Growing a business in Nicaragua is hard. Growing a business online should be easier. But put the two together here, and it’s damn near impossible.
If you are reading this blog online, you have probably purchased products or services on the internet. Chances are you have entered your credit card into a website and received a physical product in the mail or a digital product in your email inbox. Now, imagine a world where only big businesses could sell online and the small players were forced to stay small and stay offline. Imagine no more — because that’s the world we are living in here in Nicaragua.
The turbulent launch of the past few weeks
Considering all of this, my team and I at Marca Labs, a technology company based in Managua, got to work. We recently launched an online ticketing platform to make Nicaragua a little bit more interesting and wonderful for all of us. The company is a type of Ticketmaster for Nicaragua, if you will. There are other similar websites out there in Nicaragua already, but we felt strongly enough about the market need to jump in and add our own effort.
We took the leap knowing that the Nicaraguan market needs a way to purchase online but also a way to better connect with worthwhile experiences. You may not be too aware of this, but there are plenty of cultural events of interest happening around us that we don’t attend for very simple reasons:
a) We weren’t aware of them
b) Paying for tickets here is a hassle
If we fixed those two problems, would Nicaraguans be inspired to experience more? We think so.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to attend more cultural events around town, like those held at the Rubén Darío National Theater. I always have all the intention in the world of going to the theater and experiencing Nicaragua’s wonderful culture except…I’m just too lazy to drive halfway across the city to find out if there are still tickets available.
With these pain points in mind, our team of technicians got to work on creating something to help people connect with the amazing experiences Nicaragua has to offer. And it worked beautifully — until we got blocked out.
The problem wasn’t the technology. Our team worked weekends to put together a beautiful design and a working shopping cart for the website. It worked great, and the live chat feature we installed at the last minute turned out to be wildly popular.
People were turning to the website to purchase concert tickets that they wanted so badly, and they trusted us to get them their tickets in a quick and secure manner.
The problem wasn’t the strategy. The traffic the website received within the first few days surprised me, and I met rave reviews at every turn. Our website visitors wanted experiences, and we were happy to bring them those experiences — with just a few clicks.
Event organizers were also interested. Keeping track of payments is always a pain point for them, and outsourcing all of that to a single platform with solid reports and a secure paycheck at the end of their event was received like gold. Both event-goers and event-organizers wanted help — help that we were eager to provide.
Sadly, the problem is processing payments—namely, the lack of options here. While online sales are flourishing exponentially in the US and across the globe, Nicaragua is still stuck in what seems like the Middle Ages. There’s only one bank that processes online payments within Nicaragua, and it requires a hefty monetary deposit to get started. For a small business like mine, that kills the balance sheet.
So, what did we do? We tried the US…and that was another giant failure. We registered a company in Florida, set up an account with a payment processor in the US, and programmed our entire site to receive payments from this company. That band-aid solution didn’t last a week.
Payment processors struggle with the legal implications of selling to Nicaragua, and we got blocked out a short while after the first few credit cards went through. Companies like Paypal won’t touch Nicaragua with a stick because of the risk of money laundering and all of the legal problems that come with it.
What are the implications for the future?
What this means for the Nicaraguan business community is a scary reality to face. We are living in a time in which I can buy cell phone minutes directly from my iPhone in less than one minute (absolutely magical), but I can’t buy a portrait from a painter in Granada unless I get in the car and physically drive there.
Getting small businesses onto the internet removes so many of the barriers we have faced for centuries, but, in Nicaragua, the chances of that happening feel smaller every day.
My startup has spent a ridiculous amount of time trying (and failing) to get into e-commerce. We have researched the options and asked every person we think might help. The answer is always the same: “You’re limited to Nicaraguan banks.”
If we were providing a service nobody cared about, the loss of our service would be okay. But the public is interested in our project and wants options to make online payments in Nicaragua. So why aren’t we being allowed to improve the situation?
Back to square one. Our only hope is the one payment processing solution that Nicaragua offers. In this case, the technology can’t save us, and neither can savvy business strategy. The success of our project — and the projects of many others — hinges completely on the options the country offers.
Here’s to hoping it all works out for online payments in the future. The opportunity and growth of Nicaraguan businesses depend on it.
Marcella Chamorro recently released a book on authenticity in marketing, titled To Be or Like to Be, and she also writes for her blog on lifestyle & marketing. She is a blogger, speaker, and consultant based in Managua, working on developing technologies to help people be more creative. Marcella writes the column ‘Challenging Innovation in Nicaragua’ for The Nicaragua Dispatch