This article was first published on TechCrunch on April 1, 2021.

Mexico has been known as an up-and-coming tech hub and a gateway to the Latin American market. As an investor focused on developer-centered products, open source startups, and infrastructure technology companies with a particular interest in emerging market innovation, I have been wanting to do some firsthand learning there.

So, despite the ongoing pandemic, I took all the necessary precautions and spent roughly seven weeks in Mexico from January to March. I spent most of my time meeting founders to get a handle on what they are building, why they are pursuing those ideas, and how the entire ecosystem is evolving to support their ambitions.

U.S.-Asia-LatAm nexus

One fascinating, though not surprising, observation was how much LatAm entrepreneurs look to Asian tech giants for product inspiration and growth strategies. Companies like Tencent, DiDi and Grab are household names among founders. This makes sense because the market conditions in Mexico and other parts of LatAm resemble China, India and Southeast Asia than the U.S.

What often happens is entrepreneurs first look to successful startups in the U.S. to emulate and localize. As they find product market fit, they start to look to Asian tech companies for inspiration while morphing them to suit local needs.

One good example is Rappi, an app that started out as a grocery delivery service. Its future ambition is squarely to become the superapp of LatAm: It is expanding aggressively both geographically and product-wise into delivery for restaurant orders, pharmacy and even COVID tests. It’s also introducing new payment, banking and financial-service products. Rappi Pay launched in Mexico just a few weeks ago, while I was still in the country.

Rappi now looks more like Meituan and Grab than any of its U.S. counterparts, and that’s not an accident. SoftBank, whose portfolio contains many of these Asian tech giants, invested heavily in Rappi’s previous two rounds and now has a $5 billion fund dedicated to the LatAm region. The knowledge and experience accumulated from Asian tech in the last 10 years is transferring to like-minded firms like Rappi, right under Silicon Valley’s proverbial nose.

U.S.-Asia-LatAm competition

Knowledge transfer is not the only trend flowing in the U.S.-Asia-LatAm nexus. Competition is afoot as well.

Because of similar market conditions, Asian tech giants are directly expanding into Mexico and other LatAm countries. The one I witnessed up close during my visit was DiDi.

DiDi’s foray into LatAm started in January 2018 with its acquisition of 99, a Brazilian ride-sharing company. In April 2018, DiDi entered Mexico with its bread-and-butter ridesharing service. It wasn’t until April 2019 that DiDi launched its food delivery service, DiDi Food, in Monterrey and Guadalajara -- two of the largest cities in Mexico. Its expansion hasn’t slowed down since, with a 10% extra earnings incentive to lure delivery drivers.

My Airbnb in Mexico City happened to be two blocks away from the large WeWork building where DiDi’s local office was located. Every day, I saw a long line of people responding to the earning incentives -- waiting outside to get hired as DiDi delivery workers. Meanwhile, the Uber office that’s literally one block away had hardly any foot traffic. As Uber and Rappi fight for more wealthy consumers, DiDi is working to attract lower-income users to grab market share, hoping that one day some of these people will reach the middle class and become profitable customers.

DiDi’s geographical expansion includes not only large cities, but also smaller ones, like Querétaro, which I visited. Its expansion approach is also multi-product -- its own payment product, DiDi Pay, is prominently promoted in new local markets.

This multi-product push is likely necessitated by fierce local competition, especially in fintech. According to a report by Finnovista, there are 441 fintech startups in Mexico, spanning all flavors of the category, from remittance products to different dimensions of financial services like lending, wealth management and insurance.

Even though fintech is by far the hottest area of Mexican tech startup activities, there is no clear winner yet. The field is wide open for giants like Rappi and DiDi, as well as new entrants.

The proportion of Mexicans who are unbanked or underbanked is large. Equally large is the proportion of the population that now has smartphones. Among the 128 million Mexicans, the smartphone ownership hovers between 80 million and 90 million. The quality-affordability mix of the data plans offered by telecommunications companies like Telcel are quite good -- oftentimes better than the WiFi in my Airbnb.

The leapfrog effect from no Internet straight to mobile Internet is well underway in Mexico. What will follow may be another leapfrog phenomenon, from dirty cash and paper ledger straight to digital payment and neobanks -- a quintessential “Asian tech” experience.

I’m not a fintech-focused investor, so have no educated guess on how this vertical will evolve in Mexico. How DiDi’s capital-intensive, lower-income user strategy will fare in its LatAm expansion is also an open question. What is certain is that Asian tech giants are influential in the region, both as a source of inspiration and competition.

The ‘mafia’ effect

To my dismay, not many startups work on “pure technical” projects -- AI/ML, infrastructure, APIs -- where technology itself is the moat, not just the enabler. That’s where my investment focus and sweet spot is. But I do think that will change in the next few years, because the “mafias” are forming.

The “mafia” effect is a key ingredient in the sustainable growth of a tech ecosystem, where the alumni of successful tech companies either leave to start new companies or fund them as angels. We are all familiar with the stories of mafias from PayPal and YouTube, and more recently Pinterest, Square and Stripe, not to mention the giants, like Google and Facebook.

In Mexico and a few other countries, alums of Rappi and Uber’s LatAm operations are forming their own startup “mafias.”

Ex-Rappi employees are everywhere. Even though I was physically in Mexico, it was not hard to meet and connect with Rappi-affiliated founders in Colombia, where the company started. The Rappi mafia has already produced a handful of companies, like Tributi (tax filing automation), Plerk (employee benefits and perks), and HelloGuru (no code).

Having started its LatAm expansion in Mexico and built a sizable engineering and data science hub in Brazil, many ex-Uber employees are also becoming founders. Some Uber LatAm mafia startups are Heru (professional services for gig workers) and Cloud Humans (professional freelancer marketplace). Mexico’s own first unicorn, Kavak, also has “mafia potential.”

I did not spend much time learning about Brazil on this trip; the Brazilian market tends to be its own world and not as interconnected with the rest of LatAm. But it would not surprise me if there’s a “Nubank Mafia” there already pumping out startups, too.

The “mafias” tend to work on unsolved internal problems or project ideas that did not come to fruition. This approach can yield some easy early wins, because the founders’ ex-employer usually becomes their first customer. However, as these regional tech giants grow and mature, their tech stack must improve. They will need better, dedicated third-party technical products provided by startups like Truora (fraud detection) and Mati (identity verification). This technical growing pain should inspire more innovation lower down the stack, like Vech Connect (a gig worker data API product, founded by ex-Uber employees).

These are the types of “pure technical” ideas I’m tracking and excited about, as more “mafias” blossom in Mexico and other parts of LatAm.

Maturing funding ecosystem

The “mafia” effect is a natural phenomenon when a startup becomes successful and completes its first full vesting cycle -- usually four years if the company has raised a significant amount of American VC dollars and follows the typical Silicon Valley vesting schedule. As early employees fully vest their stock options, experience growth and scale, and have the itch to start something new, they can usually count on the support of their colleagues. Indeed, the initial funding into many of the Rappi mafia startups came from the Rappi co-founders and other employees.

The impact of this early investment source cannot be overstated. The availability of small angel checks with a long time horizon is an often-missing ingredient in building a sustainable tech hub -- something that was in short supply in Mexico’s venture investing ecosystem.

The Mexican VC industry is only about 10 years old. It existed mostly under a friendly government under former President Enrique Peña Nieto. During the Nieto administration, government funding generously poured into startups directly, as well as VC funds and incubators indirectly (a taxpayer-funded LP!). After the 2018 Mexican presidential election, all that funding disappeared with the change in leadership. The impact of the new president was a common topic of discussion during my conversations with Mexican entrepreneurs.

With the injection of angel money from the mafias and other sources, the ecosystem is maturing regardless of the government. Certain things that Silicon Valley investors may take for granted used to be an uphill battle for founders, but are now more standard.

One example is the YC SAFE document -- a widely accepted term sheet template for early-stage investing in Silicon Valley that was a strange legal animal in Mexico as recently as three years ago. Now, it’s becoming the default for any Mexican startup with firm plans to raise money from U.S. investors. As for startups who want to stay in Mexico, a “Mexican SAFE” has been created and templatized that complies with local corporate law, called IMIET (Instrumento Mexicano de Inversión en Etapas Tempranas).

So while the overall amount of money is less, there’s now more of the right kind of money with the right investment mindset and time horizon. Combining that with devices like SAFE to smoothen dealmaking for entrepreneurs, the Mexico’s tech ecosystem appears to be trending in the right direction.

Latin America is not a monolith

So far, I’ve mentioned Mexico and LatAm more broadly and often in the same breath, but I want to underscore that the LatAm region is not a monolith.

As an investor, I paid close attention to the region’s engineering talent. That distribution, in terms of quality and density, is definitely uneven across different LatAm countries, even though technical know-hows are easier and cheaper to learn than ever before. The way business gets done and companies get built also differ, both in and outside of Brazil, where the difference is more pronounced, and among Spanish-speaking countries.

For anyone looking to invest in or expand their business into LatAm, humbly learning and remembering those differences and not treating the region monolithically is critical to success. Many people have made that mistake by treating China, India and Southeast Asia as monoliths; the same attitude will only spell failure if applied to LatAm.

Even though I only saw a handful of products that are within my investment focus on this trip, the ecosystem is no doubt maturing. I’m optimistic that we’ll see more uniquely LatAm innovation happening up and down the technical stack soon. If the speed of technology progression in Asia is a forward-looking indicator, emerging markets tend to leapfrog much quicker than most people in developed markets can anticipate.

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墨西哥的科技生态:拉美、美国和亚洲的交汇点

本文章于2021年4月1日首次发表在TechCrunch

墨西哥一直被视为是一个新兴的科技创业生态,以及步入拉美市场的“第一关”。作为一个专注于投资开发者产品、开源初创公司和基础科技的人,也尤其对新兴市场的创新感兴趣,我一直想去墨西哥亲自考察学习一下。

因此,尽管疫情仍在感染全球,我还是决定去墨西哥,并采取了一切必要的疫情预防措施。从1月到3月,我在墨西哥呆了大概7周。我大部分时间都在见当地的创始人,了解他们正在做什么,为什么在做选择的创业方向,以及整个生态发展进度和能支持他们的野心的能力。

美国-亚洲-拉美的互联

一个耐人思考,但也并不令人惊讶的观察是,许多拉美创业者都在从亚洲的各个科技巨头身上寻找产品灵感和发展战略。腾讯、滴滴和Grab等公司在创始者圈子中家喻户晓。这种现象其实是合理的,因为墨西哥以及拉美其他地区的市场状况更像中国、印度和东南亚,而并不像美国。

一个常见的故事就是,创业者首先会寻找美国硅谷的成功案例去模仿和本土化。当他们找到product market fit 以后,往往把目光转向亚洲科技公司去寻找灵感,再于适应当地情况的各种创新结合。

Rappi就是一个很好的例子。它是一款以日常买菜和杂货配送服务起家的app。但它未来的野心是要成为整个拉美无所不作的SuperApp。不管在新地域还是新产品方面都在积极扩张,已经打入餐饮,药房,甚至疫情检测的各种配送领域。同时公司还在推出新的支付、银行和金融服务产品。Rappi Pay几周前刚刚在墨西哥上线,当时我还在那里。

Rappi现在的发展趋势更像美团和Grab,而不像任何一家美国的相对应公司,这并不是偶然。软银投资了许多类似的亚洲科技巨头,它在Rappi的前两轮融资中也下了重金赌注。软银最近又新成立了一个50亿美元的基金,专门投入拉美市场。在硅谷的眼皮底下,过去10年从亚洲科技发展中积累的知识和经验正在向Rappi这种“志同道合”的公司传输。

美国-亚洲-拉美的竞争

知识传输并不是美国-亚洲-拉美“互联”中唯一的趋势。激烈的竞争也在展开。

因为有相似的市场状况,各个亚洲科技巨头已经开始直接向墨西哥以及其他拉美国家扩张。我在墨西哥期间亲自看到最多的是滴滴的身影。

滴滴从2018年1月开始进军拉美,当时以收购巴西的共享乘车公司99打响“第一炮”。2018年4月进入墨西哥,从提供共享乘车服务开始。直到2019年4月,滴滴才在蒙特雷和瓜达拉哈拉 -- 墨西哥最大的两个城市 -- 推出其餐饮配送服务,DiDi Food。此后,它的扩张进度一直在加速,并以和同行比多10%的收入奖励来吸引送货司机。

我在墨西哥城住的Airbnb恰好离滴滴当地办公室所在的WeWork大楼旁边。每天,我都能看到一长串响应收入奖励的司机们,在外面排队等着被聘为滴滴的送货员。与此同时,相隔一个街的Uber办公室门前几乎没有任何人。在Uber和Rappi激烈争夺较富裕的消费者的同时,滴滴正在吸引低收入用户来抢占市场份额,希望有一天这些人中的一部分能步入中产,成为更有钱可赚的用户。

滴滴的地域扩张不仅限于大城市,也包括些小城市,比如我此行去的Queretaro (位于墨西哥城西北方向四个小时的距离)。它的扩张方式也是“多产品化“的 -- 其支付产品,DiDi Pay,在突破新市场时是推广的“主打”。

这种“多产品化”的推广战略很可能于当地市场的激烈竞争挂钩,尤其是在金融科技领域。根据Finnovista的一份报告,墨西哥已经有大大小小441家金融科技初创公司,覆盖了从汇款,到贷款,到财富管理和保险等不同维度的金融服务产品。

尽管金融科技是目前墨西哥科技创业圈子里最火的领域,但还没有明显的赢家,所以不管对像Rappi和滴滴这种巨头,还是新创业公司,都还是一片开阔的绿地。

在墨西哥,没有银行账户或一般银行服务都不全的人口比例很大。同样大的则是拥有智能手机的人口比例。在1.28亿墨西哥人中,智能手机的拥有比例在8000万到9000万之间。Telcel等当地电信公司提供的移动数据的质量和价格的性价比不错,很多时候比我Airbnb的WiFi还要好。

在墨西哥,从没有互联网直接跳到移动互联网的“跳跃现象”(leapfrog effect)已经在发生。接下来的下一个“跳跃现象”很可能是,从脏脏的纸钱直接跳到数字化支付和互联网新银行(neobank)-- 这种跳跃是典型的 "亚洲科技" 发展过程。

我不是一个专注于金融科技的投资人,所以对这个领域在墨西哥的发展未来没什么有价值的评论和猜测。滴滴以重金投入去赢得低收入用户的市场份额的策略在拉美会不会奏效,也是一个未知数。但可以肯定的是,亚洲科技巨头在拉美地区的影响力很大,既是新灵感的来源,也是竞争的新对手。

“帮派” 效应

令我有点失望的是,没有找到多少创业公司从事 "纯技术" 项目,比如AI/机器学习、基础科技、API等以技术本身为护城河,而不只是靠点数字化去推动的to C产品。"纯技术" 项目是我的投资重点和强项,但我认为未来几年目前的情况会有所改变,因为 "帮派" 效应正在成形。

"帮派" 效应是一个科技创业生态是否可持续发展的关键因素,成功的科技公司的前员工(所谓的”帮派”)要么离开创办新公司,要么以天使投资人的身份提供资金。大家都很熟悉硅谷有名的一些“帮派” 的故事,从PayPal帮和YouTube帮开始,到最近的Pinterest、Square和Stripe,更不用说从谷歌和Facebook这种巨头出来的“帮派”了。

在墨西哥和其他一些拉美国家,Rappi和Uber的拉美团队已经开始有自己的创业"帮派"。

前Rappi员工随处可见。即使我身在墨西哥,但要想与在哥伦比亚(Rappi的创始地)有Rappi背景的创始人建立联系并不难。“Rappi帮”已经孵化出一些公司了,比如Tributi(自动化报税)、Plerk(员工福利和待遇服务)和HelloGuru(无代码平台)。

Uber在拉美市场的扩张是从墨西哥开始,后来在巴西也建立了一个不小的工程和数据科学团队,这些员工许多都开始创业了。一些“Uber拉美帮派”的创业公司有Heru(为零工提供专业服务)和Cloud Humans(自由职业者市场平台)。墨西哥自己的第一只独角兽Kavak也有 "帮派潜力"。

我此行并没有花太多时间了解巴西,因为巴西市场是个自己的世界,与拉美其他国家的互联互通程度不深。但如果那里已经有一个 "Nubank帮派" 在创办各种新公司,我不会感到惊讶。

这些 "帮派" 的起点往往先是从解决某些内部未解决的问题,或者没有实现的新产品想法开始。这种创业方法同时在早期可以较轻松的达到显著的进展,因为创始人的前雇主通常会成为第一个客户。然而,随着当地的各大科技巨头日益成长和成熟,它们的技术堆栈也必须升级,将需要更专业的第三方技术产品提供商,比如像Truora(欺诈检测即风控)和Mati(身份验证)等。这种技术上的成长应该会激发更多技术栈下层的创新,比如Vech Connect(一个由几个前Uber员工创立的共享劳力人员个人数据的API产品)。

随着更多的 "帮派" 在墨西哥和拉美其他地区开花结果,我专注跟踪它们的进展,期望有更多的 "纯技术" 项目出现。

日益成熟的融资生态

"帮派" 效应是当一家初创公司成功后,并走完第一个员工股权归属周期后的自然现象 -- 如果该公司融了大量的美国风投,并跟随硅谷的归属时间周期,那么通常是四年时间。当早期员工的期权完全归属,也经历了快速成长和规模化,有了想自己开公司的想法,他们通常会依靠前同事的支持。许多“Rappi帮派”创业公司的天使轮资金都来自Rappi的联合创始人和其他员工。

有这种早期投资来源的巨大影响不言而喻。一个科技创业生态能达到可持续性发展过程中,创业者早期是否能得到时间线较长的小额天使投资是个通常缺乏的要素。墨西哥的生态就是如此。

墨西哥的风投行业只有10年左右的历史,主要在前总统恩里克-培尼亚-涅托在位的期间发展起来的。在涅托执政期间,政府向科技创业领域投入了大量资金,不光直接投公司,还直接投风投基金和孵化器(纳税人资助的LP!)。2018年墨西哥总统大选后,新总统上台,整个领导层被替换,随后这些资金都消失了。在我与墨西哥创业者的谈话中,新总统对生态的影响经常被提起。

随着 “帮派效应” 和其他天使阶段资金的注入,无论政府的姿态是什么,整个生态都在不断成熟。某些硅谷投资届已经默认的东西和方法,过去对墨西哥创业者来说都很困难,但现在许多这些东西也已经开始标准化了。

其中一个例子是YC SAFE文件 -- 这是一份被广泛接受的硅谷早期投资的条款表模板,在三年前的墨西哥,还是个奇特的东西,很多投资人不接受。现在,它已经成为任何有坚定计划向美国投资者融资的墨西哥初创企业默认使用的文件。至于那些想留在墨西哥的公司,生态中也已经开始标准化一个符合当地公司法的 "墨西哥版SAFE",简称为IMIET(西班牙语全称:Instrumento Mexicano de Inversión en Etapas Tempranas)。

所以,虽然整体资金体量少了些,但有了更多的有正确投资心态和时间线的资金。再加上像SAFE这种标准化文件,让创业者融资更加顺畅,墨西哥的科技创业生态正在朝着正确的方向发展。

拉美不是个单一整体

文章写到这里,您可能会察觉到,我经常把墨西哥和其他拉美地区放在一起,但我想强调一点:不要拉美视为一个单一整体。

作为一个偏基础科技产品的投资人,我尤其关注该地区的工程人才能力。尽管技术知识的传播和学习比以往任何时候都更容易,成本也更低,但从能力和密度来看,工程师能力的分布在不同拉美国家是不均衡的。开公司和发展业务的各种差异也很明显,无论是在巴西内外,还是在其他讲西班牙语的国家之间。

对于任何希望在拉美地区做投资或拓展业务的人来说,谦虚地学习和牢记这些差异,而不是把该地区看成一个单一整体去对待是成功关键。很多人在其他地区都犯过这种错误,把中国、印度或东南亚视为单一整体;如果把同样的态度带到拉美,必定失败。

尽管此行我只看到了少数几个属于我投资范围内的产品,但整个生态系统无疑在逐步成熟。因此,我对拉美的发展趋势很乐观,期待将很快看到更多在技术栈上下各层的创新。如果亚洲的科技发展速度有任何前瞻性,那么像拉美这种新兴市场的“跳跃式”发展速度往往比大多数发达国家的人所能预料的要快得多。

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