From Switzerland to South America’s Silicon Valley: Finding Balance

serge kruppa

A high-tech career has allowed Serge Kruppa to live on three continents, and he has only grown more successful as he has embraced the work/life balance he has found in Medellin, Colombia.

Serge Kruppa has turned the skills he learned in Switzerland and London into success in Mexico and the Silicon Valley of South America. Working for Livevox in his new home of Medellin, Colombia, he has found a work/life balance that has allowed him to flourish — both amid the city’s thriving startup tech scene and at home. Serge recently shared his experience with Nearshore Americas.

“In 1984, when I was 13, my parents gave me a ZX Spectrum micro-computer. It was love at first sight. I had never been fascinated by electronics — resistors, transistors, and their associated math formulas — but software was different. It captivated me. I discovered that well-written code was as satisfying as beautiful prose and required a good dose of discipline to develop.

I had another compelling reason to learn. My mother fought in the 1956 Hungarian revolution against the Russian tanks, and when the revolutionaries went down, she had a good incentive to leave. Most of those who had actively participated were hanged or sent to the salt mines. My mom considered herself fortunate to end up in Switzerland — a very welcoming country — and I was born in Geneva.

I knew that Colombians were hard-working and eager for success after years facing a depressed job market.

Being the son of refugees, I was keen to learn a trade that would be portable worldwide. My mother used to say that if you become a cook, your skills will be valuable anywhere. The same is true for a software engineer, and this trade is what has allowed me to embrace my nomadic mentality. The skills I learned in the two decades after she gave me that first computer are what later allowed me to move to Mexico to found a speech-recognition company.

I first became interested in speech recognition in 1993 when the technology was in its infancy. I saw the one and only job advertisement ever published by now-defunct speech recognition vendor Vocalis Ltd. I sent a letter to their U.K. office, they flew me in for an interview, and I joined the company as soon as my work visa was approved.

Serge Kruppa
Finding a work/life balance became critical for Serge.

Two years later, Vocalis won a multi-million-pound bid to provide Telmex, Mexico’s incumbent telecom, with a whole network of speech-enabled IVR systems. By then I was in charge of engineering for the SS#7 stack, so I was the one assigned to venture across the Atlantic, where I spent more than nine months in Mexico City.

I fell in love with the Latin culture.

Going Back to Mexico

A few years later, I had moved on from Vocalis and started working for Accenture in London. It was a wonderful job, but I could never get accustomed to the unbearable rat race that British commuters endure daily in miserable weather. I decided it was time for a change — and some risk-taking — to escape my dull existence.

Since Accenture couldn’t find me any projects to work on, I wrote a business plan for a “voice ASP” (the ancestors to the cloud companies of today) in Mexico and started emailing local contacts. Though Mexico had more than 110 million people and ample potential for the technology, there were no local speech-recognition vendors — much less developers. The response from those I talked to was so overwhelmingly positive that I decided to resign from Accenture, put all my belongings into storage, and fly to Mexico City. I brought three suitcases, a couple of ideas, and a kiloton of energy.

We were initially incubated by Ericsson in Mexico City, which accepted us in their “Entrepreneur in Residence” program. Our hope was to mimic Vocalis’ success by using Ericsson as a channel to sell into Telmex. We eventually achieved our goal — after six years laying siege to the telecom giant!

I fell in love with the Latin culture.

We had some success. We raised capital, grew the company up to $2 million in revenue, hired 20 employees, and won the Intel award for most innovative tech company in Mexico. But it didn’t last. We had to fold in 2008.

Our growth was simply much slower and painful than expected. We had tried to deal with this by creating a spin-off in Silicon Valley, focused on peer-to-peer contact centers, thus halving the resources available to sustain our core business in Mexico. But this created tensions between our British and Mexican investors and laid bare the simmering issues that I had with my business partner. When we finally acknowledged that the U.S. startup was going nowhere, our Mexican business was already moribund.

After seven years — working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week — and no significant growth, my batteries were depleted. I needed time off from the startup grind.

Time for Another Move

I first traveled to Colombia as a tourist in 1999, a year marked by extreme insecurity in the country. My mother and I were the only foreign passengers on a half-empty plane bound from London to Bogotá. In subsequent years, from afar, I monitored the nation’s recovery even as international public opinion lagged behind. In the mind of most, Colombia was still a failed state teeming with narco-terrorists.

While working in Mexico, I took advantage of a business trip to the Dominican Republic to stop over in Medellin, Colombia. I knew the nation had evolved beyond its troubled image, but what I discovered blew me away: a city nestled like a jewel among lush green mountains, blessed with an out-of-this-world climate and unbelievably friendly locals.

Clearly, Medellin would be a great place to live. But could it be a good place to work?

By this point, work/life balance had become a priority, so I investigated the city as a potential home. There were already several large Colombian software factories and recognized universities in the city. I knew that Colombians were hard-working and eager for success after years facing a depressed job market. And relative compensation levels were low compared to Mexico.

I realized that the city was an anomaly: a location with a sizable talent pool that was being tapped by successful local software development companies but so far unable to attract many foreign players. I decided this was the place for me. Now, I just needed a way to get there — and I soon found one.

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Getting to Colombia

As my speech recognition company was folding, I got contacted by the Bay Area firm Livevox Inc. to open a software factory in Mexico. I was interested in the venture, but I recommended Colombia instead.

Medellin is no Silicon Valley — not yet — but the future is bright.

Bay Area startups are risk takers — that’s why they dominate the high-tech scene — and they gave me the go ahead to start operations in a city that was the murder capital of the world just a decade earlier. In 2008, I hired our first Colombian contractor and he, along with some 40 other employees we have hired since, still works for the company in Medellin, where we developed our award-winning cloud contact center platform.

Having some tourist fun on the Colombian coast.

The move to Medellin was a resounding success from the start. Compared to my startup in Mexico City, we found fewer bureaucratic hurdles to overcome. Medellin welcomes foreign IT companies with open arms, offering generous tax incentives. And since 2008, we have never had issues with corruption or safety, while in Mexico we once received a call telling us our lead architect had been kidnapped (which turned out to be a false alarm, thankfully).

We were proud to be among the pioneers who helped shape the city’s now-bustling culture of innovation. There was no startup scene to speak of in Medellin in 2008. Evolution takes time, and we’re only witnessing the first generation of local internet startups.

Can Medellin become the “Silicon Valley of Latin America,” as some claim?

Even today, there is a lack of the tech-savvy angel investors you bump into at every bar or restaurant in San Francisco. These industry veterans are essential to seed an ecosystem. They are the ones who mentor the younger generations of entrepreneurs and provide early-stage funding before any VC is willing to risk money.

Acceleration programs supported by Ruta N, for example, provide a fertile ground for new startups to grow. Most will fail, but those that succeed will be increasingly competitive. It boils down to Darwinism in action.

Falling in Love with Medellin

Medellin is no Silicon Valley — not yet — but the future is bright. There’s a sense that a page has been turned in the history of the city and anything is possible. Medellin should not try to ape Silicon Valley. This city is a fascinating socio-economic experiment with unique assets that can be leveraged to turn it into a prosperous tech hub in Latin America.

And I am thrilled to be here. There are things that I absolutely love. The people are just fabulous. The climate is great. This is definitely a city undergoing rapid change while retaining the paisa culture that defines the region and gives it such a distinct character.

Before getting to Colombia, I had a hectic lifestyle. I lived 200 meters from the office and was there from 8 am to 10 pm. My life entirely revolved around work. I was like many living in London or Mexico City, making good money but spending too much of it on rent and lacking the time to put the rest to good use.

Then I discovered Medellin, a city where you can work amid a startup buzz that has money and ideas flowing. But it’s not suffocatingly intense, like San Francisco can be. You still see your friends, you live life, and have plenty of time for family. It gives you that work/life balance that is being lost in some other cities.”

All photos: Serge Kruppa