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Keep it simple, stupid

My largest client does $270MM annual revenue and has a major social impact slant, in fact, most of the operations in which they are engaged are very much in humanitarian aid. They are a giant on the topic of health and recovery. They have a small internal group which focuses on Social Impact Investing, and this was the group within which I was hired for a consulting project.

The idea was that they wanted to build a website and social platform for emerging markets, in order to give pro-poor SMBs (Small-to-Medium Businesses) an inexpensive and viable way to not only get their business online, but in effect have it managed by my client because so few clients had daily access to the web, or the wherewithal to create even a template-based website. My client had provided capital to other socially responsible companies before in its tenure, but this was the first major attempt by them to establish a “for-profit” arm within the non-profit. They had a lot of rules and regulations regarding how this satellite business needed to proceed, to protect their tax-advantaged status as well as their charter in order to have this business maintain within the flux of their normal operating agreement.

We had months worth of meetings about the status of the business. The plan was that they were going to position the company in a neutral national jurisdiction, like the Caymans, in order to process payments from the first company in which we were going to enter (Indonesia) as well as the targeted countries for expansion (Egypt, Pakistan, and Nigeria). We had calls with several international lawyers, we had calls with a legion of non-profit attorneys about the status of the business, and we had calls with internal attorneys about isolating them from any legal issues that might arise from being sued abroad.

I would say approximately 60-70% of our meetings were about logistics. Probably another 20% of our meetings were about contracting with a major software company, like Google, to give us the server space and the software to be able to spin up mobile-friendly websites. At one point, we had a full day, eight hour meeting with a company that was flown up from San Francisco to pitch us on a complete platform development, from the bottom up, for website templates. At the end of a full day’s brainstorming, they told us we’d need to fly to San Francisco for “probably a full week” in order to finalize what the skins of the websites would look like and how they would function.

Now, if there’s anyone who knows about liability, protecting your rear end, and shoring up your server stack, that’s me. With that said, we were digging ridiculously deep on an idea that 1) we weren’t even sure was going to SELL in Indonesia, and 2) still had to be approved by the company president and the board. My argument wasn’t that those things needed to be addressed, I was just adamant that we were addressing some of these issues way too early. For example, we didn’t even have a good answer for how a client was going to pay for a monthly template in Indonesia, where credit cards are rarely used and automated bank transfers are not allowed by law. It was an issue that everyone seemed to avoid when I asked it, with a wave of the hand and a “we will figure it out.”

At one point my colleague and I were dispatched to Jakarta to primarily analyze the available market of pro-poor SMBs. The original plan was for us to go out, use the company’s current satellite office there as a home base, and meet companies with a 5-page questionnaire about their likelihood to buy the product, if their employee base was in the bottom third of poverty (a charter requirement), and if they planned to hire more if they earned more money. Originally, nothing was planned to actually TRY to sell the product, and see if they’d BUY it. Despite my client being accustomed to running on grants and donations, THIS offshoot needed to make revenue to survive, plain and simple, regardless of how many corporate lawyers we called on the phone.

So, I made it all up, all of it. I found an Indonesian company website that I imagined ours would look like someday, and called it ours for sake of the test. I had the satellite office find me two college interns from Jakarta to be my salespeople. I made up a logo and had three polos printed with our “brand” printed on the chest. I took my old company’s sales pitch, rewrote it for our “product”, had one intern translate it all into Indonesian, and the day we arrived I trained the two interns enough to at least attempt a sale and a close. The very next day, armed with their college laptops, a cached version of “our” website product, a shaky pitch, and a sign-up sheet, we pounded pavement for two weeks straight. We literally walked into 112 Indonesian stores and “sold” 34 of them, and when I say sold, I made those interns ask for CASH right then and there, the first month’s payment, money on the table to count it as a sale. A 25% closing rate.

And when we returned to the states for our presentation to the board, guess what the most compelling evidence was to proceed? With the strength of my sales testing, a definite marquee element in our pitch deck, the plan was approved by the president and board. Eventually, the company was launched and is currently growing throughout Jakarta.

The point? I’m not saying there are not a million nuances for the way that you advance your business, how you enter new markets, why to enter a territory, etc. However, sometimes companies approach new ideas with elements of over-diligence, and on the surface one might think you can never be too careful, but contrarily, you can. When you’re coming up with a new idea, treat it with the roughness of a new idea. Regardless of how big your company is, think about the core things that need to happen in order for that to succeed, and test them. If that works, advance to the next level of attention. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have a famous sign throughout their office – “Done is better than perfect.” My translation - Keep It Simple, Stupid.

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