Field Notes: Cuba

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We had the amazing opportunity to travel to Cuba last month and meet with local startups. The startup scene is as vibrant and colourful as the buildings and old cars in Havana Vieja. Cuba is incredibly accessible to travel to - United flies direct from NYC to Havana, no questions asked from TSA or immigration, and a simple $75 visa in Support for the Cuban People, which encourages you to spend at least 6 hours a day interacting with locals. 

Cuba is still a communist country and each Cuban has an average salary of about $20 a month. Most Cubans end up working multiple jobs - the lifeguard at the beach also sells coconuts and fruit juices; the university professor rents out his grandmother’s “casa particular” (private house). This is the Cuban way of life: “we’re all working 7 or 8 jobs all the time.” Airbnb is doing surprisingly well in Cuba, as one of the rare foreign tech companies actually contributing to the Cuban tourist economy in a massive way. In 2017, there were over 4.5 million visits to Cuba. Tourists can rent out beautiful colonial haciendas for $30 per person per day as most hotels are government-owned and can’t be patronised by Americans on our particular visa. Airbnb host experiences are also popular and boast many options. We signed up for photo and walking tours around Havana and snorkeled with locals in Matanzas. 

The caveat to all of this private business boom is that the Cuban government suspended issuing new licenses, which are required to operate such businesses, in summer 2017. For those who got in early, tourism profits can be lucrative and a few more pesos goes a long way in Cuba. 

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The future of Cuban entrepreneurship will be driven by the people, and not necessarily the government. Fábrica de Arte Cubano, an art warehouse home to a rotating dozen of art exhibitions and restaurants, represents the beating heart of Cuba. Arts and culture is exceptionally rich and diverse, with local publications like Vistar and Negolucion highlighting Cuban artists. A Cuban-American friend took us to Estudio 50, which strives to be a creative space and co-working area for Cuban entrepreneurs and musicians. The studio is a giant block-sized warehouse that is multi-purpose - when we were visiting, there was a concert for senior citizens next to the remnants of last night’s hip hop music video shoot. 

In a sense, the entire country is a warehouse. It’s constantly rebuilding and recreating. We found that Cuba has more similarities than differences to Silicon Valley. As we met with several technology startups, we got the sense that the Cuban way is to make the most basic prototype and build your way up. There is an intense focus on iteration. They start with the cheapest and most basic alpha version, even if it requires 14 hours of work and is incredibly manual. Then they keep iterating and improving with reinvested profits bit by bit. Internet can cost as much as rent per month and only allows limited hours of connectivity, which forces locals to maintain an intense work ethic. 

Certain restrictions like lack of easily available internet connectivity also encourage innovation. AlaMesa, a local mobile app that recommends restaurants and bars near your location, is extremely performant and allows you to download the app’s data for offline browsing (as a side note, the company’s founder is the most popular and highly-rated Airbnb experience host in the country, as one of his dozen or so jobs). Taking this even further, people use Chinese apps like SHAREall to exchange files and app data offline. If you haven’t heard of how paquetes (messengers who download and sell USB drives) are used to spread information around the island, read this Wired article for the down-low

The entrepreneurship ecosystem can feel like a tug of war with tensions between private businesses and the government, like in other emerging markets. However, the Cubans’ optimism must be contagious because I’m convinced that there is incredible growth forthcoming. With its resilient, “hacker” culture already permeating throughout local startups, Cuba has the foundation to come together and build (or rebuild) the most epic startup warehouse the country has ever seen.