In Colombia, Vive La Revolucion Emprendedora

The 'lean startup' movement heads to South America, where teams of entrepreneurs in Bogota are learning how to build scalable business models, writes serial entrepreneur Bob Dorf.

learn more about Bob Dorf

By Bob Dorf • Jan 25, 2013

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Editor's Note: Bob Dorf, co-author with Steve Blank of The Startup Owner's Manual, works with officials in government overseas teaching them how to run the Lean LaunchPad program, first taught at Stanford University. A version of this article appeared on

Lean LaunchPad Colombia starts again this week in Bogota with 25 teams of tech entrepreneurs and 25 mentors from the country's universities, incubators and chambers of commerce. The program is funded by the Colombian government and modeled after the National Science Foundation Innovation-Corps program, created and built by my partner and co-author Steve Blank.

This is the third group of entrepreneurs taking the class, first taught in October. Startup teams have been selected from more than 100 applicants in Colombia by SENA, a quasi-government organization that provides tech support, prototype labs and mentoring. SENA and the Colombian Ministry of IT and Innovation both invest heavily to create jobs for the many skilled, educated and underemployed citizens. Other than the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps program in the U.S., this may well be the most ambitious government-sponsored startup catalyst effort on the globe.

The Ministry,, hopes to support the more than 15,000 entrepreneurs who have applied for help thus far, and to do it in varying levels of on- and off-line intensity. The hands-on Lean LaunchPad program offers the most intense support of all. In the initial group that started in October, 25 teams chosen from a field of more than 100 worked full time for eight weeks to take their ideas from a "cocktail napkin" business idea to a viable, scalable business model.

Related: Steve Blank: Inside the Lean Startup (Video)

While the Ministry would be glad to help develop the next Facebook or Google, the initial first step is more reasonable: Get startups to break even or better while employing 15, 20 or more Colombians. Even those who don't make it into the class are offered a variety of tools for customer development and tech training, including government-funded translations of Steve Blank's nine-part Customer Development lectures and a long list of Code Academy courses.

Colombia needs to be ambitious to succeed in this effort, and I'm honored to be helping to drive it.

The emerging economy faces three critical entrepreneurial challenges. First, there's virtually no seed or angel investment capital, since affluent Colombian investors are highly risk-averse and put their money into real estate and established companies as a rule. Second, technology education is more skill-based, graduating lots of smart coders and IT managers, but not a lot of true development visionaries. And the academic community, while strong, still teaches the traditional business-plan approach to startups, so ideas have typically evolved far more slowly.

We saw progress with the first 25 teams back in October. Amazingly, by the end of the program's eighth week, eight of the 25 teams had customer revenue. One startup, Vanitech, generated revenue from more than 315 consumers in eight weeks, while a software prototyping startup called EZ DEV closed its first deal and had contracts out for two more. And while the startup ideas ranged from the pedestrian to the very brave (digital preventive health care, for example), the common thread was an intense passion for creating a business that would create lucrative jobs for the founders and their fellow Colombians.

Related: Steve Blank: Inside the Lean Startup

This Lean LaunchPad simultaneously trains entrepreneurs and coaches. Each cohort started with a day of coach training. Then the coaches joined their teams for three days of business model development feedback, and training.

When I headed home, teams fanned out across Colombia to "get out of the building" to validate their ideas. They met at least weekly with their coaches to process what they learned and revise their business models. I returned twice more, at the midpoint of the eight-week class to work with the coaches and teams, and at the end for the "Lessons Learned" day. The 10 teams pitched to an audience of 650, including investors and the Minister and Vice Minister of IT.

The presentations were a real eye-opener to Colombian investors. Hundreds of customer interactions made each team's presentations more credible. The difference between startups powered by customer development and those built the "old way" was on full display.

Overall, Lean LaunchPad is one heck of an ambitious program in Columbia, and it's starting to catch fire, with coaches teaching additional teams in smaller cities, too.

As I launch the next cohort on its eight-week sprint, I'm joined by incredibly entrepreneurial government employees (usually quite an oxymoron in any country) who have worked nearly 24/7 and as hard as any Silicon Valley entrepreneurs: The Ministry's program leader Claudia Obando and her two star lieutenants, Nayib Abdala and Camilo Zamora. Read more about them at

Join us in saying, Viva Colombia!

Bob Dorf

Bob Dorf is a serial entrepreneur, customer-development consultant and co-author of The Startup Owner's Manual.

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