Berraco — in Spanish, it has many meanings. In Medellin, Colombia, the one that comes to mind when describing the startup scene is bold.
As a new member of the digital nomad tribe, Medellin was a draw for me for its emphasis on technology and recent worldwide recognition in innovation and urbanization, beating out global competitors like New York, Tel Aviv, Lisbon, Auckland, Toronto, Sydney, and Vienna. In January, the New York Times named Colombia the number two place in the world to visit although Medellin beats out New Orleans (first place recommendation) with a lower crime rate index of more than 24 points.*
If you’re watching Netflix, you’re probably equating Medellin with Narcos, but nothing could be further from today’s reality. This gem of a city, situated in a valley of the Andes mountains, reminds me of Silicon Valley in the late 1990s. Medellin has about 800 startups among its 2.5 million population. Supercharged with energy and determination, but without Silicon Valley’s legendary funding, startup growth is more tempered. At least for now. But the Colombian government and its entrepreneurial residents are working to change that including one such startup, INplaza.
At my first expat meeting, I met INplaza VP of Business Relations, Henry Gomez. Gomez, a native Colombian, started attending expat events as a way to improve his self-taught English skills and it’s paid off. He talked enthusiastically about blockchain technology and introduced me to his CEO, Nathan Brooks, a Minnesota expat. Brooks had already sold his first telecommunications venture before taking up online poker and leaving the short, winter daylight hours for places like Panama and Ecuador. Brooks said that at each stop, people would always tell him that he had to check out Medellin. And that’s what he did beginning in 2009.
Brooks’ background with his family’s 110-year-old produce distribution business led him to help a new Medellin acquaintance sell floral products to London retailers. Brooks made headway after calling 250 florists beginning at 3 a.m. Colombian time over a period of a week or so. Twenty-six of the 250 retailers asked for samples, making the export initiative viable to the business owner. But the logistics of getting the samples to the UK fell apart when only half the orders arrived. It was then that Brooks saw an opportunity for Colombian and other Latin American businesses.
While in Bogotá, Brooks met Jay Daron, a Swede with a wanderlust for travel, who like Brooks had fallen for the lifestyle charm of Colombia. Daron had also experienced the frustrations of exporting Colombian products like coffee and chocolate to his Swedish network that was ready to buy. Like Brooks, the non-existent setup for small exporters made it time and cost prohibitive. Realizing they had complementary visions, they teamed up and co-founded INplaza in late 2016 with Brooks as CEO and Daron as COO.
For small to medium enterprises (SMEs), there is no integrated platform specific to the Latin American (LATAM) market for importers and exporters to connect, deliver samples, maneuver trade laws, and select the best shipping method. Plus, the need to know tariffs, negotiate in different languages, and such make it infeasible for SMEs with annual revenues of $2 million and more. These are the companies that INplaza considers its sweet spot, initially, targeting the $500 billion LATAM trade.
Although stats show the number one challenge for SMEs in importing/exporting is finding foreign trade partners, marketplaces are known to be difficult to grow. That’s where INplaza has a friend in Ruta N, the Colombian public-private venture dedicated helping technology startups. Ruta N offers space, workshops, and connections for growing Colombian startups at its 45,000-square-meter modern structure where international companies like Huawei and Hewlett-Packard have offices.
Ruta N is also investing into an AI Center of Excellence, making Medellin a hub for skilled technology workers. According to INplaza, this is another appeal for Medellin as a home base for development. Its trade platform may fall in the unsexy category like Alibaba, but its product roadmap is off-the-charts futuristic with technology features. This push comes from Daron whose Scandinavian mindset aligns with the likes of IKEA and Spotify and comes with a filter for all things sleek and efficient.
- the average college grad makes $500 a month
- an apartment in Laureles is $300 per month
- for only $3, an abundance of mini-cabs await to whisk you along the city’s Golden Mile, getting you most places in 10 minutes or less
- food costs are incredibly cheap and the quality, compared to the States, for example, is much better. It’s one of the consistent comments that I hear from every expat — how less chemically processed the food tastes.
This setting allows INplaza, with a global team who collectively speaks 10 languages, the ability to deliver technology for a fraction of what it would have cost in Silicon Valley.
With the government’s emphasis on raising the bar for all of its citizens, you’ll see free 4G wifi in public parks. It’s no doubt that Colombia and Medellin will deliver on its well-documented vision to be an integral part of the world’s digital economy.
As for INplaza, with its next round of funding underway and sights set on delivering a smarter version of Alibaba for the LATAM market, it is showing, like Medellin, it’s berraco, too.