The Marathon

April 6, 2020

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A Guest Post for StudioHUB by Natasha Moreau.

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” - Lao Tzu

First foot forward

Most people think we speak Spanish. And that’s okay.

My name is Natasha Moreau. I was born and raised in a small country called Trinidad and Tobago. It’s the southernmost pair of islands in the Caribbean archipelago. Here, we speak English.  

Still, I can’t blame people for thinking otherwise. Take a glance at any map, and you’ll see that we sit on Venezuela’s doorstep. Eight kilometers. That’s how far apart the two countries are in distance. Spanish and English is how far apart we are culturally.

Though I grew up in a post-British colonial society, which focused on all things “American”, my heart longed for the rest of the world. As an adolescent I had a penpal in Greece. I played tennis on the junior circuit in El Salvador, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Martinique. Spanish Literature was my major at college (before I dropped out). In my twenties, I wanted to move to Spain to keep studying Spanish. My belief was that I could learn a heck of a lot more through cultural immersion than by sitting in a classroom. I ended up spending a lot of time in Argentina instead. 

In my thirties, I moved to Brazil with my husband, Ricardo, and spent five of the most transformative years of my life. There, I became a mother. This is what sparked a desire to be the best version of myself; love for my son.

Amo Mãe Coruja. Look that up on Facebook, Youtube and Instagram. You’ll get a glimpse of my first foray into the blogosphere, social media and entrepreneurship.

Starting from home

In 2017, we moved back to the Caribbean with an idea for a business in mind.

While living in Brazil, I always saw many shops that filled with tourists, all buying famous Brazilian flip flop brands. It made me think: what other tropical countries in the world have brands like these?  So I hopped onto Google to find out. It turned out, most tropical countries in the world have their own brand of flip flops. There’s even a brand called “Caribbean”, but it’s nowhere to be found in the Caribbean because it’s a Filipino brand!

And so my hypothesis was born: If I were to create the Caribbean’s first flip flop brand, then the 60 million tourists who visit this region each year would love it.

The business of maze running

I taught myself graphic design, bought some equipment and learned how to make flip flops. Trinidad’s economy is based on oil and natural gas, not tourism. So, we moved to another island country in the region called Grenada. There, I visited the main cruise ship mall, signed the lease for a kiosk the size of a bathroom stall and set up in between larger (mostly) duty-free stores. My hypothesis was ready for validation testing. 

What a test it would be. In the first week, as cruise passengers shuffled past us, they hardly noticed us. For us, the sales trickled in like a leaky faucet. We didn’t panic (yet). With the few customers and passerbys coming our way, I tried to discover their needs through conversation. In the meantime, Ricardo devised a manual sales funnel to see how travelers interacted with our kiosk

Using a pen, ruled notebook and a smartphone camera, he recorded every glance, approach, touch, try-on and purchase. The combined data let us test and measure different things: signage, display angles and even the way we sold the flip flops (from ready-made to make-your-own). The result? An exponential growth in both interactions and sales.

As our revenue grew, we reached out to the local development bank for cash to fund an expansion. They turned us down. We filled out (and frequently updated) an online application for startup funding from a World Bank programme run by Caribbean administrators. We never got a reply.

Later on, I travelled to Jamaica for a workshop with the head of the region’s only angel group. She loved my pitch, and sent me through to the next ‘round’ which consisted of prep work for presenting to the business angels. But she never kept up with the changes I made to the plan using their own portal. Eventually, she palmed me off to a local “mentor”. He wanted to charge me for mentorship.

But, as we pressed on with Sand & Sole, our testing revealed something: there were serious flaws in duty-free concept itself. For one, it hadn’t changed much since 1947. Another was the fact that they all sold the same goods imported from Europe and the US, mostly to Europeans and Americans. Local artisans were looked down upon by store owners. 

We began to piece together a completely new business model, one based on a crowdsourcing platform that joined travellers and locals, to create all sorts of goods for this space. We christened our would-be startup CarryBella. It was a pitch for local VC’s. Just one problem: VC’s don’t exist in the Caribbean. Perhaps, though, it might’ve been a model for the rest of the world.

Thanks to the encouragement of our French and German customers, we changed course. We’d take this to Europe, the mecca of travel and tourism. Wielding the magic of the internet, we took aim at European VCs and reached out to them, one by one. 

The feedback (when it did come) was subtle, yet clear: no. Measuring the few responses we got, a pattern stuck out. Our product wasn’t a ‘pure-tech play’, nor were we technical founders. It didn’t take us long to realise that cracking foreign VC funding wasn’t going to happen.

Still, we didn’t give up. When the tourism season ended, I hopped a flight to attend a workshop in Lisbon, hosted by a Portuguese incubator. The strategy was to apply to the incubator, get in and build networks, all the while plying my pitch for funding. I didn’t get into the Lisbon incubator. Clearly, the lack of tech skills was killing us. But, I did get into another Portuguese incubator. By then, we were resolute: we were going to become tech founders.

Both Ricardo and I applied to coding bootcamps in Lisbon. I tried for full-stack web development. Being more analytical, he sprung for data science. We got in. This was a boon: getting access to the school’s alumni network and a chance to see the architecture of great bootcamps from the inside.

Along the way, we crossed paths with a potential angel investor. Perhaps it’s better to call him a potential super angel, given the scale of his wealth. He listened to our pitch. Then, he turned the tables on us. Instead of trying for a deal on CarryBella, he pitched us to dream up with a way to solve the problems that Caribbean entrepreneurs faced.

“Come to me with a plan for that, and I’ll invest in it.” he said.

The deliberation didn’t take long. While we loved what we did in the travel retail space, we loved our fellow Caribbean entrepreneurs even more. In a month’s time, we had a pitch ready. It was based on the idea of forming a startup studio in Lisbon where European tech talent could share their knowledge with Caribbean entrepreneurs to create new startups for the Caribbean region.

Over a phone call, the angel agreed to pull together other investors, including a major financial institution, to pitch and arrange funding. But all that unravelled the next week when COVID-19 hit us with full force.

So, what is this place?

In the Caribbean there is no tech startup ecosystem. 

Starting a business in the Caribbean -  tech or non-tech - is like trying to pin a medal on a shadow; it seems easy enough, but then you chase the deception until you’re breathless. Your face flush with frustration. Most people give up

Soon, you learn that the magazine articles and social media posts - the ones that celebrate the joys of entrepreneurship here - are just the products of someone who wants to sell you their mentorship, or a local NGO filling a requirement from an international aid agency.

The fundamentals of what makes a startup ecosystem successful - STEM education, cheap and open collaboration, funding, access to investor networks based on meritocracy, government mandates - don’t exist. The only exception is Jamaica, who is making a valiant effort, but still comes up painfully short because of its insular strategy.

You can’t Google your way to discovering these truths, because no one in the region is talking about them publicly. The only people who care to report on the dire state of startup entrepreneurship in the Caribbean is the World Bank Group. 

They spent CAD$20m of the Canadian government’s money to build a tech startup ecosystem. When the programme ended, many of their conclusions drew square with ours: the Caribbean, by itself, is incapable of building anything resembling a functioning startup ecosystem. Not even Silicon Valley could recreate Silicon Valley, so how could we?

End of the starting line

The new coronavirus wasn’t a Black Swan event; human history is rife with pandemics after all. Instead, it’s the second order effects of isolation tied to economic disaster that’s unprecedented.  Like true entrepreneurs, we must rise above the smoke of battle to see the clearer paths to victory.

Most people who know our story, think we should keep going. Naturally, it’s what we’ll do. We may take several detours to get there, and we’ll arrive much later than we wanted to. But that’s okay.

[Picture by Isaac Wendland via Unsplash]

About the Author

Natasha Moreau

Natasha Moreau is a startup entrepreneur in the English-speaking Caribbean. She has a knack for detecting emerging trends and possesses a nuanced grasp of the regional environment for entrepreneurship.

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