Taking the attitude of a student


I was just reading an article in Forbes today about how Chinese companies are using anthropology (and ethnography) to understand how their products can meet the culture and attitudes of technology users in urban China. The article pointed to design firm Frog Design, and photographer Jan Chipchase, who roams the streets of urban China to document the behavior of city dwellers.

Instead of using focus groups, surveys, and interviews about what customers want, more and more firms are focusing on the culture of the target market itself, and using those insights to develop products directly.

What strikes me about this approach is that it addresses consumer need at the root level. Instead of having people tell companies what they want, product designers study the day to day actions of those consumers and then infer requirements for product design through that experience.

Why is this method necessary, or even useful? As the consumers’ tastes change and develop more rapidly than ever, businesses can’t keep up easily. As a result, they have to adopt the attitude of a student. By pretending they know nothing about their customers, they force themselves to learn about them on a very basic level. This, ultimately, should lead to a much deeper understanding of how to meet needs and incorporate those learnings into designing a product or service.

Good for businesses, but what if this approach was adopted in other contexts? What if our government pretended it knew nothing about us, and started with fresh ideas? What if non-profits pretended they had much to learn about the needy they sought to serve? I strongly believe that we’d have more innovation and better solutions.

Taking the attitude of a student can be a powerful position to put yourself in. It’s not hard to find examples of successful startups that were about to uniquely address the needs of their market due to their initial ignorance.

What do you think you know about your customers or constituents? How do you know your assumptions true, or current? If you were approaching your market with a fresh set of eyes, what would be the first things you’d try to learn?

Why asking donors to change behavior won’t get you anywhere


What’s the one thing to keep top of mind when asking potential donors to support your charity or cause in a new way? Don’t make them change behavior.

I’ve been spending a lot of time this week looking at ways people can get more involved in causes. There are plenty of interesting opportunities out there: people can now use shopping, gaming, searching, texting, and all sorts of other mediums to support their favorite charity. But what do most of them require you to do? Go out of your way to get involved.

Let’s take goodsearch.org. The idea is that by going to goodsearch.org to conduct your web searching, the user supports a cause she cares about. How does it work? GoodSearch donates 50% of its paid sponsored search revenue to charities that each user designates. Great. But who’s going to do this? Very few people will go out of their way to funnel their searches through a special website, just so a few pennies can go to a cause. And there’s very little in return for the user, certainly not enough to warrant the hassle of going to a special site. This is a great idea, but poorly executed.

If you want to innovate in creating ways for allowing people to engage with and support causes, I’m all for it. But start with something that finds people where they are. Don’t make your users find you.

Some thoughts from Kristof on Greg and the CAI


There is no shortage of articles and blog posts about Greg Mortenson this week. In fact, the Good Intentions Are Not Enough Blog has collected 113 of them at this time of this writing. I wanted to share just one perspective here, though – from Nicholas Kristof of the NY Times, a journalist I thoroughly respect and who thoughts on development are certainly far more mature than my own. He writes,

My inclination is to reserve judgment until we know more, for disorganization may explain more faults than dishonesty. I am deeply troubled that only 41 percent of the money raised in 2009 went to build schools, and Greg, by nature, is more of a founding visionary than the disciplined C.E.O. necessary to run a $20 million-a-year charity. On the other hand, I’m willing to give some benefit of the doubt to a man who has risked his life on behalf of some of the world’s most voiceless people.

I’ve visited some of Greg’s schools in Afghanistan, and what I saw worked. Girls in his schools were thrilled to be getting an education. Women were learning vocational skills, such as sewing. Those schools felt like some of the happiest places in Afghanistan.

I also believe that Greg was profoundly right about some big things.

He was right about the need for American outreach in the Muslim world. He was right that building schools tends to promote stability more than dropping bombs. He was right about the transformative power of education, especially girls’ education. He was right about the need to listen to local people — yes, over cup after cup after cup of tea — rather than just issue instructions.

I worry that scandals like this — or like the disputes about microfinance in India and Bangladesh — will leave Americans disillusioned and cynical. And it’s true that in their struggle to raise money, aid groups sometimes oversell how easy it is to get results. Helping people is more difficult than it seems, and no group of people bicker among themselves more viciously than humanitarians.

In my last post, I had written about how disappointed I was at the possibility that the allegations against Greg’s Central Asia Institute were true. I still retain that disappointment. But Nicholas makes a good point: despite the shortcomings of Greg Mortenson and the CAI, he’s done some tremendous things. Let’s not forget that.

The full post, highly recommended, is available here.

Disappointed and deluded


In case you didn’t catch 60 Minutes yesterday, the show featured an expose on Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute. Previous to the show, I had been a big fan of Greg’s, and blogged about how admirable I thought his work was in a recent post. But apparently I’d been had. Greg’s been accused of fabricating stories about building schools, misappropriating funds, and being outright shady in the way he’s run his charity. I don’t need to reiterate what a shame it is when someone who’s done so much good, and who has the potential to make such a difference in the lives of others, acts in a manner that disingenuous to both his donors and the very people whom he claims to support. The segment is still available on the CBS site – watch it if you haven’t yet.

I don’t know if the allegations are true, but my takeaway is that the need for transparency in charity work has never been greater. People put a lot of trust in Greg. Unfortunately, it seems like that had more to do with his personality than for the feedback and accountability he was able to provide. Had he been able to offer great transparency and reporting, maybe he would’ve been able to prevent himself from being cast in such a poor light. We’ve had enough fraud in the for-profit sector (thank your Bernie Madoff), and we certainly don’t need it to spill over into cause-related work.

How do we prevent this from happening? We don’t need more charities. Instead, we need tools that help existing charities provide transparency with their donors. They need ways of providing insight into their operations that are engaging, scalable, and cheap. Only in trust will individuals continue to support NGOs that addresses causes important to them, so the best thing a charity can do now is work harder than ever to build that trust. Greg’s lack of transparency hasn’t just damaged himself and the Central Asia Institute, but the whole non-profit sector. If people no longer feel that a “hero” like Greg won’t use their money wisely, will they give at all?

For another interesting perspective on the subject – read Kent Annan’s article on the Huffington Post. I ment Kent earlier in the year – he’s a great guy, and the organization he helps co-direct, Haiti Partners, is one worthy of emulation.

Greg Mortenson with a few school kids

Why individuals will matter more


Today’s post begins with a question – what happens when individuals gain more sway over the non-profit sector?

I ask this question in light of the budget cuts that are currently under review in Congress. It looks like no matter how things play out, the cuts will undoubtedly reduce government funding for the non-profit sector. Whether you consider this a good or a bad thing is a different conversation.

As this happens, the sector will have to become increasingly reliant on donations from individuals to grow their programs. Some NGOs may not find this problematic, but those that rely heavily on government funding may find it a huge challenge to keep a base of individual donors engaged enough. I’m sure that going after a single million-dollar grant is far different than obtaining 50,000 $20 donations.

What’s interesting about this change is that it represents a shift in power. As the government backs away, it will be increasingly left in the hands of individual people to decide which NGOs get supported. Thus, the collective voice of individual donors will gain increased influence over the sector.

What does this mean? More than ever, charities that can find effective ways to engage people as individuals will be the ones who thrive financially. How will they do this? I’m no marketer, but in my opinion, innovative approaches like alliances with for-profit businesses, engaging social media, full transparency, and emotional feedback through storytelling are going to key.

A charity I met with last week was, unfortunately, a good example of what not to do. Support from the government had increasingly waned over the years, and they hadn’t given nearly enough attention to keeping individuals engaged. Years later, they were left with a campus they had difficulty maintaining, a dramatically reduced program size, and no resources left for marketing and development. The sad thing is that they provided a much-needed service in a part of the country that already gets little attention.

But this doesn’t have to happen. Organizations with the right leaders and the right culture don’t have to decay if one stream of funding dries up, but they do have to be creative in finding and implementing new solutions.

What are your thoughts on what will happen as more attention gets paid to the individual?

What can video games teach us about startups?


Video games have been around most of my life, but it was only last week when I realized that they can actually teach us something about startups. Specifically, first-person “shooter” games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and the old-school Goldeneye 007 provide a good analogy to getting a new venture off the ground. How? Strategy and skill. Read further and I’ll explain.

In this genre, games are variations on a theme – playing through the eyes of your character and given a series of weapons, your goals is shoot/blow up other players and avoid having the same done to you. Since these games are played online, you can play against top players from all over the world. If you want to find out what it’s like to get schooled by an 11-year old, it won’t take long.

Players generally fall into two camps – strategic and skillful. Strategic players think ahead and plan well. They know where the good vantage points are, when to run and when to hide, and are smart enough to predict the behavior of other players. You can be a terrible shot, but if you can be strategic, you can still be pretty effective. Strategy comes out of patience and understanding.

Skillful players are those who are dexterous in handling their weapons. These are the players who can jump of a building, see an enemy running in the distance, and tag him with one shot, all before he hits the ground a half second later. These players can get away with poor strategy, because their action is so quick and precise. Skill can be gained only one way – hours upon hours of practice.

Obviously, the best players are those that combine both strategy and skill. Don’t go near them.

There is a perfect parallel to running a new venture here. Strategic organizations understand where they’re headed, are aware of competitors, and use their intelligence to stay ahead of others. They’re savvy about addressing the needs of their customers, and are effective at utilizing their assets at just the right time and place. They’re led by thinkers and sharp analysts.

Skillful startups ooze technical ability. They have teams of crack programmers and project managers, and they thrive on speed and execution. These organizations get things done. They can take something to market faster than anyone else can, and can iterate with new improvements at the drop of a hat. Skill-based startups are led by tech and management whizzes.

Naturally, successful ventures have to demonstrate both strategy and skill. Without skill, a startup won’t be able to grow and respond quickly enough to remain relevant. And without the strategy – well, doing a good job of providing something that no one wants won’t get you very far. The good news is that if you fall short on one of these and your new venture fails, at least you won’t have been beaten by an 11-year old.

How does your startup fare in its balance of strategy and skill?

Battlefield 2: Bad Company - perfect example of where strategy and skill are needed to win

Why is it called a “social business” anyway?


Why a social business is named such? Why not call it a profitable charity? The answer isn’t obvious until you at the underlying structure of how capital is used in a typical social business. Compare that to how capital is used in a traditional for-profit and a traditional non-profit.

Which one do you think a social business mirrors more closely? Click on the image below for a larger version.