What does it take to be one of Cuba’s hottest tech companies?
So here’s the deal: the cliché is true. Starting a business is a struggle. Anywhere. Anytime. But in some places at certain times the struggle seems insurmountable.
Take for instance, Cuba. You want to start a tech company. You want to be the next Yelp, but more dope. You’ve got a great vision. You and a couple of your friends have mad-skills and hustle.
But the reality calls for a little more. In Cuba most people get wifi at government hot-spots, which are typically public parks. And the wifi is some of the most expensive in the world. So, the whole Yelp idea of searching for a restaurant nearby as you’re driving or walking down the street…well, that gets a tad complicated. And speaking of complicated, traditional financing and even credit cards aren’t the norm in Cuba.
All those challenges didn’t stop a group of friends who started AlaMesa. In fact, the limitations seem to spark them to make something well, even better than Yelp. Recently VERV News got hear how AlaMesa became one of Cuba’s hottest tech companies. We spoke with Ariel Causa, one of the founders.
VERV NEWS: Ok, we’ve compared you to Yelp. But you’re a little more. Tell us about AlaMesa. What is it?
Ariel: AlaMesa is a platform helping you interact with Cuba’s culinary art. It provides you with searchable information about restaurants and other related venues and helps you book a table on them. In AlaMesa you can find recipes, sector related job offers and trainings, stories and most recently you can book culinary event, so if you want to learn how to cook Cuban dishes, or how to craft Cuban cocktails, or you want to pair Cuban cigars and rums properly, then you can find with us specialists who will introduce you to those arts.
VERV NEWS: What inspired you to start it? Why is this app needed in Cuba?
Ariel: Back when the law changed in 2010, there was a gap of information, so to speak. There was a surging amount of restaurants with new business models, aiming to the Cuban market and a large amount of potential customers who were not aware of this. Our service was needed in order to connect them.
VERV NEWS: Tell us about being a tech company in a place where wifi is so difficult to access.
Ariel: Like many things in life, that is not a simple answer. The limitations of the technical infrastructure make it harder for an Internet-based business to succeed, yes, but at the same time limits the ability of big tech companies working in the same sector to enter the market. So competition in early stages is not there and was not there for us.
It forces you to adapt as well. You need to develop a standalone app, with all the information stored in your device, and you have to use alternate distribution channels such as El Paquete, Snet, La Mochila, etc. You have to stimulate users to share your contents via Zapya, and keep an ear to the ground to find new means of distribution.
VERV NEWS: Tell us about the changes you’ve seen in the restaurant industry in Cuba.
Ariel: To begin with, the restaurant industry in Cuba used to be small and unimaginative. As the size grew up a lot, competition spurred creativity and what we have now is an enticing landscape, full a new proposals. General culture has grown to meet this as Cubans are more aware of the possibilities out there.
VERV NEWS: What do you love most about running your company?
Ariel: Lunchtime… just kidding. Three things: 1) working with people that, at the same time are excellent human beings and outstanding professionals. 2) Sharing a vision with others. It forces all of us to push for the next horizon. We are at the same time looking for the solution to the problems ahead and trying to find new problems to tackle. 3) The way we ourselves have been affected by AlaMesa. We are more knowledgeable and aware of what’s going on out there. Food has become a bit of a hobby for all of us as well.
VERV NEWS: Thanks, Ariel. It’s quite amazing what you and the AlaMesa team have pulled off. So, how can travelers from the US use your app?
Ariel: Americans traveling to Cuba are curious about Cuban culture, they want to learn about it and experience the magic of this island first hand. We provide them with a tool that is easy to find — it is in both the App Store and in Google Play.
It works without the need of Internet connection, uses a map linked to their GPS and contains info about hundreds of restaurants all throughout the island. They can use it to locate places near them or to remember the recommendations they get both from locals or fellow travelers. It will give them the opportunity to discover Cuba’s culinary treasures with their own eyes.
To learn more about the restaurant industry in Cuba, checkout Startup Cuba Episode 3: Cuba’s New Food Scene.