Pitch Perfect: Kingston Beta

Kingston Beta has become a major player in Jamaica’s technology sector

Illustration by Kevon WebsterIngrid Riley. Photograph by Dale Kurt Murray

Years before she launched Kingston Beta, Jamaican tech entrepreneur Ingrid Riley started hearing about techies holding these things called “meetups” in places like New York City and Silicon Valley. “When I went abroad,” Riley says. “I attended one or two, and realised it was basically a regular meeting for people in the industry, whether they’re designers, developers, entrepreneurs, or investors. It’s about being in the same space and getting to know each other,” she adds, “connecting people who have ideas with people who have already done things and people who have money. It’s about developing a community of like-minded people who believe they can be successful in a digital space.”

So in 2007, on the urging of Riley and her company ConnectiMass, a handful of Jamaican techies congregated in the parking lot of Suzie’s Bakery and Coffee Bar in Kingston’s Southdale Plaza, and began laying the foundation for a similar community in the Caribbean region. Kingston Beta was born.

The event eventually moved to the plusher confines of the Jamaica Pegasus Hotel, with a core of two hundred attendees meeting every other month to share ideas and trade mutual support. Since early 2010, a key part of Kingston Beta has been a segment called “Pitch This”, where current and aspiring entrepreneurs spend five minutes on stage — or on Skype video, in the case of presenters from other Caribbean territories or the Caribbean diaspora — pitching ideas or products they’re working on, and receive feedback from the group.

Successes to emerge from the “Pitch This” process include the social learning platform EduFocal, whose creator, Gordon Swaby, piloted both concept and finished product at Kingston Beta; online marketplace JamDeal; and Tump, a search and discovery app for Blackberry. Developer Marc Gayle tested several ideas in the “Pitch This” forum before finding a winner in 5K MVP, which builds custom web applications for US$5,000 and targets a global clientele.

Riley says the fact that people didn’t exactly rush to participate in the pitch sessions demonstrates how badly they were needed. Many were initially too shy and afraid of ridicule to present in a public forum; others feared having their ideas stolen. “It took a lot of cajoling and convincing and showing them what happens abroad for the first pitches to come through,” says Riley. “Because we have a culture here that doesn’t exactly tolerate failure.”

“We tell people, if your idea fails, learn from it and start again. That helps to diminish the idea that if my product fails it means I’m a failure too.” And Kingston Beta’s pitch sessions have seen their share of nonstarters. “We have people who have totally bombed on stage,” says Riley. “But they end up laughing, saying that it was only after they pitched that they realised how dumb the idea was. But they took in the feedback and they didn’t stop. That’s the whole point of a community where people help each other to grow.”

Riley admits, too, that building a culture of collaboration or “creative reassembly,” like the one that catapulted Silicon Valley to the forefront of tech innovation, is an uphill battle. “An innate culture of sharing is not something that is in the DNA of people generally across the Caribbean,” she says. “But it has gotten better. We and other groups like the SlashRoots Developers Conference are helping to push the idea that it’s better to share ideas and tell people what you’re doing, so they can add their own sauce and actually help you to go further faster.”

Funding is another area in need of a boost, though Riley believes that tech entrepreneurs need this less at the startup stage and more for sustaining and growing their businesses. “Chances are that if you come together as a three- or four-person team your skill set is already complete, so you can put out a product quickly. But we still need that culture of angel investors and venture capital.”

In the six years Kingston Beta has existed, Riley has seen a significant improvement in the quality of the ideas circulating in the tech community, which has also been enriched by initiatives like the World Bank’s Digital Jam and the Pitch It Caribbean virtual pitch competition. “We used to be too parochial, and I don’t mean local — because building solutions to local problems is a good thing, and can be very lucrative. But we were limited in our thinking and still in ‘reseller’ mode. We need to focus on what makes the Caribbean unique that the world would want to consume and pay for.”

If the Caribbean has a competitive advantage, Riley says, it’s the fact that few consider the region a contender on the tech scene. “Every time I go to a conference or a meet-up abroad and I give my usual five-minute synopsis of what’s going on in the Caribbean, people are like, what — you’re having meetups? You’re having startup bootcamps?? You have developers in Kingston?”

Riley, who last year was named a Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica/Jamaica Gleaner 50Under50 business leader, says that — given the country’s unpromising economic outlook — developing exportable skills and products is more critical than ever. There’s talk from the World Bank about setting up a tech incubator in Jamaica, but Riley cautions against setting too much store by a building or institution. “I’m more interested in the development of a community and an entrepreneurial culture,” she says. “We could just be coming to Suzie’s every Thursday and incubating some great ideas.”