Simon Papineau is the founder of QA on Request, a crowdsourced software testing company. He has been involved in video games and software development since 2003, working for Gameloft and Frima Studio. In 2009 he co-founded the web and mobile development studio WE+ARE, which he sold in 2011.
The North American start-up scene nowadays revolves a lot around accelerators. Entrepreneurs want to get into Founder Fuel and Y Combinator, hoping that this will be their road to riches.
One alternative that’s often overlooked is further down south, in the form of a program called Start-Up Chile. 200 entrepreneurs a year receive 40,000$ of equity-free seed capital, a 1-year visa, and access to social and capital networks in Chile.
I am part of the 5th generation of Start-Up Chile entrepreneurs, called “SUPers”, and I’ve been in Chile since October 2012. I am one of four canadian teams in my cohort, the only one from Quebec.
Below is a short summary of my experience in Start-Up Chile: how I got there, what I expected, what my experience has been like, and what you should expect if you get in.
A little background information
In 2009, I founded a company called WE+ARE, dedicated to web and mobile development. In 2011, with the company doing well, I sold my shares and embarked on a new journey to build a new company that provides a solution to a problem that I’ve been experiencing these last 10 years working in the interactive software development industry.
After steering the ship on my own for many months, I realized that I needed help. That should’ve been obvious from the beginning but it took me a long time to accept that I’m no superhuman and I needed to come to grasp with that fact on my own terms.
Building a start-up on my own for the last year and half has been the single most enriching experience of my life; but, a lot of other entrepreneurs, I’m probably very good at some things, and really bad at a lot of other things. I thin-slice* like no one I’ve ever met; which is great for certain aspects of entrepreneurship, but really bad for others. I’m not so good when it comes to administrative matters, for example.
During the summer of 2012, I started looking at incubators and accelerators. My company had some traction, some clients and some income, but I needed more cash to pivot. An accelerator I felt would provide both cash and mentoring – something I humbly realized that I needed as well.
Being from Montreal, the obvious choice was Founder Fuel, but I also dreamt of TechStars, Y Combinator and all these guys. Only none of these programs accept single founders, even less non-technical founders.
It didn’t matter that I had funded the whole thing myself and achieved a lot on my own, and that left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Looking outside of North America I eventually found a interesting option in Start-Up Chile, a global accelerator, open to anyone in the world, funded entirely by the Chilean government.
In terms of money vs. equity it’s hard to find better: you get 40k in return for no equity at all. Founder Fuel just upped their investment to 50k; but that’s in exchange for 9% of your business. Call me selfish, but if I can help it, I’ll hold on to as much of my business for as long as I can.
I also appreciate that Start-Up Chile has a slightly more “noble” purpose: they’ll accept you even if you’re in the very early stages of your project, and they accept teams without a technical co-founder. They believe in people and projects.
So this past October I packed my bags and headed south to Chile. The whole thing was so easy I wondered why more Canadian entrepreneurs weren’t pursuing this option.
Shortly after I landed, it became clear that I was naïve and misinformed about what an accelerator does and how it works. I honestly thought that a group of experienced entrepreneurs were waiting for me on the tarmac, and that as soon as I’d land, I’d be greeted with a check and copy of the secret book “How to be a CEO 101.” Boy, was I ever wrong.
The Start-Up Chile experience
I had read on Hacker News some of the negative experiences that earlier participants have had in Start-Up Chile. I thought that jumping through a few administrative hoops would be a small price to pay considering the 40k I’m getting.
I was pleasantly surprised – the arrival process is now really smooth and it only took a couple of days to get setup with everything I needed. The program doesn’t help you find a place to stay, but I had no trouble finding one on airbnb and I’m very happy with it.
A few days after you land, you have to present your company in an event called Intro Day. That’s really nothing to be nervous about – there are no judges or investors, only the Start-Up Chile staff and the other participants of your cohort.
It was nice to get to know the other 99 projects in my cohort – but that day was also my first reality check. There was no feedback, there was no one there to point out your flaws or to guide you towards valuable resources, it’s just you and your PowerPoint in front of a crowd mostly focused on its iPhones and laptops.
That was my fault – I had envisioned a program that consisted of extraordinary networking activities daily, incredible mentors and coaching, and being taken by the hand by a generous angel investor who would say: “here are exactly the steps that you need to follow to sell your company to Facebook for a billion dollars.”
When really it doesn’t get said enough; Start-Up Chile is about peer learning. Thank god for some of the participants in the program who organize insightful events on a regular basis; because otherwise we’re pretty much left on our own to build our projects.
There are some events organized by the program; but of course, no one of Zuckerberg’s caliber has come visit so far. Also, some of the best conferences I’ve attended were in Spanish. I speak fluently but many of the other participants missed out.
A few weeks later we had another event called “Internal Demo day”, which is very similar to Intro day, only the stakes a little bit higher: the top 20 teams get access to the “Start-Up Chile Highway”, which is basically a monthly networking event with serial entrepreneurs who provide feedback and insights on your business and your progress to date.
I must’ve delivered a pretty good pitch because I was selected to be a part of the top 20.
I thought, “OK, now here comes the real perks, the real training, and the real mentors.”
When the day came, I was informed that I had 10 minutes with the mentors. I walked in the room, described my company and my progress to date, answered a few superficial questions, and… time was up.
I’m meeting them again next month so I’m hoping that I’ll have more time to gather their feedback and advice, but again I felt like I didn’t get what I was looking for.
I’m probably making it sound worst than it is – that’s because my expectations were so high.
Maybe that’s my fault – and really, who am I to complain – I’m still getting 40,000$ and advice from 99 other talented entrepreneurs – but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a missed opportunity to help elevate a group of entrepreneurs to the next level with more training and better mentoring.
That being said, I still think that Start-Up Chile was a good option for me, and I will come out of it much stronger and much more advanced than when I entered.
If there’s one thing I want to leave you with is this:
If you have a plan and the discipline to buckle down to execute it on your own, then Start-Up Chile can be right for you. Think of it as getting 40k to spend and a chance to focus exclusively on your project for 6 months. Expect to enter a big family of like-minded people who will teach you a lot and whom you’ll share good times with.
But if you need coaching, advice, and mentors, then you need to look elsewhere. I’m hoping that this will change – Start-Up Chile is, like its participants, a start-up in itself and it’s clear that the team is constantly learning and that the program has already improved tremendously.
For more information about Start-Up Chile, visit their official site at: http://startupchile.org/ If you’re thinking about applying and you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me via Twitter or LinkedIn.
* For an explanation of what “thin-slicing” is, pick up the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.