This Time Is Different: Viva the Entrepreneur in Latin America

When I returned from my last trip from Sao Paulo – seemingly a Covid decade ago, but actually almost a year to the date – I caught up with a crusty, no-nonsense and highly successful global private equity friend.

“Welcome home from the greatest next big opportunity for the last three decades!” He paused and winked at me, “There is nowhere on earth I’ve lost more money than Latin America. So tell me why you think this time is different?”

I told him three names: Mercado Libre – Amazon has barely laid a finger on this juggernaut regional ecommerce player, then just entering payments, with a public market cap around $14 billion (BTW it closed Friday, a year later, around $77 billion); Nubank – the largest neo-bank in the world which investors recently valued at over $25 billion; Rappi -- the all-purpose regional delivery app out of Colombia that investors like Softbank, Andreessen Horowitz, DST Global among others have since valued at over $3.5 billion.

I underscored to him what was different is hundreds of millions of new customers in Latin America have appeared as if overnight. Often almost ignored, unbanked, unserved in countless ways they now have access to smart devices – super computers. They, and their data, have never been more accessible. They want reliable goods and services, the ability to move money safely and receive credit, early and reliable access to education and healthcare and more. And if anyone had doubts or concerns about technology adoption, Covid accelerated millions to seek services faster than any of us imagined a year ago.

These three companies – and countless others with world class and tenacious entrepreneurs – are leaning into unleashing these customer desires.

This time is different.

I wish I had a year ago, which we all now have, an outstanding new book that lays it all out in detail from someone who lived all the challenges and opportunists. Viva The Entrepreneur: Founding, Scaling and Raising Venture Capital in Latin America is not so much a tour of the history of tech in the region as it is a memoir of a great entrepreneur who built an astounding enterprise from scratch there. At one level it is a play book for any entrepreneur building a company anywhere – certainly in any rising market – in the way Ben Horowitz and Brad Feld’s books have been. But the context is all Latin America, and thus makes clear what is unique and exciting.

Author Brian Requarth is Co-founder and former CEO of Viva Real, a leading property tech company in Brazil which he sold for over a half billion dollars. He is now one of the leading go-to investors in the next generation of startups there, and has founded Latitud which brings together the top entrepreneurial minds and tech builders in the region and Silicon Valley with rising founders across Latin America.

The book tackles the challenges every entrepreneur has to navigate: from the personal (how to prepare mentally for the inevitable ups and downs of building an enterprise; how to focus priorities; what people to surround herself with); to the building blocks (underscoring your culture and values, how to think about hiring, advisors and first steps to navigate; to the ever nagging fund raising (why you need what you need and how to get it.)

Brian, interestingly, is an American who long had an itch to build a company, but who also fell in love with the region. We take for granted in the States the ability to search, research, buy and sell real estate digitally, but there had been no precedent for this when he and regional co-founders Thomas Floracks and Diego Simon began to explore their back yards. Not only was there little history of digital transactions, there wasn’t even a basic Multiple Listing Services data capability. They were leaning into not only a startup enterprise, but a startup industry. “I wanted to build a central repository for real estate information and inventory so that customers could see all their options at once.”

But they weren’t alone. Requarth learned something very powerful – which is for all that is different geographically, culturally, in language and historically, business building among rising markets share many analogies unfamiliar to Silicon Valley. Navigating last mile logistics, building data where little existed, dealing with regularly changing regulatory environments, educating millions to transact on line who may never have had a credit card let alone bank account are all shared. His “aha” moment came when a friend was building a similar business in Malaysia. In a 72 hour whirlwind tour, he came back with a relevant playbook: “Here was someone who literally had done what I was trying to do, and he basically handed me the roadmap.”

Setbacks and roadblocks were everywhere in this roadmap in Brazil. Beyond the obvious, hands dirty aspects he beautifully describes of finding talent, convincing first customers, working around infrastructure challenges, even the Gods seemed set against him. Have you ever been to Sao Paulo in their summer? “There are torrential rainstorms… we stopped in our tracks: the rain outside was just crazy. Sheets of water sweeping across everything. It looked like a river in the street.” 

Quite an environment to buy and sell real estate, eh?

The greatest challenge of all was building globally competitive entrepreneurial culture. “We didn’t fully understand it yet, but there is something called Si, Senor mentality… It means that you do whatever your boss says because they’re the boss. This was the antithesis of what we wanted for our business. It went completely against our belief that what matters is not who comes up with the idea, but the idea itself.” That was the culture they built. That is the culture others in the region are building.

The book is full of wonderful descriptions of their mistakes and learnings and forever bouncing back. Some were, shall we say, Gringo in nature like how he accidently moved into a seedy motel in one of the roughest parts of Bogota unknowingly. He describes in detail the tradeoffs they made in going “AAB” – All About Brazil – rather than focusing all regional as they initially had considered. It intertwines stories and analogies from founders like David Velez of Nubank. Requarth was ahead of the Covid curve of embracing remote talent wherever and however it can be found and integrated.

“Many markets are still underserved, but it’s not because of a lack of innovative ideas. It’s because the existing companies didn’t deliver on their promises, don’t actually have a customer-centric mentality, or are missing some essential part of the complete product that the customer needs to solve his or her pain… You can take technology that already exists and apply it to a market that doesn’t have tech. [quoting Nubank’s Velez] most banks see themselves as financial services companies that happen to use technology. Nubank is a tech company that happens to offer financial services.”

Hundreds of million tech-enabled/unleashed customers with massive, untapped needs; a new generation of entrepreneurs aware of what has worked in Silicon Valley and more importantly other rising markets; a new generation of tech-focused, tech-first executives who are building off the now multi-billion dollar successes of those who came just before them – this time is way different.