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Wes Wagner describes the start-up scene in Medellín

Wes Wagner profile photo

I interviewed Wes Wagner for my documentary The Rise of Medellín as a Creative City, which you can watch for free on YouTube. You can also watch the interview with Wes on its own. He works remotely for the start-up Microverse and splits his time between Medellín and Indianapolis. Here is the slightly edited transcript of the interview:

Julian Power: Right now I’m sitting in the meeting room of La Casa Redonda with Wes, one of my co-workers. He used to work for an American software start-up and had a remote job in the marketing department. But two weeks ago you quit your job.

Wes Wagner: Today is actually my last day. It was a job I connected with and got through the university. I worked with them when I was at the university, it’s a small start-up and I was the fifth employee. Now we’re about eight. There’s some traction and it’s growing. I really want to come down to Latin America and get more involved in the tech and entrepreneurial scene down here and I realized that being with them didn’t help me in that respect, so I decided to leave and now I’m ready to join another start-up with a more global focus.

Julian Power: One thing that’s very interesting is that you went straight from university, so you graduated and you went straight to Medellin.

Wes Wagner: Yeah.

Julian Power: You didn’t try to find a job in the States as most graduates do?

Wes Wagner: A little background to that is that I traveled around Latin America for the last couple of years whenever I had a little break and I studied abroad in Buenos Aires. And I have been fascinated by Latin American tech ecosystems. And I also just love entrepreneurship and working at small startups. In the United States, compared to here there’s not a ton of opportunity to take huge risks, to really live off a minimum salary and try to do something on your own. So I saw the opportunity here in Medellin. The cost of living is very low and there’s a lot of new entrepreneurs that are flocking here. So that was a no brainer for me. This is one of the biggest tech hubs in Latin America outside of Buenos Aires and Santiago, Chile, and Mexico City.
And Medellín has one of the highest quality of life and flights are really cheap to go here. Everything pointed to Medellin. It was a pretty easy decision for me actually to come down here.

Julian Power: You have lived in Buenos Aires for a couple of months. Why did you decide to come to Medellin instead of Buenos Aires? Because Buenos Aires is also popular among remote entrepreneurs.

Wes Wagner: Actually there was no study abroad program in Buenos Aires when I studied there. I lived there for five months and there was no steady program for my business school. So study abroad was an excuse. The real reason I went down there was because of the digital nomads and entrepreneurship scene. And so I really liked my experience there, but I did learn a lot about their scene and their pros and cons. While they have about a third of the unicorns in Latin America, a third of companies that are valued at more than a billion US dollars, they shrunk because their economy is constantly fluctuating. Inflation’s really high. You have to take a really long plane ride to get anywhere, so they’re kind of isolated. And the food, I love the steak, but after five months I couldn’t really handle it. I met some great entrepreneurs in the city and had a great time there, but I don’t think they’re going to be the top-ranked Latin American tech hub. So instead of going back to Buenos Aires, Medellin called me.

Julian Power: And you told me before that you came here for two and a half months to try it out and see how much you liked it. So how much do you like Medellin so far?

Wes Wagner: I’m already looking at flights back in January. So I’ve loved it so far. Everyone told me when I came down here “If you do a two month test period you’re going to stay.” “No, let’s wait and see how it goes.” I’m at the end of that test period and I can tell that I am definitely coming back because I’m just blown away at how friendly the people are, how good the food is. I love the healthy lifestyle here. I’m working out and eating healthy. We’re in the middle of these beautiful mountains. I love it here because Medellin is incredibly cheap. The people are incredibly friendly. I come from a place in the United States, the Midwest, where the people are very friendly, we get to know our neighbors, things like that. I hadn’t experienced that yet in Latin America. Peru, Mexico, Cuba, Uruguay and Argentina. I actually only lived in Argentina. The people there are incredibly friendly. So that’s one of the reasons I want to live down here, I want to stay down here.

The proximity to the US is important too. I can take half a day to get back home to the United States. The entrepreneurship scene is huge. That’s some of the reasons why I want to stay in Medellin. It’s really cheap. The entrepreneurial culture is growing. The community is growing like crazy. It’s close to the United States. There’s a variety of food and there’s a huge hub of global entrepreneurs and people that are trying to make it here because they’ve really cut their overhead expenses and take risks creatively for businesses, etc.

Julian Power: So you come from the Midwest? You told me before that you want to spend your time between Indianapolis and Medellin. What’s the reasoning behind this?

Wes Wagner: I don’t think you have to choose where you want to live, it doesn’t has to be a 12 months of the year thing because now we have remote work and flights are becoming cheaper and cheaper. People generally live in the cities. I love Indianapolis because my family and friends are there. I love the tech scene there as well. But at the same time, I want to travel and be surrounded by other cultures. So my home town isn’t really an international hub like Medellín. And so because I have that privilege that I can live 9 months in one city and 3 months in another one, there’s no reason why I’m not going to choose that option if I have two amazing communities. I’m all for it. Right now I don’t have any big commitments: I’m not married, I don’t have any houses or things like that that are tying me down. So right now I plan to indefinitely be nine months in Medellin and three months back in Indianapolis.

Julian Power: I feel the same, having two or three home bases is a very good compromise between stationary living and the digital nomad lifestyle. You write a lot, and one of your main topics is the entrepreneurial scene in Latin America. What do you think about the startup scene?

Wes Wagner: I’ve met entrepreneurs in Cuba. I’ve met entrepreneurs in Peru, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. There are so many things that you go for and look for in a growing tech ecosystem, one of the biggest things is been-there-done-that- entrepreneurs. People that have grown businesses sold them and are now helping others with advice and investing. I think that’s was Medellín is lacking, but it’s doing well in a lot of other factors. The quality of life is really important. It attracts a lot of great talent. There’s an amazing quality of software engineering talent. It’s approaching a critical mass where any software company definitely finds the developers it needs.

The community is lacking a little bit. I’ve been looking for a regular event that brings the entrepreneurial community together. A crucial part of a startup ecosystem is the community, something that brings people together to exchange ideas, find a co-founder, find digital employees. That’s something that Medellin still lacks. There’s not one central community event. There’s places like Ruta N, a government-sponsored entrepreneurial hub if you will where people can come to work on a business and hopefully stay. But it’s mostly foreign entrepreneurs. It’s not the local people. There’s not a lot of mixture of others. There’s a lot of meetups for Ruby on Rails or Java. But I just don’t think that Medellin has something that really brings entrepreneurs together. That’s really lacking.

From my understanding, Medellin is transitioning from a service sector and a service economy to a global economy, more of a tech entrepreneurial, global digital economy. I think we’re going to see that in the next five to 10 years. The number one reason I think people come to Medellin in the tech sector is because it is the land of opportunity. The cost of living is so low and the people are so nice. The level of creativity and entrepreneurship is so high that if you want to do anything, take big risks, try to start a business, I don’t think there’s a better place in the world than Medellin.

Julian Power: Thanks for being part of the documentary. Good luck with your new job.

Wes Wagner: Thank you. Appreciate it.