It’s Saturday morning and there is a long line of people at the door of the Chamber of Construction offices in Tibás, where a competition is about to take place. While waiting to enter, some whisper to themselves, practicing for their presentation in front of a large audience. Others stand silently, going over every word of their presentation in their head. The nervous energy is palpable.
All are about to participate in the annual competition Yo Emprendedor, a non-profit organization that seeks to promote entrepreneurship in Costa Rica. Through the organization, entrepreneurs get help turning their ideas into reality and exposure to private and public investors and potential clients.
“The startup culture has not yet permeated Costa Rica in the best way,” said Fernando Arce, director of the organization. “We are studying and preparing to be employees and not necessarily to be employers and to have our own business.”
Based on this premise, the main objectives of Yo Emprendedor are to improve, through specific tools, the chances of success, to foster a better culture of entrepreneurship and to seed an ecosystem in which more and better projects can emerge in Costa Rica.
In its eight years of existence, the Yo Emprendedor competition has been very successful, according to Arce.
“We have a success rate of over 50 percent in terms of projects that are still active,” Arce explained. He defines success as startup ideas that have met their goals in terms of obtaining outside investment, contact with mentors or outside consultation.
More than 2,600 startup projects have participated in the competition since its inception, Arce said.
The stages of Yo Emprendedor
In the auditorium at the Chamber of Construction, the wouldbe entrepreneurs wait to be called up to present their ideas. One by one, they are get up on stage and run through their pitch. Some show confidence and poise, others stutter.
Each participant has just one minute to present the idea to four judges, experts in the field, who will analyze and scrutinize the pitch.
The competition is divided into four stages, starting with signup. In the second stage, participants take a seminar designed to walk them through key elements of starting or furthering a successful business. It’s in this stage that participants must perfect and deliver their “elevator pitch” in front of an audience.
The semifinalists from this stage move onto the third stage, where they get more specific training on issues like innovation, adding value, marketing and business models. These trainings are carried out by Central American businesses and organizations, giving the participants exposure to potential funders and clients.
In the fourth stage, the top projects move on to the finals, where they are presented to government representatives, media, potential clients and employers. Cash prizes are handed out, and Yo Emprendedor helps the winners present their projects to more investors and customers.
Francisco Paz, who won the competition in 2014, said the importance of these competitions is that they allow ideas to come to light and not remain within the circle of entrepreneurs. Paz’s product seeks to help the hearing-impaired hear through gloves outfitted with transmitters.
Costa Rican entrepreneurs evolve
Paz said Costa Rican entrepreneurs have evolved in recent years. “This year’s ideas are much more attainable than two years ago,” he said. “In years past [the ideas] were too large, technologically impractical and very theoretical.
“Now they’re much more practical,” Paz said.
But this doesn’t mean the ideas are less creative. Irene Mena, a consultant who helps judge the first stage of the competition, there’s a lot of talent among Costa Rican entrepreneurs.
“We have a very high sense of creativity,” Mena said. “When you see this type of competition, you realize that these ideas are at the same level as ideas being generated in the U.S. and Europe.”
But, for her, entrepreneurs have to be very clear that buyers these days have changed. They’re looking for the brand that tells the best story, for example, rather than the one that’s cheapest.
Entrepreneurial marketer and Yo Emprendedor judge Andrés Riggioni agrees.
“The mind of the entrepreneur is the same as the mind of the consumer, or at least it should be,” Riggioni said.
Challenges for entrepreneurs in Costa Rica
Irene Mena said creativity must be accompanied by a global vision and the capacity for rapid execution.
“You have to bring something different to the table and execute it efficiently. If you take three years to develop a product, they’re going to beat you and they’re going to take it from you,” she said.
Riggioni believes that the passion of local entrepreneurs is notable, but being an entrepreneur is being able to turn that passion into a business.
“In order for it to work and be a real company, it has to generate. The catch is that many people have a good idea, they generate employment for themselves and don’t go any further. That’s different than creating a company,” Riggioni said, adding that such projects tend to not be sustainable.
For the participant Priscilla Chaves, a key problem is the a lack of information for entrepreneurs about what opportunities exist, how to participate in the various projects designed to help entrepreneurs and where to find training and courses that can help them overcome weaknesses. Through her project Humanitarian Experiences, Chaves organizes trips that mix tourism with providing free medical services to excluded communities.
“We know there are great opportunities for entrepreneurs. But many people don’t get past the first stage or don’t work very hard to find programs like these,” Chaves said.
Sofia Herra, whose project seeks to make Costa Rica an international leader in animal welfare, said if contests like Yo Emprendedor didn’t exist, many entrepreneurs would be stuck learning through trial and error. Herra’s project designs educational programs for teaching responsible pet ownership.
“Everything I’ve done, I learned step by step, without much guidance,” Herra said, “so it helps to participate in these projects. [Without them] there’s definitely a lack of information on what are the next steps,” said Herra, who’s a veterinarian.
Yo Emprendedor seeks to provide the necessary guidance to push all of these entrepreneurs forward.
Each tool that’s provides brings a new challenge. For Herra, like all the other applicants, on that recent Saturday it was time to put to use all of the lessons learned in the seminar, stand firm, control ones nerves and walk to the front of the auditorium. Breathe once and smile, while the timer starts counting the seconds.