Spring 2016 Visit: To Do Business in Cuba, Think Small

Greg Matusky traveled to Cuba in February 2015 as an advisor to Innovadores, for a chance to meet with some of the promising innovators on the island.

Cuba represents a huge, untapped market for American businesses and marketers. Located only 90 miles from Key West with a population nearly three times that of Puerto Rico and a literacy rate higher than here in the US, Cuba holds vast promise. But is it even realistic to pursue business in this island nation? I was fortunate enough to travel to Cuba with the Innovadores Foundation this past February to assess the risks.

As owner of one of the largest PR agencies in the country, I’ve worked with countless technology start-ups over my 30-year career. Prior to our visit, I kept an open mind, but I was excited to see what Cuba had to offer. On our trip, we spent a lot of time with young people in the tech community. I was shocked that in a country with little Internet accessibility,  young Cubans knew a great deal about American business and technology. They own Apple computers. They post to Facebook. They play Pokémon. They are as intrigued about the future of technology and what it offers as American young people.

As Stewart Brand said way back in 1984, “Information wants to be free.” Nowhere is that more exemplified than in Cuba. With limited Internet and restrictions on information, young people still find ways to fill their need to be informed citizens of a technology-driven world. It’s amazing, when you consider that a laptop might cost $1,000 and the average Cuban earns about $25 a month. Yet many Cubans have computers or smart phones and many of them find ways to access the broader world, circumventing the challenges that are all around them.

I was fascinated to learn about El Paquete Semanal or The Weekly Package, which is the Cuban offline version of the internet, a work around that connects Cubans to the broader world. Each week, a hard drive is distributed and copied throughout the island, full of pirated international entertainment, news and software. Cubans can pay to download content according to their interests.

As a public relations and communications professional, I’m intrigued by the implications of El Paquete. In a way, it reminded me of Netflix which started as an awkward mail order service and is now a legitimate media channel. El Paquete is so integrated into Cuba life that it could become a network of its own, or even the Cuban Internet, once restrictions are lessened. It’s certainly something that marketers should keep their eyes on and embrace as things develop.

One of the most striking elements of Cuba is the lack of any corporate branding, marketing and advertising. Some might view that as a welcome state of affairs. But what’s striking is that when markets don’t exist, good design is difficult to find.

We live in world where art and design are taken very seriously. The look, the feel, of an iPhone. The Starbucks logo. The silhouette of a Tesla Model S. When all that is stripped away, it quickly becomes a very drab urban landscape. That isn’t to say that Cuba lacks talented designers, quite the opposite. But their ability to implement their work is significantly limited.

That’s where we’re starting in Cuba, at the most fundamental level of expression and commerce. That means marketers have to rely on old-school, word of mouth and influencer outreach to carry the message. They have to involve themselves with the young. The artist class. The educated who can take up an idea or cause or product and take it to the masses.

Consequently, anyone trying to do business in Cuba has to first think small. This is a nascent market that lacks infrastructure, wealth and hard currency. Big broad American initiatives are bound to fail, at least for now. Second, they have to build credibility. The best way to enter the market is to commit to the Cuban people and give them something in advance. Maybe it’s education. Maybe it’s small, nano-investments. Maybe it’s sanctioned exchange programs that deal directly with the Cuban people and work to improve their daily lives.

Next, gain a foothold. To be part of the future, you need to be there on the ground, or at least have people there actively working to help the Cuban people. Without that, you’re just an interloper.  Also, play to Cuba’s strengths. There are so many limitations in the Cuban market right now. But there are also assets such as the arts, which is the stronghold of their culture, and there is tourism, which is growing quickly and bringing in hard currency.

To get started you almost have to imagine doing business on another planet, where there is no infrastructure. Where there is no Internet. Where you can’t just pick up your smart phone and Google the meaning of a word. For the short-term, efforts have to be more instinctive and interpersonal. They have to be based on good intentions and real commitments.

Finally, leverage Cuba’s greatest assets, the education of its people and their fondness for the United States. This is not the Caribbean where income disparity is great. In Cuba, no one has money, but everyone has an education. The talent pool is amazing with artists, technicians, clinicians and scientists. You have to believe these professionals will accelerate technology adoption and creation faster than any other developing nation in the world right now. So much so, that they might allow Cubans to leapfrog older technologies that the US is welded to, like carbon-based energy or even wired communications.

The talent is there. We need to be authentic and sensitive to their limitations and invest in ways that preserve the culture while creating broader opportunities for ourselves as well as for the Cuban people.

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