Start-up finance and the Brazilian favelas

The country has embraced e-commerce since a series of tax reforms in the Noughties, despite stifling bureaucracy.

Financing the favelas: a shanty town in São Paulo. Photo: Getty
Financing the favelas: a shanty town in São Paulo. Photo: Getty

Parked under a tree in a cul-de-sac off the gleaming Avenida Brigadeiro Faria Lima in São Paulo, the strip that is home to Google’s new Brazilian headquarters, Deocleciano Tolentino sets out his wares, popping open the boot of his car to reveal a spread of cheeses, salamis, nuts, home-made jam and bottles of honey and cachaça. The epitome of a microempreendedor (micro-entrepreneur), Tolentino is one of a generation of Brazilians whose small businesses in the informal economy were regularised in a programme of tax reforms that began in 2003.

Twenty yards down the road stands a building whose beanbag-lined hallways and ping-pong table mark it out as an archetypal start-up HQ. Mansão Startup (“the start-up mansion”) was co-founded in September 2012 by Florian Hagenbuch of the online print-on-demand service Printi.

Hagenbuch, a 27-year-old German brought up in Brazil, left his job as a financial analyst in New York to set up in business in São Paulo in 2012. Printi was one of a wave of Latin American start-ups in the early-2010s which brought an influx of young, foreign would-be entrepreneurs into Argentina, Chile, Mexico and Brazil in particular. Hagenbuch is predictably upbeat about the opportunities for businesses like his, particularly given the enthusiasm with which Brazil has embraced e-commerce.

Yet it is not easy to infuse an emerging economy with start-up culture. Brazil’s formidable bureaucracy can make sorting even basic documentation expensive, time-consuming and unpredictable. As Hagenbuch says, “In places like London, you just start work. Here, it takes around six months to get going legally.” Most daunting of all is the labour legislation. “No matter how careful you are, if there’s a problem, people can sue,” he says. “The risks are huge and you are personally liable.”

Start-Up Brasil, the federal programme launched last year, shows how fragile new firms can be. A fifth of the 62 companies chosen in the second round of selections in December 2013 have already dropped out. The reported reasons include demands for 20 per cent of a company’s equity in return for investment.

Such statistics explain why some micro-entrepreneurs are “bootstrapping” – rejecting outside finance. Since Bruna Figueiredo launched her jewellery firm in 2010, she has held back from seeking external investment. She is targeting what is often referred to as Brazil’s “new middle class” but might be more accurately described as a growing, newly solvent, formally employed working class. “Our customers come from all walks of life,” she says. “Some of them are living in semi-favelas: we can tell from the addresses.” Her jewellery starts at R$200 (£53) for tiny, wafer-thin religious pendants in 18-carat gold – “We have all the saints, even the really obscure ones” – and goes up to R$5,000 (£1,300) for diamond bracelets and earrings. “They can pay in instalments, and it’s e-commerce,” says Figueiredo. “People don’t need to feel intimidated by a fancy storefront.”

Unexpectedly, the biggest-name foreign start-up in recent months is MoneyGuru, modelled on Britain’s MoneySuperMarket and backed by George Mountbatten, the Marquess of Milford Haven.

Hagenbuch confirms that despite the rise of a new, richer working class in Brazil, the tech scene is still dominated by people with wealth. “Creating a start-up has become a real career alternative,” he says. “They used to dream of being bankers.”