I entered El Lab and was immediately taken back by how incredibly immaculate and stylish the place looked. There were rows of computers with a number of workers scattered among them, meeting rooms with chic glass doors and walls and a large, back room filled with a multitude of comfy working stations. To add to this was what appeared to be a small bar in the form of a shipping container in the center of the building. Had I not know where I walked in from, I could be forgiven for thinking I was in a coworking space fresh out of Silicon Valley.
I was quickly greeted with a warm smile by Santiago, Co-Managing Partner of the coworking space, who put me in touch with one of El Lab’s most promising startups, Boats4U, and its CEO, Juan Camargo.
Operating out of Cartagena, this rising startup gives customers a unique and stress-free experience renting a boat or yacht for short excursions. They also allow boat owners to rent out their boat to earn money for each experience sold using their boat. Initially, they owned their own boats, but due to rapid growth, they have turned to outside boat owners to fill the gap in demand. Incredibly, this business idea was first discussed between Juan and his business partner while drinking on a harbor in Cartagena in the earlier hours of the morning. Little did they know it would become a reality and a huge success.
As I discussed the business model of Boats4U, Juan stressed the key motivator for their business is to provide excellent customer service. In doing so they hope to challenge the traditional laissez-faire customer service approach that is so deeply entrenched in Cartagena’s tourism culture. As a result, they aim to not only provide customers with a unique experience but also present themselves as an excellent service for top hotels to proudly promote, safe in the knowledge that customers will enjoy their experience.
Boats4U clearly had Cartagena at the heart of its business model, which intrigued me to understand more about the role Cali played in Juan’s business history and how he came to become involved in El Lab. He explained that his business partner was Cartegna based and he was based in Cali, however, as Bogata native, it had not always been this way.
His partner first informed him of the governments plan to run an entrepreneur program in 2014. They decided to enroll. Armed with only an “idea of an idea” against 200 competing teams, the pair never expected to win. However, thanks to an excellent minimal viable product, put to the test in November 2014, they were successful and took first place in the competition. Since then the company has seen 100% year on year growth, with plans to branch out to Santa Marta and Mexico.
I was curious to know more about Cali’s startup scene since Juan first began in 2014. He claims that back then there were hardly any spaces for entrepreneurs or coworking. Fast forward to the current day and coworking spaces are popping up everywhere. Now every university has space to push entrepreneurship, to help promote the ideas of students and to guide them to resources for a better chance of success. Juan also mentioned the current political elections claiming that entrepreneurship has entered the limelight of campaigning, with presidential candidates advocating its use in modern Colombia. For Juan and many others, this is an excellent step forward to instigate the economy and jobs.
On a more global scale, Juan realizes this movement must be driven by those with ideas and the knowledge to achieve them. After spending seven years in Montreal, he understood the potential in entrepreneurship and wanted to bring this back to his country. But there is a need for companies and a strong support system in place to foster these ideas which can allow entrepreneurs to turn their concepts into companies. In this sense, Colombia, like every country, is competing in a global market of entrepreneurship. Juan tells me that as Colombia’s startup scene grows, he hopes that more Colombia entrepreneurs will bring their ideas and creativity with them, to share what they know, and ultimately create a better startup environment for the country.