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.