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The WHALAC Expanding in the Americas panelists seated on a stage.
From left to right: Nicolás de Camino, Andrea Viejo, Maia Eliscovich, and moderator Luisa Sucre. Photo credit: Eliot Olaya/AL DÍA.

Exploring the challenges and opportunities of business growth across Latin America

A panel of entrepreneurs and executives discussed the topic, and their experiences in growing businesses in between Latin American countries.

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In a panel discussion hosted by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, prominent Latinos came together to discuss how businesses expand both nationally and internationally in Latin America.

These discussions were a part of a series of discussions held in an event known as the Wharton Latin American Conference, discussing topics such as investing in Latin American startups, or what it takes for female business leaders to be successful.

Comprising this particular panel were Nicolás de Camino, a Co-Founder of Xepelin, a software service company providing financial services for medium sized businesses; Maia Eliscovich, the Chief Communications Officer of Ualá Bis, a digital billing service for small/single employee businesses; and Andrea Viejo, the Country Manager of Laika, a pet food and supplies retailer.

Moderating the panel was Luisa Sucre, the Principal of the Collaborative fund, a network of fund managers seeking to invest in companies that straddle the line between for-profit and for public good.

To begin the conversation, the panelists were asked why their company’s were founded in the place they were.

Camino began by explaining that he and his co-founders founded Xepelin in Chile in 2019 because of how Chile's financial markets and tech infrastructure are still developing, creating a highly competitive landscape.

What infrastructure has been developed allows for Xepelin to operate a Business-to-Business company, where they market their services to other companies, filling in the gaps where other companies have yet to expand.

A notable event Camino has seen is the evolution of Chile's financial market as it transitioned from paper invoices to being electronically scanned over the past 10 years. The impetus for this change was because the government wanted to collect the taxes on goods and services beginning in 2011-2012, their efforts having a ripple effect that led to a modernization effort among financial records.

Viejo considers her founding area of Bogotá, Colombia, a tech hub for the region. Despite this prominence, it is still developing many other market sectors, providing many openings for businesses who face little to no direct competition for entrepreneurs.

Comparatively, when they sold in a competitive market like Mexico, they were competing against giants like Wal-Mart and Amazon and other American companies who had moved into the area first.

The company Viejo works for, Laika, sells animal and pet products. Their founders used the lack of competition in Colombia to test out what the market wanted, seeing which products were favored over the others and gaining traction in the market.

But some barriers to success can be influenced by socioeconomic factors.

Eliscovich is the CCO of Ualá Bis, a company that provides digital billing services for when customers purchase something through card, marketing their services towards entrepreneurs, individual business owners, and small businesses.

As Ualá Bis deals in digital customer billing, it can be difficult operating in Argentina where nearly half of all Argentinians do not have debit cards.

Like Bogotá, Argentina is a place of rapid development that provides multiple opportunities for entrepreneurs, Eliscovich said. 

Despite the shifting financial system and its 100% inflation rate, businesses founded in it can ingrain the ability to adapt to changing market conditions, regulations, and even what is considered good business, ultimately being able to adapt to changes businesses born in temperate fiscal conditions could not.

Regional differences

Many businesses founded in Latin American countries become very regional companies, Viejo describes. Expanding from one country to the next is not as simple as translating current products to a new language and bringing them to a new market.

Even when operating in major Latin American markets like Brazil and Mexico with successful business models, the establishment of e-commerce has raised the quality demanded from products.

Due to the cultural differences between the people in each nation, what makes one company successful in one area might bring failure in another. Other issues may be entirely novel to companies, such as how postage for package labels is formatted, causing mislabelled deliveries to not arrive.

When it comes to acquiring other businesses in Latin America, Eliscovich recalled when her company decided to acquire a bank so that they could make their operations in the area more efficient. In order to do so, they needed a license to operate this bank first.

But unlike the United States, which offers over 1,000 licenses provided for those seeking to own banks, while Mexico only offers 47; Argentina offers 69. As a financial company, acquiring such a license would give them a tremendous advantage due to its scarcity.

Viejo took an opposite stance to acquisitions. For Laika, they already have a digital presence that allows them to make sales online and provide customer support for their products and any questions or concerns their customers might have.

When they were approached by brick-and-mortar retailers of pet food and supplies, they found that it would likely be more rewarding to make their own products and market those to customers directly instead of purchasing the businesses those customers were previously shopping from.

Going international

As for spreading a business across multiple Latin American countries, Camino referred to a time when his company was given an offer to purchase a business operating outside their host country; a goal his company had held for a long time.

While they were willing to purchase it at first, they decided not to so as to avoid pushing themselves too far and cost themselves too much in running the business.

Eliscovich explained the hesitancy behind expanding internationally. Beyond the borders, there are entirely different networks and connections that must be invested into before any revenue can be made, which is something that investors in your company are not keen on due to the costs they will face.

In addition, incumbent businesses — particularly local ones — can hold a lot of power in the market due to their intimate knowledge of regulations, their connections, and dealings with larger national brands.

But when a company would go international, making sure to have someone that understands the mindsets, the mentalities, and the culture of the new location is key. Having someone who understands the regulations and operations the way a founder would in another country is what gives the ability to keep their business running smoothly.

In the end, Viejo made it clear that the step from being a national brand to an international one was a big one; one that could make or break any company.

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