Lessons learned from our CEO, Wenyi Cai

Wenyi Cai, CEO and co-founder of Polymath Ventures, shares company building lessons after 9 years building in Latin America

Polymath Ventures was founded on an audacious hypothesis: that building tech companies intentionally designed for the emerging middle-class could be a catalyst to solve the structural inequality and middle-income trap that has plagued Latin America. Nine years into the journey, we have built important proof points validating this hypothesis, with portfolio companies like Aflore, Elenas, and Autolab jointly impacting millions of people in the region already. It took time and grit to acquire the capabilities to consistently build great companies, with many lessons learned along the way.

With the LatAm middle-class pummeled by the pandemic — 5M people have already slipped from the middle class, showing the vulnerabilities of the gains made in the last decades — the mission of Polymath Ventures is more relevant than ever.

Wenyi Cai - CEO & Co-Founder Polymath Ventures
Wenyi Cai - CEO & Co-Founder Polymath Ventures

Our commitment is to leverage the platform and talent base we have built, to even more courageously attack the core issues, like education, productivity, and financial access, that hold back the potential of the emerging middle class, and of the region. 

Lessons learned

#1 Building a movement requires peers

We approached building Polymath Ventures from first-principles thinking. If the issue of the middle-income trap came from the productivity of informal and small firms, then let’s design solutions that systematically increased their productivity; over time, we realized that business models like managed marketplaces were especially well-suited for this challenge. If the issue is the lack of experienced entrepreneurial talent, then let’s create a venture-building backbone that partners with and trains entrepreneurs. If there is very limited early-stage capital, then let’s fund the early rounds ourselves.

The benefit of first-principles thinking is that it allows you not to shy away from very complex and difficult problems, and helps you break them down into testable and actionable steps. The downside is that you are the pioneer, often along multiple fronts, which is a challenging and potentially even fatal setup. Looking back, we set out to build scalable ventures in LatAm before all the conditions were ready: middle-class smartphone adoption did not massively take off until after 2016, VC capital only started flooding the region in the last three years, and experienced startup talent remains limited today.

Our willingness to jump into the game gave us many years to iterate and learn what works and what doesn’t work. But the bumpiness of the journey also shows the limitations of tinkering away like a mad scientist in your own lab. Not taking away from the deep and even unique insights Polymath has developed about our target demographic and the business models that match their needs, we really gained momentum as more allies and peers appeared. For example:

  • Other companies solving problems along the value chain our ventures operated in (e.g. logistics, fintech infrastructure), so we didn’t have to build everything ourselves
  • The 600+ strong global movement of venture studios, showing that we were not crazy in building from scratch
  • The growing universe of venture capital (especially international ones entering LatAm), so that there is enough firepower to propel great products and teams to scale.

Although venture studio models have certain biases towards being inward-looking, it is critical that we understand we need all the allies and peers we can get to tackle the audacious problem that launched us on our journey.

#2 Human-centered companies build resilience

Polymath’s Ventures design methodology is led by Human-Centered Design. This imbeds user-centered orientation into the DNA of our ventures, which we believe gives them an important competitive advantage. A different manifestation of this is what I would call “Human-Centered Companies”.

What has given Polymath Ventures a powerful resilience over our long and windy journey is our philosophy and approach to talent. We understand that people are complex and good. That means few are driven by singular pursuits of money and ego for long. Most talented people seek challenge, mentorship, meaning, friendship, and a richness of life. Therefore, an organization that can weave a delightfully entangled ecosystem for talented people to interact and flourish creates enormous value for each person and the company.

We are lucky to have been around enough now to see people leave and then rejoin, evolve from analysts at Polymath to co-founders of our ventures, form lasting friendships even as they disburse around the world in their next pursuits. These life-long relationships are the result of shared values and the formative experience of trying to do something very hard together.

Throughout the pandemic crisis, we have lived the results of our approach: every single person in the company decided to sacrifice salary temporarily so that we could keep everyone while cutting burn; alumni reached out to contribute money and work; and despite very difficult times and aggressive external poaching, we kept almost everyone together. As our outlook recovered in the last trimester of 2020, we were able to hire amazing talent and train them up quickly because of the excellence and coherence of the existing team. This type of resilience is no longer dependent just on the grit of founders, it is now deeply rooted in the organization, and in an even broader ecosystem of support, including alumni, advisors, investors, and friends.

Polymath Ventures Team
Polymath Ventures Team

Next horizons

Looking forward, the internal and external conditions are ripe for us to build and scale innovative and impactful companies in Latin America. The region has developed more mature conditions to build new technological solutions, the middle-class is rapidly driving the adoption of digital solutions, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem is flourishing thanks to the abundant investments led by global VC investors.

Our commitment to the mission of serving the emerging middle class has only been reinforced by all the pain wrought by the pandemic. However, we see not only resilience at the Polymath level, but we continuously derive inspiration from the motivations and grit of the tens of thousands of people who work as financial advisors, sellers, mechanics, and doctors in our businesses.

At Polymath Ventures, we believe our path to achieving our mission is not by conquering, but rather impacting the hearts and minds of all that engage with us. We believe we can transform how Latin America approaches innovation with every interaction, so our promise going forward is to more readily share our learnings and values with the wider ecosystem.

Our plan is to continue building transformational and scalable businesses. For us, it is not about how many ventures we build, but the impact of each new venture we design, validate and scale. Our mandate is to create impact through disruption, building for a more equal and prosperous Latin America.