How to run an Internet business with no Internet
When the rain had cleared and the sun had set over the Gulf, I visited the home of Julia de la Rosa and Silvio Ortega -- a couple making their living with a privately owned business: a palatial Airbnb with a dozen rooms in the geographical center of Havana. We ate a late dinner on their poolside patio, capped with Havana Club rum and cigars. The meal was Mexican, with some ingredients smuggled over by friends from Mexico; this is basically the only way to acquire exotic food. “It’s important to have friends in good places,” Julia told me, over my first-ever smuggled burrito.
The problem with running an Airbnb in Cuba, however, is that there are no credit cards, there’s no reliable way to process online payments, and the Internet is shit. “We have to rely on other people, because the Internet is really an essential part of our business,” said Julia. “We have to have it, to exist.” So Julia and Silvio created a workaround. They have a business partner in Spain who handles the server that hosts their listings and website, and another friend in Italy who processes the payments. It’s online work done via physical proxies, online living done through offline connections. Getting the actual money across Cuban borders can be done via simple money wiring -- Western Union even facilitates payments from the United States, or Airbnb hosts can opt for door-to-door delivery of payments. This couple owns a house that could pay host to The Bachelor, but they can’t even post on their Facebook page themselves. Despite the barriers, their house is swarmed year-round with European and South American tourists looking to bask in the glow of the Cuban suburbs and the bootleg burritos prepared by the property’s personal chef.
And take the guys I was drinking with earlier. They are upstart Cuban tech entrepreneurs who created an actual functioning nightlife app. They saw an opening in the market, and they employed Cuban ingenuity to serve it. “We live in a country where the young people have to plan where they are going to go out very meticulously, because [most have] financial problems,” one of them, Juan Alejandro Hernandez, told me between beers. “We also don’t have the freedom of being able to check social media 24/7. There are things going on here, in Havana, but the kids -- they just didn’t know about them. We wanted to change that.”
We were dining and drinking in the trendy Vedado neighborhood on the northern tip of Havana. Juan Alejandro and the three other Cubans at the table -- Sergio Fernandez, Juan Luis Santana Barrios, and Sergio Leon -- were detailing their start-up venture, a smartphone application “Ke Hay Pa' Hoy?” that straddles the line between a Cuban Yelp, and a site like Thrillist -- detailing the best nightlife, events, and dining destinations in Havana, geared toward a young crowd.
Through email, Ke Hay Pa' Hoy? sends a compressed download, an information update to their application every seven days. The week’s info (upcoming concerts, live events, etc.) is provided as a download directly to user’s smartphones, optimized to be made accessible without a connection. The app looks slick. It runs well. And, it was pieced together with extreme resourcefulness by four 24-year-olds with no formal training. Ke Hay Pa Hoy? is gaining nationwide attention as game-changing software, tailor-made to bypass Cuba’s connection problems and to introduce millennials to the world of on-the-go resources.
“We don’t want to go to the United States to develop an app, even though it would be easier for us over there,” Juan told me, “because we want to bring this kind of service to our people, to make our lives better.”