Archive for the ‘entrepreneurship’ Category

Nobody told me about the toads

April 29, 2008

Last night, I was forced to sleep with earplugs when a chorus of toads outside my window decided to to sing at full force. It has been raining a lot in Accra lately so at night when it’s not too hot and water is still on the ground, an army of toads will come out to sing their song. But sleep deprivation and potential loss of hearing aside, last night’s experience brought to mind a concept which has been running through my head since I arrived in Ghana – place is important.

In fact, place is very important for entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs create products and services to solve problems. Simple as that. And if you live in a place where a particular problem doesn’t exist it is hard to imagine how to solve it and even more difficult to solve that problem with the deep insight that most great products have. There are great products being used in this world (probably in a place very dissimilar from where you live) that you would never have thought to create because you didn’t need to. You weren’t there, in the place, experiencing the conditions and context that made such a product necessary and useful. Even common problems like finding water to drink can be solved in very different ways based on where you are. How can an entrepreneur even begin to think about what products (or features on a product) are necessary to make it attractive to consumers in a certain area unless that entrepreneur has experienced that place?

I recently heard a story about a large Scandinavian telecom company that was trying to determine if Ghana and West Africa was an attractive market to enter. Wisely, this company spent the time, resources, and money to send a small team to Accra to do a feasibility studies. Real field research! Sounds great, except that this team spent most of their time in a posh hotel looking up facts on the internet. What is the point of going to a place if you don’t at least make an effort to experience it? Luckily, they did leave the hotel once to go see where and how cell phones were sold. Once again, I commend them for the idea, but at the market they decided to stay in the car. They didn’t speak with a cell phone user or vendor. I believe there is a richness of understanding that people can only achieve by really experiencing a place. Speaking with the people, breathing the air, and watching users and consumers in action is the only way to understand the context, subtleties, and nuances that lead to great products.

In all the research I did before coming to Ghana, nobody ever mentioned the toads. Not once in the many books and websites I read, or even in the conversations I had with people who had lived in Ghana, did anyone tell me that the toads would keep me from sleeping once the rains started. I wonder if there are any local entrepreneurs near my hostel who begin selling earplugs during the rainy season because they have lived in Accra for years – they have experienced it here. I commend these entrepreneurs for understanding the subtleties of their place. Place is important.