Once in a while an entrepreneur comes along with a technology-driven solution that makes life better. However, the ratio of entrepreneurs who do this to those who don’t is not good. If the East African tech startup scene is to mature through successful products something needs to change. We need to build services that bring relief to the pain consumers in our region experience or as Ory Okolloh put it during the launch of the HacksHackers Nairobi chapter, ‘Build something that scratches an itch’.
Much has been said about prototypes as a tool for discovering where needs lie in a market but the ‘prototype-first’ road when not preceded by some effort to determine where to start is paved with failure. Large organizations with mind boggling research and development budgets could probably take this road without enduring much pain but startup businesses do not have this luxury. For the African tech startup, its all very well to fail fast but failing often sounds the death knell for the your enterprise.
Finding the right place to start is an exercise in discovery of human nature. How consumers already solve problems provides clues on where an innovator can expend valuable resources to discover pain, design solutions and prototype them. The underlying rationale is ‘deliver pain relief profitably’. I like to think of ‘pain relief’ as value. So when an entrepreneur uses the term ‘value’ within their business’ context I immediately seek out where ‘pain relief’ is happening in their service or product. If it’s not obvious then we have a signal for a hard road ahead potentially fitted out with a painful dead end.
Pain Relief as A Promise
The term ‘pain relief’ contains a promise. The consumer expects to no longer be in pain as a consequence of using or acquiring the product or service. For pain relief to happen it has to be delivered. The simple definition for a business model is “the rationale for how an organization creates, delivers and captures value”. Understanding how your technology delivers value from the customer’s point of view is one of the many keys to success. Delivering on the promise of ‘pain relief’ is a good and easy way to understand the whole ‘delivering value’ concept.
Depending on the pain your technology is relieving, value can be delivered at many points in the customer’s journey. For a technology business to be successful, it has to deliver on the promise every time the customer experiences the product/service. Broken promises don’t bode well for startups future. Although there are many points at which value can be delivered, I’d like to point out three where good examples come to mind:
Purchase of tokens via mobile money created new value for Kenya Power customers who were on prepaid meters. Tokens could be easily purchased by making your way to a Kenya Power office or a supermarket but extending the sale of tokens to the mobile money ecosystem made it unnecessary for customers to adjust their schedules. The pain of finding the nearest place to buy tokens was relieved. One can argue that this also happened when Kenya Power allowed customers on postpaid plans to settle their bills the same way. A great deal of attention had to be paid to functionality and reliability.
The Android mobile platform and its promise of synchronizing my mail, calendar, contacts as well as better security features than I could find on the Symbian platform created new value for me. However, I can only experience that value (the pain relief of never having to back up my phone via cable) when I use the device. Just buying one would do me no good. A great deal of attention has to be paid to the users experience as well as functionality for relief to remain consistent and enjoyable.
Here’s a good non-tech example. Sanitary pads have been around for a while. In East Africa they were packed in different sizes depending on the brand and manufacturer and for different flow. However, they all had the same feature. They were not individually sealed in their pack. This meant that women who only wanted to carry one pad in their handbag had to find creative ways of keeping it clean. And then there was disposal. One vendor soon realized an opportunity to solve a pain during disposal and transport existed and began to individually seal each sanitary pad within the packaging allowing women to toss one in their handbag without much thought and use the wrapper to dispose off used ones.
Some products, even mobile apps, are essential or simple enough to be almost impossible to differentiate at the functionality level. However, new value can be delivered through better distribution, better packaging, easier disposal or better branding that taps into the client’s aspirations.
If you are hoping to build a successful business on technology, you need to understand you’re in the business of pain relief. In the words of Bigweld in the animated movie Robots (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robots_(film)),
“See a need. Fill a need.”