Foreign Startups Chasing Silicon Valley 

Silicon Valley small business startups





There are thousands of skilled, ambitious engineers in Russia, Bulgaria, Latin America and many other places I’ve taught. 

But every successful engineer or “hacker” needs a marketeer or “hustler” as a co-founder—someone focused on the customer with as much talent and fervor as the “hacker” focuses on building a great product.  Sadly, in most foreign markets there just isn’t enough marketing talent to find customers, lifeblood of any startup.

Universities in these countries are only now awakening to the importance of digital marketing, social media, and “sales funnel” optimization.

When they do, they too often teach it at the most basic level. They’re still teaching the 100 year-old business plan-writing method of “write it and do it,” instead of the proven “test-and-iterate” methods of Customer Development or Lean Startup that have turned product and marketing innovation upside-down in the U.S. for more than a decade now. 

It’s a rare foreign university that’s teaching even basic courses in some of the simplest digital marketing techniques like search engine optimization, viral marketing, A/B testing and the like. Worse, the number of seasoned experts are very hard to find, since they’re too busy making money getting customers for their startups.


I’ve saved the worst for last.  In emerging markets, high-risk early-stage startup money is damn near impossible to find.  

Governments in Colombia, Brazil and Chile are known to offer modest startup stipends, but the challenge runs far deeper than government handouts. Latin investors in particular are overwhelmingly averse to the obvious risks of early-stage startup investing.

They’d almost always rather own 2% of an empty office building than 2% of a startup, since at least you can touch your real estate investment, and it’s unlikely to vanish into thin air. 

Not enough foreign investors take the “portfolio” approach, investing in 5 or 10 startups more or less simultaneously—the only way to mitigate risk and hopefully pick a winner or two in the pack, the way seed and angel funds do in the U.S., for example.  It’s part cultural, part experiential.  There aren’t enough screeners to sort startup wheat from chaff, and too few professionals to guide the wealthy in this relatively new alternative investment class. 

Success and time will cure this eventually, but for now it’s perhaps the most significant challenge of all for startups in emerging markets.

The solution?

There’s no magic bullet. 

It takes time, trial, failure, and more time until some of the more exciting emerging markets, er, emerge.  More than anything it takes the tenacity of talented entrepreneurs to simultaneously “get out of the building” and pre-test their business ideas with the only people whose opinions matter—customers. 

In almost any market, when a startup can demonstrate genuine customer enthusiasm for its product or service, they’re on the right path. 

Most need the energy and persistence to keep iterating and pivoting and evolving their young startup business until they do just that.

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About the author

Bob Dorf

Bob Dorf is among the world’s leading Lean Startup and Customer Development experts, who trains and coaches startups throughout the world, with a particular focus on Latin America.  Bob co-authored the Startup Owner’s Manual, a global bestseller, with startup legend Steve Blank. Now in 18 languages, the Manual details every step in transforming an idea into a repeatable, scalable, profitable business. Bob focuses particularly on training programs for the startup educators, coaches, and investors, and has done so repeatedly in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil and many more. Hes also an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Columbia Business School. Earlier, Bob founded seven startups--“two homeruns, two base hits, and three tax losses.” His 30+ angel investments delivered 7 IPO’s and six disasters. Learn more at or contact bob via