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Start-Up Chile: An Interview with Michael Propper

An interview with Michael Propper on the experience of working with Start-Up Chile.

Q- María Cristina Fernández Hall: Editor and Contributor for Fair Observer

A- Michael Propper: Start-Up Chile Entrepreneur, creator of YourStoryBox

Q- First off, let me introduce Michael Propper, an American entrepreneur who went to Start-Up Chile, a program in Chile that recruits people with startups to come to Chile. SUC gives entrepreneurs funding for their projects and provides networking opportunities so that startups can go global. Tell us more about SUC and the way it promotes business.

A- Start-Up Chile is an incubator of sorts. Chile popped up on my radar because clearly their economy is doing pretty well. As it turns out, by 2014 they are looking to house about 1,000 different startups, so their program is fairly ambitious. You could call it trying to create an innovation hub for Chile. It’s really a global play, with startups from all over the world. I liken it a bit to a think tank in operation because there’s a lot of cross pollination between ideas and people and nice feedback opportunities. We call them brain bombs. It’s really quite fun.

Q- You created a program called “YourStoryBox” so everyday people can have their own personal memories and make a story out of them. Tell us more about your idea and how it inspired your project.

A- The idea evolved in Madrid, Spain. I have a buddy out there and one day he was walking through a cemetery and he passed a tomb, and as he passed the tomb, he heard a voice. Somebody had mounted a video player inside their tomb, and in contemplation of their death, created their milestones and life events so that when a person walked by their tomb it would trigger, and you could hear them, so to speak “talking from beyond” and I thought it was very compelling when I heard it. I have seen quite a number of interesting sites where questions and people answering questions are gaining a lot of currency, like Formspring for example. What drives this project is “topics and questions,” so you would choose the topic, and then questions would live within the platform or could be offered by your friends and family, and you respond to them in video, so it acts as a storytelling platform in video.

It helps to trigger your story. I think the idea of storytelling is gaining a lot of ground and we’re seeing it in a lot of places in terms of trans-media projects. I think storytelling goes way back. Really what we’re talking about is myths, rites of passage, calendar rites and those triumphs and milestones of our lives that we really want to share with people. So that was the idea behind it.

Q- At what stage of development do most of the selected startups begin the program? Does the program take “ideas” (businesses in the planning stage) or concrete enterprises that have already started?

A- Start-Up Chile isn’t looking just for businesses that are ready for the market immediately. They need a well thought-out business plan and a concept being evaluated by some very high level folks. They need a compelling and deep evaluation process of whether these startups are marketable and will have a life.

Q- Start-Up Chile gives $40,000 to the startups they sponsor.$40,000 is a very generous amount of money, but is this enough money to start a business?

A- The 40,000 dollars that they’re offering is meant to be used for business purposes but you are able to use some portion of that for your rent and your living expenses. They’re looking to have entrepreneurs who are ready to take full advantage of all the resources of Chile. Keep in mind that the resources do go a little bit further in Latin America. The dollar goes a lot farther down here. The $40,000 are really meant to get you up and running, but I think it would be naïve to think that would be the only money you’d need to get your business started.

Q- With that in mind, at what point do entrepreneurs need to branch out for investors?

A- If you can launch your business with $40,000 that’s a great benefit. Some people may only need that much money. In terms of looking for outside investment, is an entirely different process. People are interested in coming down to Start-Up Chile because it offers opportunities to pitch ideas to Venture Capitalists (VCs) and angel funding entities. I’m not looking for outside funding at this moment, but if I need to, it’s not far off. VCs come and have meet ups here all the time. There are opportunities

Q- What is the role that culture plays in developing a global start-up in a completely different country? Was it a barrier or an exploration?

A- I would say that I was lucky. I had an advantage because I do speak Spanish. For me, every country that I’ve ever been to obviously has different cultural nuances and subtleties. The way they speak Castellano in Chile is very different to how they speak it in Spain or in Mexico. It’s more of an exploration to get to know about the cultural subtleties. Chileans are an incredibly warm group. It’s easy to make friendships and they usually try to engage you. If you’re in a taxi, the taxi cab drivers always start conversations. For other people in the program, there have been challenges. To really navigate your way through Chilean society easily is really not that easy but the day to day is pretty easy down here. Culturally, it’s a very rich country with wonderful things to do. On the other hand, I’m so busy I barely get time to see it all and travel.

Q- Can you give a final word of advice to those looking for an opportunity at Start-Up Chile?

A- Like when you travel to any country, keep an open mind. This is really key. You would be wise to really read up and try to watch SUC’s videos, and to get some understanding of businesses through all of the guides you see on the website. Chile is a wonderful place to be right now with so much growth and opportunities. It is strategic in Latin America— Argentina is very close and so is Brazil. If your business plan includes expanding in Latin America this is a wonderful place to be. Access to business sectors is really easy, which is a big benefit. If you need a test, prototype or feedback, it’s very accessible, too. The program needs some fine tuning, but I’ve never met a group of people who have worked harder. I’m very happy to be part of this and I enthusiastically recommend it. It’s a great step as far as an incubator goes