July 20, 2012
News & Opinion: Bright Lights, No City
Think for a moment about the concept of "crazy business idea." Likely, it conjures thoughts of some wild product that makes little sense, which is then attempted to be sold to people with a lot of sense. But consider rechargeable batteries, a very sensible product, and a seemingly sound business venture. Now imagine selling them to villagers in Africa who make mere dollars per month and we're back to the concept of a crazy business idea. And that's just what Max and Whit Alexander did, which Max talks about in this great summer read, Bright Lights, No City: An African Adventure on Bad Roads with a Brother and a Very Weird Business Plan. First off, there's a lot of back story here about where the two brothers came from, who they are, and what lead them to this venture. Whit previously created the game Cranium, sold it to Hasbro for millions, worked for Microsoft on Encarta, and was a suspected CIA agent. Max was sort of a drifting seeker that ended up being editor at a variety of notable places (People and Variety), and together, they seemed the perfect team to take on the doing and telling of this remarkable story. Selling batteries to low income villagers might seem absurd, or cruel, even. But the fact is that every time a white man showed up in this village, they came with a promise of hope, which ended once funding ran out. Whit and Max had a different approach, they wanted to run a profitable business, because profits would ensure that they'd be around to provide the much needed batteries to these villagers. If all went well, they could expand and grow the business, and turn it into something the African people could take over and run, providing sustainability, success, and hope for Ghana, and from there, Africa itself. But the challenges were great. Here's an excerpt, detailing the challenges Burro (the name of their company) faced in presenting the sale of rechargeable batteries as "renting power":
Ghanaians don't really have a rental culture; despite the clearly compelling advantage of the offer, it takes time to explain to potential customers the basic idea of buying a service, as opposed to buying the physical battery. This is one reason why Burro was building its own network of trained agents who could explain the company's unconventional offering. A direct relationship between client and agent also ensured a level of trust that would enable the rental model to work. In a country with no reliable legal system for dispute resolution, and where most people have no identification, no bank account, and no street address, renting valuable merchandise to them for a fraction of its cost carried considerable risk.Crazy, yes, but isn't that sort of what all good business stories are? This is a perfect book for summer that might inspire you to think about the mission of your work, identifying the needs of your customers, and what the greater purpose for fulfilling those needs is. And if you're wondering how this all turned out, if the business worked, if they created hope for Africa, I won't tell you. The ups and downs within this story need to be read to be understood, and I recommend you do.