As I mentioned in my prior blog, after my intense three week travels late last year across Latin America, I am convinced that the democratization process, enabling more and more Latin entrepreneurs to access the innovation revolution is irreversible.
However, governments across Latin America are slowly “getting” the importance of developing their innovation/entrepreneurial ecosystems as a matter of national interest to promote their economic development, national competitiveness and productivity as an engine of sustainable and equitable growth and prosperity.
Unfortunately, the minds of many in the region are still focused on large infrastructure projects, multi-billion dollar financings, debt swaps, etc. As governments approach the topics of innovation and entrepreneurship, their methods often, remain unchanged from such larger scale investments. As an extension of their past behavior, governments want to “control” the process and apply traditional metrics. As it happens, innovation and entrepreneurship is inherently chaotic, unmanageable and long term. These governments would be well served to focus on enabling policies, levelling the playing field, establishing the right incentives and getting out of the way, leaving the rest to Schumpeter, Smith and the Darwinian market forces. I often address these issues at my conferences as I try to be provocative to the government officials who might be in the audience. A summary of these key points follow below:
- It is about incentives and NOT subsidies: the transformational effect of these innovation ecosystems will not happen by fiat; therefore, it will be necessary for governments to provide the right incentives to tempt the right sectors to take some risks that otherwise would be very “unreasonable.” The design of these incentives will need to be intelligently crafted to reach the right target audience and provide the desired outcomes. A point of caution is to recognize an invisible thin line that separates incentives from subsidies. Subsidies have a perverse impact in the development of these ecosystems, since they promote undesirable behaviors of clientelism and undue benefits.
- It is about experiential diversity and not uniformity or standardization: Let a thousand flowers bloom, and let most die quickly, publicize the lessons learned, and capitalize on these lessons learned as positive, not negative, experiences. This approach will help to create a culture that failing is fine. Failing fast and forward even better!
- It is about the right level and types of immigrants to increase the diversity of the “gene pool”: Start-Up Chile started right opening this program exclusively to foreigners. However, in later editions politicians gave-in to the public outcry of “giving money to strangers…” and opening it up to Chilean nationals. In the case of Start-Up Peru foreigners can only participate if they are able to join a Start-up formed by Peruvians. In either case, politicians struggle to welcome foreign entrepreneurs from Shanghai or Warsaw to enrich the diversity and richness of the national ecosystem gene pool.
- It is about making it easy to operate in the legality and transparency of rule-of-law. Across Latin America in varying degrees, entrepreneurs operate their ventures at some level of informality (you can read more in a prior blogpost: https://carlosbaradello.com/2012/05/15/formal-informal-and-semi-formal-investing-in-early-stage-latin-american-ventures/ ). Why? Because these entrepreneurs are crooks and love to cheat their governments? NO! Instead, the answer is because the cost of compliance it is too high! This challenge presents one of the most fertile areas for public policies to resolve. Public policy reforms that would help include:
- Flexibilization of labor laws: Young, dynamic start-ups cannot commit for long-term employment due to their uncertain futures. Hence, the ability to hire-and-fire-at-will can incentivize the creation of employment without unbearable separation costs in the likely event of failure.
- Tax holiday for the first 3 to 5 years of operations of any new start-up: This simple law would make every start-up automatically in compliance for the first 3 to 5 years. This is an excellent opportunity to require, during this tax holiday period, a “compliance simulation” period. In other words, during the tax holiday period the Start-Up would need to meet all the filing requirements with the social security, corporate taxes, etc., and other fiscal obligations without any financial or legal consequences other than keep the tax holiday status. A sort of training wheels as you learn how to ride the bicycle.
- Simplification of venture creation and closure: The incorporation of a Start-Up and its possible dissolution (in the likely event of the failure, since most start-ups do fail), must be a simple procedure whose implementation should be measured in few days and few hundred dollars (or less). There is no justification for such processes to take months, be cumbersome requiring legal and tax experts, and cost thousands of dollars or more!
- Simple bankruptcy laws: Let’s face it. Most of start-ups go under (fail) well before they have any sign of success. Hence their founders and corporate officers should not be stained with the presumption of wrong because of their ventures failure, for years into the future!
- No Imputed taxation for stock options: Stock options are one of the better incentives and forms of compensation for start-ups. They align the interests of investors and founders with directors, executives and employees. Taxing an imputed value at the time of granting stock options makes this compensation instrument unviable. The requirement to pay income tax upfront on a presumed value of the option kills its intent as an incentive vehicle. Since, you will be paying taxes on a presume value that very seldom materializes as most ventures fail,
- Find your niche in the global economy and leverage your uniqueness. What is unique about your city, region or country’s economy? How you can rally the society towards a national identity that can distinguish it globally? Each country needs to develop its “man-on-the-moon” vision and have its leadership articulate it as clearly as J.F. Kennedy did during his Man-to-the-Moon Speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TuW4oGKzVKc (in particular between 8’24” and 9’15”). This is a tall order but completely doable!
- Do not waste your time by attempting to re-create Silicon Valley in your city, region or country. Silicon Valley happened because it happened. It is the result of over one century and a half of “accidents” from the Gold Rush to the accidental re-settlement of William Shockley (co-inventor of the transistor and Physic Nobel Prize winner) to the San Francisco Bay Area. Furthermore, the “Silicon Revolution” provided the region with an exceptionally virtuous cycle of value creation of over five decades of device miniaturization, lower costs, faster devices and lower energy consumption. This “Moore’s Law on Steroids” enabled the creation of an ecosystem of stakeholders who all benefitted from an ability to predict price/performance points years ahead to target specific applications and/or market sectors. This enabled multiple waves of innovations from integrated circuits, to PCs and software, to networks and the internet, to web applications and mobile, and so on. A formidable sequence of value creation hard to match!
On a weekly basis, delegations from the four corners of the world descend onto the Bay Area to learn its most treasured secrets, best practices, and recipes to recreate its success in their own locales. I call these visitors the “alchemists of the XXI century,” since they are searching for ways to enrich their countries or regions by transforming plentiful and inexpensive commodities – such as sand or silicon – into new sources of wealth.
It is not too difficult to identify a set of best practices that make Silicon Valley (or “The Valley” as it is often called) the premier innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in the world.
In fact, I anticipate that the fundamental lessons learned by our visitors to take back home center around three principles:
- Free circulation of people and ideas
- Circulation of capital
- Promotion of a risk-taking culture permeating all levels of society
Drilling deeper into each principle, we can identify specific areas of public policy reforms, cultural changes in society, and institutional adaptations that can together enable entrepreneurs to take risks, unleash creativity, and promote innovation across all sectors of society. However, it is in the specifics that the best-intentioned changes can result in failure.
In my travels, during conference Q&As, and when I welcome visitors to my office, I am often asked why it is so difficult to replicate Silicon Valley. I have concluded that recreating any semblance of The Valley in any other locale (regardless of its socioeconomic stage of development) is VERY DIFFICULT, if not impossible.
In fact, Silicon Valley probably could not have recreated itself today, even if we wanted. By many measures, Silicon Valley’s genesis was a fluke of nature. The Valley flourished by accidental twists and turns, without a master plan and without a blueprint from enlightened bureaucrats. Instead, The Valley was borne from the aligned self-interest of multiple stakeholders, a favorable geography and climate, and a series of fortunate historical circumstances.
While there is no “secret sauce” to recreate Silicon Valley in new geographies, countries can take pro-active steps to improve the odds of success by:
- Working to develop ALL ecosystem stakeholders simultaneously (not sequentially) to affect change;
- Planning and committing actions for a transformation that will take decades; and
- Managing expectations accordingly to sustain long-term support.
Initial progress will be painfully slow and early successes will need to be well-publicized and celebrated. Unfortunately, the transformation sought by emerging Latin American countries from commodity-based to knowledge and innovation-based economies will take longer than any presidential term to achieve. This transformation will take concerted and sustained effort by multiple stakeholders. Unfortunately, politicians tend to focus on the crisis of the day or the urgency of the moment. However, the initiatives I have discussed will require long-term commitment, over decades, to bear fruit.
A successful transformation will create a legacy of sustainable prosperity for future generations, but achieving it will require political, business and civil society leaders to think and commit to a lasting vision. Are they up for the challenge?
Until my next posting – Carlos B.