An email update…

By Ash Kirvan – –

(Blog post adapted from an email home…)


I have a few spare minutes so figured it was a good opportunity to update everyone on what has been happening in Colombia:


The centre of Pablo Escobar’s empire until his glorious death on a rooftop in 1993, the levels of crime and violence in Medellin have since reduced dramatically. Medellin is set in the mountains of the equatorial Antioquia region, allowing for a year-round warm, humid climate, which ought to encourage more in the way of cocktails and warm evenings on the patio than we’ve found time for (see Figure 1). We are staying in a safe part of town, protected by wealth and razor wire, and working in an office in the nearby university (EAFIT). The outskirts of the city can be scattered with the occasional “fronteras invisibles” – invisible boundaries around a city block controlled by local gangs. Nonetheless, the majority of the city is both pretty and safe, and possessing of the vibrancy and typical differentials in wealth one expects in a city in an emerging economy. Medellin also has a long industrial history, creating a culture which is conducive to just the kind of work we are undertaking now.

(View from the patio)

Point of Information #1: Culos de Silicona [Factoid Alert…]
Apparently Medellin is also known as one of the plastic surgery capitals of the world, resulting in both a substitute export product to the United States (medical tourism), and to our introduction by the Colombian members of the team to a brand new concept: ass implants. They are ubiquitous; apparently the Colombian equivalent of a Beverly Hills rhinoplasty, but much more difficult to describe. If the idea is hard for you to fathom, us too. And we’ve seen it with our own eyes.

Anyway, moving on from there. This has nothing to do with our market research.

Polymath Ventures

The team we’ve assembled are a bunch of overachieving dissidents from contrasting backgrounds, including industrial & product design, management consulting, ethnography, economics, engineering, tech entrepreneurship, venture capital, law and ‘miscellaneous’ (me). Half the team are Colombian and most are native Spanish speakers (not me). We live day-to-day in a sea of post-it notes, photographs and mind-maps obscuring all natural light from our spartan office, in a determined attempt to understand the deep-seated mobility and financial services needs of the emergent Colombian middle-class (see Figure 2). In truth, the bulk of our time these first four weeks has been spent in the living rooms of local Colombians, in interviews seeking insight into their lives, habits and aspirations.

Our methods combine key elements of human-centred design, management consulting, and lean start-up philosophies, in order to seek innovative product or service solutions to the unique needs and economic context of Latin Americans. Our goal is to bring a series of regionally scalable business concepts to a level sufficient to move to the next stage of venture funding.

War Room

Frequently Asked Question #1: “Dude, I wasn’t paying attention and you left the country. Why are you in Colombia? I thought we were having lunch next week.”

What convinced a successful man pursuing a future in industry, with close friends, dental insurance, a respectable wardrobe and an impending summer to uproot his career to move to Latin America and work for a startup? (or a “pre-startup”…? or a “remind me what industry we’re working in again” startup…?) I’m glad you asked:

1. Vision: The grandest vision of Polymath is no less than to change the face of commercial innovation in the developing world, and provide a ongoing entrance point for both local and international capital. This is both cool and powerful.

2. Values: A core belief of this organization is that innovative products and services, concepted by focusing on the user, and leveraging a free market can (and will) have both commercial and societal benefits. It’s a little too ‘for-profit’ to be strictly social entrepreneurship, but we’re not just trading forex derivatives for fun and profit here.

3. Creation: Polymath does, and will continue to, present a rare opportunity to move a business from pre-concept to commercialization – a proposition I eventually found too compelling to turn down.

4. Surprising lack of fatal flaws: My words to a friend over Skype this morning (while answering frequently asked question #1) – “The fact is, if this were a bunch of B-School gringos trying their hand at starting a company in Colombia, I wouldn’t be here.” There is a depth of experience and very specific knowledge spread amongst the members of this venture which, if any of it weren’t on the table, would mean I would not have jumped onboard and raised anchor. Specifically:

  • Local partners, with roughly half of the team Colombian, with local business knowledge, insight and networks. Each have started local companies in the past.
  • Experience starting up and successfully exiting a technology firm in Silicon Valley.
  • Current practice in private equity.
  • Contemporary relationships with VC and PE investment communities both locally and stateside.
  • Local and international legal expertise.
  • A guaranteed sense of urgency, driven by a team of achievers who have given up other opportunities for uncertain ends.

Things Outside Of Work

While the project is pretty much life-encompassing, the city is laid out perfectly for running hills, and there is ample opportunity to practice my Spanish. Neither of these skills are improving rapidly. One of the local guys here owns a coffee plantation, so I hope to head out to the countryside to check it out in the next couple of weeks. Baristas – as in the remainder of the Americas – don’t know what they’re doing. (Sorry, Colombia, we love you anyway).

Point of Information #2: The Colombian Medical System

I’m very pleased to report that the Colombian hospital system is fast, efficient, cheap, and of the highest quality. In sharp contrast to my experiences in emergency rooms in either my country or any of yours, here waiting times are less than 10 minutes, test results are returned within the hour, doctor’s are well-trained and attentive, and a couple of hours in an ED with IV fluids, tests and subsequent medication will set you back about USD$35. I’m fine, so don’t worry about it (Hi Mum…).

Also, please keep your ass implant jokes to yourself.

Hope you’re all well. Forgive me for anyone I’ve missed. Send news.