Some several months ago a Zimbabwean friend invited me to check out website he was working on that’s modeled along the lines of American local business review site, Yelp. Our conversation, when we met and went through the website, quickly went into the relevance of his service to ordinary Zimbabweans. He seemed very much aware of the limited possible reach of his product, and he talked about how he so much wanted to have the product reach what he referred to as “the 80%”.
Talking further, we admitted to ourselves that as much as the penetration of the internet and internet enabled mobile phones was increasing, the majority of Zimbabweans, the ordinary Zimbabweans, that 80%, either still don’t have access or have very limited access. In its state his product had no chance of being used by these people. In fact, whether a review platform is currently relevant to the 80% even if tools to make it accessible were developed is debatable.
The problem is that if, as a founder, you’re not part of this 80%, it takes extra deliberate effort to know the 80% needs and build products that address those needs simply. Otherwise, you develop a product that Americans, Europeans and your fellow 20% locally would find very cool and usable, but a product that even they would really not use because they already use the American website you cloned.
Yesterday, here at the office, a colleague introduced the subject and pointed to an article that discusses this in a China context. The article narrates the paths of two entrepreneurs in China – one entrepreneur has been very successful addressing the needs of low income earners with applications such as mobile games that run on basic mobile phones; the other is an affluent guy who has had little success creating American style web products that basically target the 20%.
My colleague here noted examples of Asian web platforms, 51job.com and IndiaMart.com, which the typical affluent designer in emerging markets would write off as poorly designed websites. The 51job.com design is almost shocking actually. But the value of these properties tell a different story.
Locally, one could argue that the G-Tide brand and the business behind it managed to connect to the 80%. When “in the know” techies and the affluent where busy laughing at the low cost Chinese iPhone and Nokia imitations, the bulk of middle to low income Zimbabweans just didn’t care and were buying in droves. Some would even proudly admit that they knew they were buying a fake iPhone but for them, that was the closest they could get to owning one. What’s more, the fake phones played music so loud they doubled as small radios in homes. While the 20% were laughing (and broke), the smart entrepreneur was connected to the real market, and smiling quietly to the bank.
On the wider African continent, the most successful technology startup ideas have been products specifically designed to address specific emerging markets needs, and not just cool stuff or ideas copied as is from Silicon Valley. A few examples that come to mind are Prepaid mobile telephony, M-PESA, Mxit and iROKOtv.
But as my colleague at the office reiterates “it’s that cloning in itself is wrong, it’s whether you can adapt the solution and make it relevant to your market.”
Does your product real needs? Is your approach connected to the needs and cultures on the ground or are you trying to force an American or European approach to implementation?