Riding Brazil’s River of Doubt (The Wall Street Journal)

If it’s the next China, why aren’t more online entrepreneurs diving in?

Por redação The Wall Street Journal

The largest cut emerald in the world—57,500 carats—goes on the auction block this weekend. Teodora, or “God’s Gift,” was mined in Brazil, weighs 25 pounds and would make a startling pendant—or door stop. Bidding starts at a half-million dollars.

But on other Brazilian goods, you can get a deal. Among the country’s fastest growing tech companies are Buscapé for comparison shopping, OQVestir for women’s clothes and Peixe Urbano, or “Urban Fish”—Brazil’s answer to Groupon. These folks see the e-commerce potential all around them: 200 million isn’t just the number of heads of cattle in Brazil, it’s also the number of people. So far 80 million of them are Internet users, and two-thirds of those have not bought anything online. Yet.

In Brazil, known for Carnaval and soccer, a start-up mentality isn't necessarily encouraged. Reuters

In Brazil, known for Carnaval and soccer, a start-up mentality isn’t necessarily encouraged. Reuters

Obviously, as everyone says, Brazil is the next China—it’s now the sixth-largest economy in the world. “The not-obvious part,” Julio Vasconcellos, cofounder and chief executive of Peixe Urbano, told me, “is there is a ton of opportunity here and very few people taking advantage of it.” Why isn’t every sunny young Brazilian with a tech idea taking the leap? Because, beyond the thongs, they’ve got issues. (Who doesn’t?)

First, Brazil lacks tech role models. There’s no famous garage in Copacabana. Other Brazilian industries may have inspirational success stories—aerospace, petrochemicals, advertising. But not technology. The scrappy start-up mentality isn’t necessarily encouraged, either. President Dilma Rousseff just signed a law making companies pay overtime for calls and emails outside of work hours.

Second, the country has the sort of riches that America had at the turn of the last century but not its built-in awe of entrepreneurship. Eike Batista, the wealthiest man in Brazil, is trying to promote bullish business people, rather than beautiful soccer stars. He’s investing in a naval university in Rio to train both engineers and managers.

Last, and most subtle, Brazil still has what its writer Nelson Rodrigues called “o complexo de vira-lata”—the mongrel-dog complex. There’s an insecurity beneath the blithe Brazilian brand, like the unease you sense in those who strut Rio’s beaches, worriedly checking themselves in every car window. Sensual on the outside, shaky inside. (Some 1.5 million Brazilian women have breast implants.)

Centuries of bust and boom have dashed the country’s confidence. Flip-flopping from monarchy to military rule to democracy and back again makes for a wobbly foundation. And wild economic swings of fortune will wrong-foot anyone, over time. In the 16th century Brazilwood was the commodity touted to save the country—until stocks ran out. In the 17th century it was sugar, followed by gold, coffee and rubber.

Today, at last, Brazil’s ego seems boosted. It’s on a cusp: hosting the Rio+20 conference this summer, the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. But it takes time for confidence to go countrywide. Events like this week’s deadly building collapse in Rio don’t help.

In the meantime, outsiders are making their plays. Teddy Roosevelt, during his epic 1913-14 trip down the Amazon’s uncharted River of Doubt, sought unbounded natural frontier. Today’s gutsiest start-up founders—also, often, from other countries—seek limitless tech frontier. They move to Sao Paulo and Rio the way, five or six years ago, others moved to Silicon Valley.

“It’s a little bit of a land grab,” says Mr. Vasconcellos, “and the foreigners are doing it.” Americans founded the successful Baby.com.br, for instance. Hybrids such as Mr. Vasconcellos—he got a Stanford M.B.A. and worked at Facebook, then returned to Rio—are doing well too. His company is now in 80 Latin American cities.

Like Mercado Libre—Latin America’s eBay, founded by another Stanford grad—the Groupon-esque Peixe Urbano may look like copycat capitalism. But there are subtleties. Groupon is known for its wacky, wise-cracky communications: “The modern facial can trace its origin to the modern food fight, when people first learned that taking a cucumber to the eye was actually good for their skin.” Brazilians don’t find that funny.

So Peixe Urbano pleases them by knowing what really makes them smile: less cleverness, more sweetness. “It’s silly funny, cute funny,” says Mr. Vasconcellos. And they’re laughing all the way to checkout.

Fonte: The Wall Street Journal, Life & Culture, 28/01/2012