The setting is a little startling. Between two long, sombre-toned paintings of British monarchs, the words ENTREPRENEURS ARE GREAT stands out in bold black font on a giant screen. Overhead there’s a hefty crystal chandelier, and on the stage a tall Englishman holding a microphone and wearing an open-necked floral shirt and jeans. To his left there’s a raven-haired woman with a tattooed arm and an all-knowing gaze, as well as the Argentine Secretary of Entrepreneurs & SMEs and a gaggle of other suited individuals.
“There’s a huge amount of money still to be invested. It’s right here in this room. Who wants more investment? You have thirty minutes to convince investors. They’re looking for the guys and girls that can hustle the most. WHO’S READY?!” enthuses the Englishman, circus showman style.
It is the 2017 Buenos Aires Start-up Games, a whole-day event where budding entrepreneurs pitch their concepts to investors for play seed capital — a point system that mirrors the real funding battle participants face in the real world. The setting is the opulent Residence of the British Embassy in Recoleta, and the Englishman is Andrew Humphries, a business strategist who co-founded start-up accelerator, “The Bakery.”
First held in London in 2012 to coincide with the Olympics, the Start-up games have since been staged in cities across the world, including Sydney, Singapore, and Rio de Janeiro (on Thursday it hits Santiago.) Hosted by the UK’s Department for International Trade (DIT) through its Global Entrepreneurs Program, the day involves motivational talks and lectures about entrepreneurship, as well as half-hour blocks in which invited entrepreneurs “hustle” investors for funds. The entrepreneur who manages to attract the most funding wins a trip to London during London Tech-Week, where they can immerse themselves in the UK’s “start-up ecosystem.”
Suspense is building as I walk into the Residence towards the end of the event. Only two hours remains until the winner is announced and the top entrepreneurs are neck and neck. Around me is a sea of young men and women in dressed-down business shirts, many of whom are hunched over their smartphones – the competition is conducted via a bespoke app.
I talk to Mariano Riviero, from DIT, who explains the rules of the game. “Each entrepreneur is assigned 100 shares in their company. They also give them £1m of virtual funds that they can invest in other companies. The investors are only given funds to invest. Throughout the day, the entrepreneurs tell the investors about their projects and ideas. They can use computers, tablets, whatever they want to make their pitch. And the investors decide who they will invest in via the application, by clicking on the “Make An Offer” button.”
Meanwhile, as part of the day’s educational component, Arturo Torres from the Argentine Ministry of Production has taken the stage and is explaining the proposed “Entrepreneur’s Law”, (which is being voted on in Congress today), a “regulatory framework that will generate a more favorable ecosystem so that businesses can grow in Argentina, generating quality employment and world-wide recognition.” In Argentina, it currently takes between 45 and 60 days to create a company and the costs are very high. The government hopes that with this framework it can change this and generate 40 million entrepreneurs.
Still, this is Argentina, which isn’t exactly famed for having the most friendly business environment on earth, and people are a little skeptical. What happens if there’s a change in government? Andrew Humphries assures those present that if it has only “half the effect of the UK law, you’ll have en exciting time,” before making a special announcement. “There are super angels in this room. They have 20 million pounds each,” he says. With only half an hour remaining, these super angels could really change the game.
The hustling begins. I download the app as an investor and wonder what to do with my 1 million pounds. I don’t need to wonder long. Soon, a gentleman with a mop of blond hair and a white t-shirt that says Pactanda approaches me. “Pactanda is where the community goes to talk about their customer experience,” he says enthusiastically. He shows me on his phone that he’s raised about 50 million pounds. “There’s not much time remaining so you should probably give me 500 thousand pounds,” he says guilelessly. I oblige.
With ten minutes to go, Lisandro, an airline pilot, engineer, Rosarino and now virtual reality entrepreneur via the start-up Theai AR, approaches me. He says that while many aspects of the travel industry have been “disrupted”, the on the ground tour component is the same as ever. He takes out his phone and opens an app which opens an interactive google maps. We move through the space, and, where there are historical sites and restaurant zones, pop-ups, links to further information and geospatial advertisements appear. He then takes out a photo of the underground and hovers over it with his phone – a timetable appears.
How long ago did you start working on the app? “About a month and a half,” he says. “So it really is a start-up!” says the women I’m with.
Time is up and everyone returns to the hall. I sit next to what appears to be a sixteen year old boy in his school shirt, and, as the results are finalized, tune into the final lecture, an informal chat between Humphries and angel investor, entrepreneur and expert in micro-financing, Sheetal Walsh, about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in the UK. Walsh applauds the diversity of backgrounds and thought in the UK, as well as the sincere way of doing business.
Some in the audience are concerned about Brexit, but Humphries maintains that not only does the UK continue to have the “top performing economical ecosystem in Europe”, but that some are saying exiting the Union will make it an “even playing field” for all countries, which means that Argentines will be able to better compete with Europeans.
Finally, the moment has arrived. And it’s “the closest ever startup games we’ve ever had!”, announces Humphries.
Third place goes to “Sorui, which creates biodegradable cups from Japanese algae as an alternative to plastic. As it turns out, the sixteen year old sitting next to me in his school shirt is actually nineteen year old Jerónimo Batista Bucher, described as a “brilliant mind” by Clarin, and a “genius” by Infobae. He takes the stage, and a bronze medal is draped around his neck, to the thunderous applause of all.
Meanwhile, FC Bola (“you buy a ball, and we give one to a child in a marginalised community”) comes in at second place. Its co-founder, Matías González de Biase – the most casually dressed, hipsteresque person in the room — receives his silver medal and tickets to London (second place gets the flights without the accommodation) with a huge grin. Carrying a football and wearing a cap that says Bola, he has, according to Humphries, been “incredibly active” in selling his idea, and raised 109 million pounds throughout the day.
Finally, first place is awarded to Crowdium, which has managed to raise 110 million pounds. Already named as one of the top 100 start-ups in the world at the South Summit Start-up Competition in Madrid, Crowdium is a real estate crowdfunding platform that enables people who couldn’t normally afford to buy a house to invest small amounts in real estate.
Everyone retires for a group photo followed by beer and wine, and I curse my lack of investment canny – I’ve come in as the second worst performing investor.
Photos via British Embassy