teach Cubans to adopt a startup mentality — they were raised entrepreneurial. The startup founders I met were already executing and localizing versions of Yelp, TimeOut, OpenTable, and Groupon.
For example, take AlaMesa, a Cuban version of Yelp plus OpenTable. Alfonso has created one of the most successful startups in Cuba with over 800 restaurants listed and every province represented. Cuba’s localized version of TimeOut, Vistar, has a strong user base who show their loyalty and engagement through direct feedback and request of content. Robin, their young and enthusiastic founder, revealed that Cuban startups deal with unique challenges that some U.S. tech startups do not face. For example, lack of internet connectivity in Cuba means measuring traffic, and other user metrics can be challenging since most activity on apps and websites happen in offline mode.
Another startup, Knales, helps businesses reach more customers through discounts sent to users via SMS. The founder wants to take his startup to the next stage by enabling digital payments. The last startup founder I spoke to, aspired to create an app to help filmmakers select the best locations to film and diminish the number of on the ground trips. With existing great ideas and focus on localization, Cuban startups could find principles such as A/B testing, growth tactics, data analysis, customer acquisition tactics, and native marketing, helpful in growing their businesses.
As Plato says, “necessity is the mother of all invention.” The country’s existing limitations or “necessities” serve as the motivation for Cuba becoming tomorrow’s tech hub. With the rise of internet penetration, growth in salaries, and the flood of tourism bringing exposure to the trends of the rest of the world, Cuban startups will quickly take off, ready to serve a highly educated population hungry to consume information, services, and products.
If you want to hear more or know someone with tech or startup experience that is keen on sharing knowledge through a one-hour Q&A with Cuban entrepreneurs, get in touch with me!