Víctor Manuel Moratón works every morning in his nearest WiFi zone. He always gets there very early, going from La Timba to the park on 15 and 16 in El Vedado, where he will spend close to an hour connected.
He’s been doing this daily routine for five months, ever since on January 1, 2017 he started navigating on the Internet a site for freelance professionals which he is working on with his friend Fabián Ruiz: NinjaCuba.
Víctor, who is 29, is an informatics engineer and Fabián, 33, is a designer. Both of them make up a team of a platform that today has more than 300 users registered free of charge.
“The idea was to create a space where users could promote themselves as professionals,” Víctor affirms, “to show their knowledge, their skills, their work portfolio, which would allow them to apply for labor offers and directly contact clients, without intermediaries taking advantage of them.”
The commitment with their peers was the principal motivation of the founders of NinjaCuba. They both work independently and know the vicissitudes of those who share their situation on the island. In fact, they are also users of the platform.
“We want to support on the site Cuban professionals, that they be recognized as a pillar of the economy,” says Fabián. “Showing the world everything they are capable of doing, of contributing to society and, in turn, improving their living conditions. So that they don’t have to stop working in what they studied or emigrate to personally and professionally improve. We have a social commitment, that’s why we don’t charge.”
But the site isn’t just a platform for the island’s freelancers. It’s also a showcase in which work offers can be published and where the precise professionals for different enterprises can be found. Up to now they have 75 employer accounts and they have some 100 applications for their work proposals.
NinjaCuba doesn’t aim to manage relations between professionals and employers, it just favors them. The very site warns its users “that it remains in the hands of both parties to agree on payment and other conditions.” It therefore does not have a tool that determines the number and nature of the contracts brought about by it. But for the time being this is not a limitation, at least not according to statistics.
A GROWING PLATFORM
NinjaCuba is a self-sustained project. Víctor and Fabián invested their savings to develop the site and they use a part of what they earn as freelancers in its sustainability.
With some 2,000 daily visits from some dozen countries, according to Google Analytic figures which its creators proudly cite, the platform has registered a growth in users in the last two months.
“What we have done is just work and try to improve the platform,” Fabián says. “We have been interviewed some times and we remain active in the social media, but we haven’t carried out a publicity campaign because that is very expensive. Even so, the site has started getting to be known among professionals and the number of interested persons has grown. That is encouraging.”
To register with NinjaCuba it is necessary to access the site on the Internet and fill out the questionnaire requested to create a profile referring to the skills and professional experience. Once created, the work offers reach users’ email through the site’s own search mechanisms. If the email account is Nauta, users can have that information in their own home and only need to connect if they wish to answer an invitation or want to update their profile.
In addition, the platform includes among its services proposals for scholarships and courses which its creators obtain through different means. “We want to bring about an economic improvement for Cuban freelancers, but also academic upgrading. That gives them the possibility of being more competent, of being better qualified,” says Víctor.
For employers – who can be Cuban or foreigners – in addition to the option of creating an account to publish their work offers, the site offers a filter in which clients place their needs and the system gives them back proposals of professionals. You can then send to them an invitation to collaborate or directly hire them if they so wish.
MORE THAN A NAME
The name of NinjaCuba is undoubtedly a hook. “The term ninja is associated in technology to professionals who perform in different roles,” Víctor explains. “And in Cuba a ninja is someone who is very skillful in what they do, who doesn’t flinch and does anything to take forward their projects. That’s why for us it seemed good for a platform of Cuban freelancers.”
Meanwhile, Fabián thinks that the name is not the main point. “There are people who like it and there are people who think it is strange. But it has met the goal of attracting attention and in the end the positioning of a brand doesn’t depend so much on the name as to the quality of the services it offers.”
Faced by the competition, the creators of NinjaCuba bet on a site that would meet international standards and at the same time would incorporate the characteristics of the national market.
“We took into account the connectivity difficulties in Cuba, the problems our users can have to access the Internet,” Víctor commented. “That’s why we tried for the design and the usability to be functional in this context, without sacrificing its quality. That it not be complicated to load a profile and navigate in the site from any WiFi zone.”
When creating their profile, the platform users can specify what type of connection they have at their reach. As well as about questions like payment for their services – if they prefer a set wage or being hired by work the hour -, and the time they can devote to that activity: fulltime, part time or if they are flexible.
Another of NinjaCuba’s advantages, according to its founders, is that in addition to being free of charge it does not establish differences among those who register.
“On sites like LinkedIn, despite its potentials, Cuban professionals are a bit limited because paid Premium accounts are implemented and different user segments that have an influence in the visibility,” Víctor comments. “We don’t do that. Everyone has the same access opportunities. The differences are established by the skills and experiences referred to in each profile.”
As to the professional specialties present on the platform, practice has made it necessary to expand them.
“We initially thought of our professional field, in informatics and design, because it was what we had studied and we had the personal experience as the foundation,” Fabián says. “But we held exchanges with several persons; we became aware that the same situation existed in other fields. Then we opened the possibility of new specialties, which is even useful for interdisciplinary projects in which professionals with different profiles can be involved.”
Computer scientists and designers are still nowadays the site’s majority users and the most popular categories are associated to the development of apps, layouts, videogames and graphic design. But bit by bit freelancers from other profiles have started joining: chemical engineers, biotechnologists, translators, accountants, not just from Havana but also from other regions of the island. And even from outside Cuba.
“Some Cuban professionals residing abroad contacted us and that made it necessary to reconsider the platform,” Víctor affirms. “We decided to then include that category on the site, because initially the geographic filter only contained the Cuban provinces. Now we are more inclusive.”
TWO NINJAS ON THE ROAD
Víctor and Fabián do not fear the future. It encourages them. Months ago they barely had an idea and now their project is an ongoing reality.
They were selected among the ten best technological ventures of the island in the 10kx10k Cuba contest for their NinjaCuba project, which allowed them to visit Silicon Valley for two weeks and interact with developers and specialists of companies like Google and Twitter. In addition, they attended lectures in Stanford University.
“It was a great opportunity,” says Fabián. “We were able to see how the big technological companies work and compare that scenario with the Cuban one, to try to obtain experiences that could help us when we returned. We were also able to assess the work methodologies we were able to develop before the trip.”
That experience left them important contacts and conclusions.
“The Cuban reality is very different,” says Víctor, “because the basic structure for the financing of projects like ours does not exist. And there are also the problems with the technological support and connectivity. But we try to be realistic and use in our favor the existing conditions.”
“Instead of worrying about being a startup unicorn what we have to seek is being sustainable,” he continues. “For that right now we are working to minimize costs, to optimize time and work and to concentrate on the platform’s growth. Before incorporating something new we make an effort so that what exists functions the way we thought. Our objective is to be the leading site for Cuban freelance professionals.”
Víctor and Fabián meet three or four times a week. They meet in the home of one or the other to analyze what has been done and to jointly coordinate the next steps. Afterwards each one works separately. The daily follow-up and the updates of the platform and the profiles on the social media are done by Víctor every morning at the park on 15 and 16.
In relation to NinjaCuba’s sustenance, its creators insist that the registration will continue being free of charge. However, they are working to develop a group of Premium services, like knowledge validation tools that would help employers to hire the adequate personnel for their proposal and would contribute to the profitability of the site. Neither do they rule out including publicity.
“We would also like to have agreements with state-run enterprises so they use the site,” Fabián adds, “that they not see us with reservations but rather as a platform on which they can find the workers they need, that they appreciate our values and potentials. We want to win over their trust and demonstrate that we are transparent, that we are interested in helping.”
Practical but optimistic, the creators of NinjaCuba prefer seeing the glass half full. What they have achieved in five months is a lot, but they are looking ahead. Their talent and perseverance as entrepreneurs are their best weapons to continue.