Chilean Entrepreneurs Redesign The Architecture Industry

About two minutes in to my interview with David Assael and David Basulto, co-founders of Plataforma Networks, I knew I was chasing the wrong story. I had approached the two Chilean entrepreneurs at the Endeavor Summit in San Francisco to get a standard inspirational company-building narrative for young entrepreneurs. Both Davids look younger than their 30 years, and I knew their company had met with some success, so they seemed like good bets for a novelty feature. What I discovered is one of those rare business models that starts from a simple premise and ends up fundamentally transforming an entire industry.

Assael and Basulto are both architects by training: not "IT systems architects," but actual t-square and blueprint architects. Like many professionals in their field, they were eager to make their mark, which meant getting their designs published in one of the dozen prestigious architectural journals worldwide that qualify the best of the best.

Unfortunately, their location in Santiago, Chile put them far away from the tastemakers and editors whose approval they needed to advance professionally. This was not a new development: an entire architectural community in South America doing innovative work was going unnoticed in the press because most lacked access to the right channels.

In 2005, Assael and Basulto decided to remedy this by creating an online community where architects in Latin America and Spain could expose and discuss their work. They launched Plataforma Urbana, which was joined by Plataforma Arquitectura a year later. Almost overnight, the site exploded into a vibrant, well-trafficked, and increasingly influential forum. The obvious advantages of the Internet -- instant global distribution and no arbitrary space limitations on content -- conferred an immediate edge over traditional media, but what really launched the site was the quality of the professional community.

Architects quickly discovered that exposure on Plataforma translated into recognition and a massive influx of new contracts. Well-established and prestigious firms took note, triggering an upward spiral of quality, reputation and reach.

Having saturated Spanish-speaking markets, Assael and Basulto made the leap into English in 2008 with a companion site, ArchDaily. They were able to leverage the assets, knowledge and reach that they'd gained in Latin America to make an instant splash across the globe. Today, the Spanish and English sites draw a combined 200,000 visits per day.

The basic idea behind the site was neither especially innovative nor technically impressive, but timing was key to the success. The old order, symbolized by the 10-12 trade publications of record, was already brittle in the face of the global and tech-oriented profession that architecture had become. Plataforma struck hard and struck first, delivering exactly the blow that frustrated architects around the world were longing for.

Plataforma maximized first-mover advantage by getting the site right from a design, editorial and marketing perspective. The young founders tout the vast new volume of business and attention that they have been able to direct toward talent in emerging markets, as well as the site's role in diffusing good design and innovative ideas rapidly across the world.

Plataforma Networks is now well-recognized for its transformational role in the industry. Assael and Basulto have been guests of the King of Spain, the Government of Israel, and architecture schools around the world. In 2010, they attended the opening of the new royal university in Saudi Arabia--a $10 billion campus built by order of the king--as representatives of the architectural profession worldwide.

Despite its influence, Plataforma maintains a light footprint. Several dozen young staffers work at the company's headquarters in Santiago. "You know the house where they started Facebook?" said Assael. "It's like that--a lot of crazy developers, not very much space." The founders note that this business culture, still relatively uncommon in the more formal workplaces of South America, helps them attract and retain the creative talent they need to keep the site at the cutting edge.

In some ways, Plataforma does fit the standard young entrepreneur narrative. These guys are just 30, after all, and started their business before they really got their feet wet professionally. At the same time, their straightforward, well-executed plan had the concussive effect of Craigslist, another simple idea that came from nowhere and turned an old model inside-out. Clearly I had underestimated these two young men. At least I was not the first to do so.

Rob Salkowitz is author of four books on youth and digital entrepreneurship in emerging economies including Young World Rising and the new e-book Young World Shining.

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