Just Don’t Call Him The Colombian Mark Zuckerberg…
By Nick OlleFebruary 16, 2012
As a teenager, Andres Barreto co-founded the music streaming service, Grooveshark. Now, at the ripe old age of 24, he’s got bigger things on his mind: championing an entrepreneur-led IT revolution in Latin America.
In 2006, desperate to listen to the salsa music he grew up with in Bogotá, 18-year-old, US-based Colombian Andres Barreto had a big idea: "To make any song available to anyone in the world, from anywhere in the world."
So began Grooveshark, the world's largest on-demand music-streaming service. What was especially unusual about Grooveshark was that its founders — Barreto, Sam Tarantino and Josh Greenberg — decided to buck the trend of the time among file-sharing websites and make their platform legal. In other words, they wanted to compete with online piracy.
"The big premise was that the only way to compete against piracy is by providing something that is more convenient, more useful and value-added," says Barreto.
Grooveshark's uncomplicated interface and enormous trove of free music have certainly proved popular with consumers, who have voted with their fingers.
Today Grooveshark streams a staggering 600 million minutes of music each month to some 30 million visitors. However, copyright infringement lawsuits filed by all four major record labels — EMI, Sony, Universal and Warner — will, test the company's anti-piracy mantra.
This was a big dream for a boy from Colombia, albeit one who speaks in sophisticated American-business English, acquired at school in Miami, where he moved from Bogotá with his parents as a 12-year-old in 1999.
Now jargon such as "hackathon" (collaborative computer programming session), "advergaming" (online gaming that promotes a brand) and "start-up ecosystem" (the conditions in a given place for entrepreneurial activity) rolls off his tongue, his Colombian accent evident only when he enunciates Spanish language names and places.
Barreto often is described as the Colombian version of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, a comparison he doesn't enjoy. "It's very weird and I don't like it," Barreto says, but the big-thinking and tender years keep the label alive in the media.
For in fact Grooveshark was Barreto's second company — and he's started three more companies since Grooveshark. His first corporate creation was Socialatom Group. It began as a software company but now also provides public-relations services for Latin American technology companies.
This change in Socialatom's business direction mirrored a pivotal change in Barreto's focus after the launch of Grooveshark. Speaking over a video connection from his base in New York, Barreto explains how promoting entrepreneurship in Latin America has become his consuming passion.
"What I am trying to promote and showcase examples of now," he says, are "entrepreneurs based out of Latin America that are building global products to compete in the global market.
"This is very different from the examples you've seen in Latin America over the last 10 years, where you have entrepreneurs that go out and grab a model that works in the US and they try to tropicalise it and clone it for the local market."
His obsession with home-grown Latin American entrepreneurship began in earnest in 2008. Identifying Latin America as having the "huge advantage" of easy access the US market, he grabbed a backpack and embarked on a two-year regional talent search. The experience was a game-changer.
He'd meet the Colombians, Argentines and Mexicans who later would form the team that built his latest company, Onswipe — a tool for beautifying content on tablet devices. Onswipe already powers more than 20 million blogs.
But more importantly, he says, he made the connections that led to the creation of PulsoSocial ("Social Pulse"), a Latin American forum for technology, social media and entrepreneurship.
"Before, there was no information whatsoever. If you were an investor looking for new opportunities or an entrepreneur looking for investors or co-founders, there was nowhere to go," Barreto says. "PulsoSocial was created to fill that need."
Today, thanks in no small part to PulsoSocial, there is an ever-growing and increasingly interconnected start-up community in Latin America. And within this community, one section requires special mention: "high-growth" or "high-impact" entrepreneurs. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) — an annual assessment of worldwide entrepreneurship — these entrepreneurs launch companies with "above-average impact in terms of job creation, wealth creation and the development of entrepreneurial role models".
The 2011 High-Impact Entrepreneurship Global Report, produced by GEM and the nongovernmental organisation Endeavor, concludes that these entrepreneurs are particularly important for fostering long-term economic growth. The survey results found that while high-growth entrepreneurs accounted for only four per cent of all entrepreneurs, they were responsible for 40 per cent of the jobs created.
This is precisely what Barreto is on about, and he says that information technology offers potential high-impact entrepreneurs a level playing field on which to get started. "All you need is one engineer and an internet connection and you can change the world," he says.
"My philosophy is that you can stop being an agricultural economy or one that relies on exporting raw materials and you can go right into an information-based economy."
In Chile's billionaire president Sebastián Piñera - himself a former entrepreneur — Barreto has a philosophical ally. In 2010 Piñera introduced the Start-Up Chile program, which invites entrepreneurs selected from around the world to relocate to Chile, offering them USD40,000, a visa, free office space, and fundraising and network assistance to boot. Piñera's aim is to transform Chile into the region's innovation and entrepreneurial hub. Start-Up Chile has distributed about $13 million in grant funding to more than 330 start-ups.
As Barreto puts it: "Chile gets it."
The same can't be said for other Latin American governments though. Chile's neighbour Argentina, for example, offers tax breaks to entrepreneurs but does not distinguish between different types of entrepreneurs.
With few government-led incentives comparable to Chile's, the likes of Barreto and so-called angel investors — rich individuals who provide start-up capital - play an important role in promoting entrepreneurship in Latin America. To this end, Pulsosocial runs the online start-up competition PS10; the prize for the winning team is a trip to New York, all expenses paid, to pitch their idea to investors.
One way or another, it seems the message is getting through. The US-based International Data Corporation (IDC) rates Latin America as one of the world's leading growth markets in information technology.
In fact, at 24, Barreto already is a veteran of the IT speaking circuit, regularly invited by industry, universities and even governments (Colombia and Mexico) to speak at conferences. "I pretty much always say yes," he says.The truth is that he can't help himself. "On the weekends when I'm not working, I do hackathons, I help start-ups and I travel to Latin America."
Sounds rather like work.
"I land on a Friday, give a talk that day, do hackathons on the Saturday and Sunday and [help] launch a couple of companies on the Sunday."
"The only other thing I do to take my mind off work is adventure travel, any sort of extreme sport. I have to substitute the adrenaline I get from building a company and launching something with some sort of other adrenaline," he says.
"The only thing that will take my mind off work is, 'Holy shit, I'm going to die!' Then work doesn't matter."