Sunday, October 12, 2008

Business Ideas – Continued

I am torn between getting work as a consultant and trying to start a business. The consulting is the easier route – I’ve done consulting, there are lots of groups here hiring consultants and the projects might even be meaningful. Consulting calls my name in a sultry, siren-like voice. “Come do a gannt chart and a budget, you know how, and we’ll give you a nice day rate and you can chalk up a little self-esteem again…

However, I keep toying with the idea of trying to start something. I have the rare opportunity in life to attempt something new, truly a clean slate. There is opportunity here, but I also know there would be tremendous frustration. Simply grocery shopping or dealing with everyday matters here can be exasperating, so I can only imagine that magnified in running a business.

The business climate here is challenging. With lots of western donor investment, there are countless commissions and committees and ministries all focused on trying to make business investment easier. All this bureaucratic focus on trying to make it easier gives a pretty good indicator of how monstrously cumbersome, bureaucratic, and rife with corruption the process truly is.

Some of the criteria I’ve put in place for starting a business include:
  1. Tangible product. I want something to bring home to Bodie besides a PowerPoint presentation, and to be able to say, “This is what Papa does”. This is a reaction to many years of consulting and marketing with everything I’ve done to date able to be erased from a big hard drive.
  2. Must be able to sell a customer once, and then, if attention is paid to quality and price, you can keep the customer and not start from scratch. A reaction to zero based budgets year in and year out…
  3. Must be a socially minded or a social purpose business. This is the easiest to achieve as any company here that employs people is doing a mitzvah in job creation.
  4. The product should be viable long term. A lot of intermediate steps are introduced in developing countries – solar ovens, biomass briquettes – which may be wonderful and helpful, but designed for use until there is real infrastructure in the country.
  5. Sleep worthy. That is, a product or service that I could go to sleep feeling like it was a good healthy addition to the world and not slowly withering my soul with each day of further engagement.
  6. Money. I don’t need to be rich, but I’d like to make some money somehow. We have friends heading home soon who are scouting pre-schools. Its easy to forget here that the costs in D.C. for a year of finger painting, napping and diaper changes exceed what it would be to build and staff your own school in Tanzania.

I get stymied when I think about the challenges of building a team here. The slightest hint of initiative seems a rare personality trait. Try ordering something just a little different than what is listed on the menu here and you see a look of absolute confusion, followed by frenzied conversations between waiters and cook staff.

A few months ago when navigating the labyrinth of a big hospital with Tom, our gardener and his wife, we were told to go to room 50. Tom went to the door, tried the handle, and stopped cold.

I asked what was up and he said it was locked. That was it. Game over. No effort at an alternate strategy, say knocking, or asking about another room. I’m not sure how long he would have stood there had I not kicked him in the shin.

I’ve been helping a woman entrepreneur write a concept paper to be submitted to a business plan competition here. I wrote and printed out the first draft and reviewed it with her, noting sections that needed her attention. We met a week later and she handed me eight pages of carefully written cursive script. I was thrilled. Until I read them and realize that she had undertaken an elementary school exercise of simply copying, word for word, everything I had written in her own script. Including things like “Need more info here.”

From my understanding, the education system here focuses on rote memorization. I can’t imagine anyone I’ve worked with in the U.S. thinking that copying what I’d typed in careful penmanship would be anything other than a complete waste of time. This is the raw material that an entrepreneurial team must be built from?

The ideas have come and gone and my energy around them has waxed and waned. From solar to biomass briquettes, I finally landed on an idea that hit all my buttons: Dried Fruit. It makes sense as health trends in the U.S. and EU are trending so that people are more health conscious; roughly 30% of the fruit grown here goes bad from lack of processing ability, Tanzania is on the ocean making for easy transport, dried fruit would be weight effective for transport, and the process is relatively simple. I was excited and dug into the research.

I was put in touch with the founder of a company that has been in the business for 20 years. He and his partner started a dried fruit business in Uganda and expanded to a UK-based company that imports and packages. It’s an impressive story and the absolute right person in the world to be learning from. I was excited about writing him and eagerly opened his response, which began:

“I don’t want to be negative, but”, (an inauspicious beginning) “I would not encourage you to work on fruit drying for a number of reasons:
  • It is at best a marginal business. I have been working at it for 20 years and it took us 14 years to break even! We will lose money again this year and we expect to lose money roughly one year in three.
  • My partner and I still draw salaries roughly equal to those of a UK school teacher despite being in charge of a substantial and risky business.”
He continued in an incredibly thoughtful and analytic approach with another nine bullet points and a wrap up, “Honestly if I had my time again I would not dry fruit! Fruit Drying is only one step above basket weaving in my opinion ... and basket weaving is the last hope of the damned.”

Case closed. Mark that feasibility assessment complete.

Grateful for the candor, I am exploring other options. And I am thinking that a little consulting may be a good route to maintaining sanity during the exploration.


Julie Shaw said...

Alfred, while you are mulling over your various business options, please pull together several of your blog entries, rework them as a series of articles and send them off to a magazine. Travel, ex-pat, parenting magazines come to mind. I could also easily see one of these essays on the last page of the NY Times Sunday Magazine. This is tangible, healthy, sleepworthy work! Your entry on returning to Dar and experiencing the non-linear nature of life there is funny, enlightening and thought-provoking. At the very least, it's something to do until the next idea comes along to replace dried fruit! Take care! Love to you, Hillary and Bodie, Julie

jcrolnick said...

Keep up the business development ideas. When you return to the States you will be armed with great new skills to put to work. At the rate we are going back here in the USofA, our economy is soon to resemble the one you now find so frustrating!