En Route to Start-Up Chile

This blog post is Part I of a series written by Canadian Jennifer Turliuk about her experience at Start-Up Chile. Read Part II here.

It’s 4:23am Toronto time / 6:23am Santiago time and I am on the plane on the way to Santiago – I’m so excited that I can’t sleep. I love everything about flying – the associated senses of vulnerability, possibility, and disconnectedness without interruptions or distractions (with no phone, internet, etc); the in-flight movies; and strangely enough, the airplane food. And this trip is particularly full of possibility for me.

For the next six months I’ll be living in Chile and working on my business as part of the Startup Chile program, which offers $40K in equity-free seed financing for selected startups to come to Chile and interact with locals in an attempt to bolster the country’s entrepreneurial environment. I have little idea of what to expect – I mean I’ve read much of the materials available to me about the program and the country, but I feel like I won’t have a good idea of what I’m actually dealing with until I land and start interacting with the country and its people.

This is a new type of travel for me for a number of reasons. For all of my long trips in the past, I’ve been very intentional about where I wanted to go. E.g. I selected Perth, Australia for my university exchange after in-depth research of all the exchange destinations available to me (the fact that Perth had the best kiteboarding of them all helped a lot!). And then after university I traveled to Asia do scuba diving, do some spiritual exploration, and attend a family wedding. But to be honest, Chile has never been on one of my must-visit places lists. It’s not that I didn’t want to go, but I guess I just didn’t know that much about it; however, I did have ‘spend 6 months in South America’ on my ‘under 30 bucket list’ (yes, I have one) and when the opportunity came around to combine this with entrepreneurship, how could I refuse? I guess in that sense the organizers have really succeeded with putting Chile on the map so to speak – many people are visiting that might not have before, and the awareness level of the program is incredible.

As I understand it, the program is a 3-year experiment – so I feel blessed to be able to participate and observe the benefits of the program both for my startup and for the country. And, of course, to have the opportunity to learn Spanish! (I am an avid salsa dancer and have wanted to learn Spanish through a country immersion for years now) Again, most places that I’ve spent long periods of time in have been pre-dominantly English-speaking or had many English speakers around that could help me. If Chile is anything like Sao Paulo, Brazil, then I am not expecting my English will go very far. Friends may remember a particularly hilarious episode of me accidentally ordering a plate of cashews for dinner due to my limited Portugese, thinking the word ‘caju’ meant ‘cajun’. To prevent further situations like this, I’ve been doing Spanish audiotapes at every free opportunity during the past few weeks and will not go anywhere in Chile without a Latin American Spanish phrasebook on my person.

I went from knowing very little about Chile to randomly having all these people with connections to Chile somehow come into my life in the past few months (as life often happens). In California two of my roommates had done exchange in Santiago and I was introduced to a Chilean will be traveling down to Santiago this year with a group of his fellow Stanford MBA students to visit the Startup Chile program. I met a woman who’d spent a year in Chile at my speaking engagement last week and last night, at my goodbye party, a friend of a friend showed up who’d just returned from vacation to Chile the day before. Crazy! As well, Santiago has popped up on Lonely Planet’s list of top ten cities to travel to in 2012, and other such lists in the Globe and Mail, etc. It’s said to be the new hot adventure sports travel destination (which is perfect for me if I get the chance to do some kiteboarding – I spent hours researching and finding a health insurance policy that would cover it just in case) and is the destination of Lollapalooza’s first international concert.

My business partner Jeremy is on the flight with me. We’ve arranged to live in an apartment in Santiago with a local Chilean guy for a month trial period, and potentially the whole six months (unless the smog is too much for us, we decide we want to move to a coastal town like Valparaiso or Vina del Mar, or we decide to be nomads and move continuously around Chile every few weeks – the program allows you to be anywhere). He was introduced to us by someone on the Startup Chile Facebook group, and seems very cool – he has his own TV show, did PR for Heineken and Converse, and attends most of Chile’s red carpet events. He also organizes a lot of the major parties in Santiago and seeks DJs for them – when I heard this and told him that I was a DJ and had DJ’d for Red Bull, we realized that it was a perfect housing match. He already found me one DJ gig (which unfortunately I was unable to arrive early enough for) – so I’ve brought my DJing equipment along and hope to have my first few international gigs on this trip! His apartment is wonderfully decorated (he gave me a tour via Skype) and it is a 16-minute walk from the Startup Chile office space. He speaks little English but is keen to exchange language skills and introduce us to his friends. We will go straight there from the airport – I am very excited to meet him after all our correspondence online!

This coming week we will have our orientation to the Startup Chile program. As with anything, I think that the next few months will be an experience that is purely what we make of it. I’m very keen to learn from the other participants in the program, who seem pretty awesome – one who is on the flight with us (randomly – his flight path was NYC->Ottawa->Toronto->Santiago) recently sold his startup. Our business could literally go anywhere, but I hope for it to lead to making revenue and/or raising seed financing by the end of the six months. I’ll be writing about my experience regularly – I feel that this is a pivotal time in my life and would like to take the time to reflect on it, and am also keen to share the experience with others. So let me know what you’d like to hear about! For now, it’s back to enjoying the flight for me.