By Robert L. Scheier
Hacking parties, in which folks get together to develop cool apps and share coding tips for the heck of it, may or may not be part of some official Mexican government economic development plan.
But they’re exactly how a rag-tag group of developers, entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs are pushing their dream of Guadalajara as a place where talented newcomers design not only cool Web pages for clients, but develop the next cool mobile, social or game technology for the world.
While no Guadalajara start-up has yet cashed out via an IPO and most still struggle even for limited VC funding, several have captured the attention of local industry watchers such as Ruy Cervantes. He is writing his PhD in informatics from the University of California-Irvine on how the IT industry in Guadalajara “is transitioning from giving service to the local market to creating high value-added products for global markets.”
Among them is OVIA Inc., whose software helps companies such as AT&T Interactive, Philip Morris International and ManpowerGroup conduct and track video interviews with job candidates, and recently received an undisclosed amount of venture capital funding. Ooyala Inc. has sold its solution for managing, distributing and analyzing the viewership of video content to customers including Dell, ESPN and Rolling Stone.
Attracting VC funding and global customers is still the exception rather than the rule, but not if boosters such as Cervantes have their way. While he admits there’s still “little technical innovation” that’s reached the market from Mexico, “there is a movement for companies, people, entrepreneurs and communities” to put Mexico, and Guadalajara specifically, on the map.
“It’s a change of mindset, a change of culture,” he says, “From being a free-lancer creating Web pages for the Mom and Pop shops here in Guadalajara to…thinking `How do I create the technical skills for products I can sell in the U.S.?’”
Beginning in 2007, local enthusiasts “started to have events and meetings (to) talk about entrepeneuership on the Internet,” he recalls. The thinking, learning and networking happens in informal venues such as HackerGarage and the GuadalajaraDevHouse, free-form coding parties where “You would go for a Sunday or a Saturday, and program for 12 straight hours, and program something new, something fun, and share it with other people.”
This culture of collaboration and cooperation is very unusual for Mexico, he says, where businessmen are often compared to crabs in a bucket: If one begins to climb out, the others pull it down. “We Mexicans tend to be distrustful of government, and of other people,” says Cervantes. But a new generation “has been exposed to other ways of thinking. Some of them have lived abroad the idea that “If you’re not collaborating with other people, you’re not going to make great things.”
The ongoing work to improve the start-up client includes creating an investment community that can provide management and marketing advice as well as cash, and stronger ties to centers of innovation such as Silicon Valley and New York. Then there is promotion, a common complaint from Mexico boosters who despair of the crime headlines outsiders see. “We have to get the name of Mexico out there,” he says, and connect potential investors and customers with promising local startups, through the efforts of bootstrap promotion efforts such as Suma.te.