As a venture partner at 500 Startups, I get to work with entrepreneurs and startups from all over the world, but this year, I fell in love with Brazil. In a way, this began on my first official day at, when I got to interview companies in the same room as managing partner and multi-cultural badass, Bedy Yang, who grew up in Brazil, founded Brazil Innovators, and has led many of our most successful investments from Brazil, including ContaAzul and Solidarium, Then, last spring during my first accelerator batch as EIR, I met Gabriel and Carlos, founders of Linte, and Emilia and Elton, founders of Contentools.
Emilia and Gabriel came to me to help them with their pitch almost every week, and they gave two of the best performances on Demo Day. I wasn't their designated point of contact, but we still made time to work on their business models, pricing, and other challenges together. We got so close that they would sometimes forget I wasn't Brazilian and start speaking Portuguese to me.
In short, I loved them. I loved their energy, their warmth, their visions. I found them to be smart, extremely determined entrepreneurs. But, I also heard what people would often say: Brazilians don’t think globally. No one will invest in these companies. It isn't a good time to invest in Brazil. That's why I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about the startup culture and ecosystem in Brazil.
First Stop: Belo Horizonte
One mineiro described Belo Horizonte to me as the "Texas of Brazil," since it sits in Minas Gerais, one of Brazil's largest states. The pace is quieter, the hills remind me of San Francisco, and the people are a bit more traditional, humble, and charming.
Almost all Brazilians are warm and welcoming, but BH is like a big hug, known for friends drinking together outdoors, passing the time. Averse to the hustle and bustle of São Paulo, I met entrepreneurs who prefer to run their startups in BH where technical talent is prevalent (some of the area's best technical talent come from local public universities). I met Rodrigo at Sympla, a mid-size growing events startup from BH.
Rodrigo knows everyone in the "San Pedro Valley" the neighborhood known for its small, but super tight-knit, community of startups. According to Brazilians, starting a company in Brazil is like playing a game on expert mode from Day 1. The infrastructure, lack of (good) early-stage angel funding, struggling economy, high taxes, and limited resources make starting a company here an act of pure will. It's a challenge that startups from many emerging markets understand all too well. Starting a company in Brazil also has its advantages: Sympla would have had a harder time growing to its current size in São Paulo or other big cities, where the costs of growing a company would be much higher, but enterprise companies, like Linte, flock to São Paulo to be with their customers - the big corporates. I really loved Sympla's modern, beautiful office:
I left BH with fuzzy feelings and charmed by the community, but eager to explore other cities and give two talks!
Next Stop: São Paulo
São Paulo was everything that people told me it would be: huge, busy, "chic", full of skyscrapers, condos, big corporations, fancy people, etc.
News of local tension and protests by taxi drivers against Uber greeted me as soon as I arrived (in an Uber). I checked out the Plug coworking space, then gave my first talk of the trip at the Microsoft building downtown. Here's Andre Monteiro with Brazil Innovators, my gracious host, who helped arrange my trip, with the help of Sheila and Maira.
The audience was a mix of backgrounds, though like I'm usually accustomed, male entrepreneurs vastly outnumbered the women. Almost every female entrepreneur present approached me, and we discussed the similar problems with diversity in Brazil.
As a pitch coach and startup judge, I see many international entrepreneurs come to the Silicon Valley and struggle to pitch in English, and this has always filled me with huge respect. Can you imagine going to Korea and pitching in Korean? I became determined to make an effort and wanted to empathize with these entrepreneurs. So, with the help of Duolingo, a one-hour Skype lesson per week week for six weeks, and two months of wondering if I had the guts, I gave a minute-long introduction in Portuguese in front of a hundred people in São Paulo, and again in Curitiba, even doing a short interview with the local TV station, which I hope never airs. My audiences were all very surprised and delighted, and it was awesome to be able to practice my Portuguese during the whole trip. I'm in love with the language and look forward to getting more practice in November when I return for a longer stint.
The next day, I led a workshop with startup founders about how I evaluate startups for our accelerator and the benefits of joining an accelerator.
Gabriel, co-founder of Linte, a #500STRONG company going after the huge, inefficient legal industry, showed me their new office, still under construction, which will become a new startup hub and coworking space planned in São Paulo.
Oh, and pizza in São Paulo is divine:
Quick Stop in Curitiba
After São Paulo, I spent some time in Curitiba, another growing tech hub, where I was told that people would be shier, quieter, and more reserved and the pace would slow down again. Right now, I'm working with a company in Batch 14 called Pipefy, a workflow management tool - from Curitiba. The startup community there was great:
I've given my talk about inDinero's journey from Vitamin to Painkiller in Croatia, Brazil, Portland, and SF, because our journey from failed flashy startup to revenue-generating painkiller business is a story many entrepreneurs, especially in other markets, need to hear. Failure is often not tolerated or talked about, and I don't leave out any details about just how awful it was to work for a year on a idea and have to admit that we were wrong. People come up to me and say, "This story really resonated. I haven't found P/M fit either. I'm freaking out. What do I do?" There's no better feeling than meeting with an entrepreneur and seeing weight lift off their shoulders from not having to pretend everything is going well, when it's not.
On stage, Andre asked me what advice I would give to Brazilian entrepreneurs. Short summary:
- Be brutally honest with each other. That's the kindest thing you can do for each other.
- Focus on the pain you are solving, and charge your customers more.
- Think globally, even if you act locally first.
Last But Not Least: Florianópolis
I feel especially alive on islands, so not surprisingly, my last stop in Brazil was my favorite. As soon as I got off the plane, I loved it.
Florianopólis, or Floripa, is another tech hub, but it just happens to be on a beautiful, huge island.
Another #500STRONG company in Batch 12, Contentools, a content marketing management tool, built their company in Floripa. Now, they have 20+ employees and are helping over 300 businesses manage their content marketing. Elton and Emilia were born and raised there, but their San Francisco influences are clear as soon as you see their office and experience their company culture: Silicon Valley style workspaces and call rooms with lots of ping pong, a hammock, a mermaid painting, and plenty of Macbook chargers lying around.
I will be back in São Paulo in November to speak at CASE. I look forward to a lifetime visiting Brazil and helping the entrepreneurial community flourish and grow.
Special thanks to all my lifelong friends, especially Gabriel, who took care of me throughout my whole trip, Emilia and Elton who housed, hosted, and helped me, Carlos and Thiago for sharing wine, pizza, and Chico Buarque, Andre, Sheila and Maira @Brazil Innovators for organizing everything and helping me, Daniela my Portuguese tutor at @StreetSmartBrazil, and Bedy for introducing me to Brazilian startups and making the whole trip possible.
Follow me at @abarrica
Short list of favorite/cute/unexpected things about Brazil:
- kiss rules are not uniform, varies from 1 to 3 kisses, depending on where you are
- dental floss in bathrooms! I love this!
- long lunches, sometimes up to two hours
- if you ask for lime or lemon, sometimes you’ll get a mini cup full of squeezed juice? uh, yes.
- espresso after lunch, without fail
- noticed that most women have beautiful, perfect painted nails
- everyone smells good
- pão du queijo is everywhere, and it’s amazing. People say the best come from Minas, but I honestly liked it everywhere, even Starbucks.