Here’s what’s been happening recently on Zoom: Two ambitious digital entrepreneurs with expertise in GIS from Douala, the de facto capital of Cameroon, met with a marketing ideation consultant riding out the pandemic in rural Polk County, Oregon.
This Internet thing is working!
Except ideas take a while to send and receive. Sometimes decades. I’ll come back to that once I take you on a tangent or two.
In Oregon, the battle against the pandemic is going well compared to other parts of the US. Nationwide there will be 100,000 COVID deaths by next weekend, but just 137 in Oregon – that’s 1 per 31,000 people. That ratio is significantly better than in COVID success story countries such as, say, Germany.
But in Cameroon things are even better, so far: just 1 in 200,000 have died of COVID, despite a decades-long, multi-faction civil war disrupting medical supply lines. Cameroonian soldiers patrol the streets in masks, heavily armed.
In the US, those who bear heavy arms on the streets don’t wear masks – they attend fake civil liberties protests that are actually political rallies in disguise. Where they get and spread coronavirus. Apparently, astroturfing can cause collateral damage.
But a more sensible atmosphere prevails in sensible Douala, apparently. And the Internet there was good for an hour-long Zoom call to faraway Oregon, seeking ideas, help, and guidance on how to create a global marketplace for world-class GIS experts, students, freelancers, and buyers of GIS services.
This is what digital geeks call a “three-sided marketplace”.
For me, this is something digital innovation is good at – undermining the global status quo, in which a microscopic cadre takes home most of the globe’s GDP. Just 5,000 businesses worldwide collect 3 out of every 4 dollars the world generates each year.
The tech world’s largest buy-low/sell-high labor organizers are part of that status quo – the tenured like IBM, Accenture and Capgemini, but also VC and Nasdaq-funded gig-marketplace startups like Upwork.
Last time I checked (about an hour ago), none of the world’s big tech firms were based in Cameroon. But why shouldn’t a Cameroon startup take a tiny piece of the digital labor market economy? Why should enormous companies like Accenture, for example, monopolize the business – are their people any smarter than two GIS consultants from Cameroon with an entrepreneurial vision?
Of course not, says Steve Jobs:
“Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it… ”
Innovation vs the UN
Entrepreneurial innovation can disrupt the global economic status quo more effectively than the very best-intentioned UN programs. I became convinced of that after my stint with a UN agency in Sub-Sarahan Africa, where I built a communications strategy for national peace and nation-building effort.
Quick story – on my first day at work there, at the UNDP work compound in Juba, South Sudan, I was ushered into a small hut-office near the front gate, in the shadow of the compound’s 7-meter high perimeter wall. Across a desk from me sat Mr. Wanga, Directory of Security for the UNDP of South Sudan.
“Hello, you are welcome” – the standard, warm greeting. Then the conversation got serious.
For 25 minutes, Wanga explained the conflict raging around the country and even nearby the capital city, using a retractable pointer to highlight points of interest on the wall map behind him. He used this scary-as-hell context to frame the important messages: I had to be very careful, obeying security protocols was paramount, and, just so I was clear on the obeying part: the UN was a military organization. (Sidenote: the UN is not a military organization).
Once I nodded acceptance of my place in the military hierarchy, Wanga provisioned me a kevlar vest, a bulletproof helmet (one of those baby blue ones you see in the movies), an official UN badge, and a military-style two-wave radio. He showed me how to respond to a daily status request sent from the compound’s radio tower – an essential safety protocol.
“Understand that you must respond to this request properly or we will assume you have been arrested or kidnapped.”
The message was clear: hierarchy. And what I would discover is that the UN, bless its heart, is a quasi-military organization. It’s a top-down hyper-bureaucratic and inefficient hierarchy. I was on an email thread with almost 10 UN employees of varying ranks for weeks – to arrange my airport shuttle. The UN’s hundreds of “country offices” (each of the UN’s major 5 to 10 agencies has one in each developing world nation) around the world seem to be staffed by the local elite. It gives them the comfortable sinecures that their economies and governments do not.
Counterpoint: the UN also does many remarkable things. It builds roads, sewers, legal systems, radio stations, dams, university systems, hospitals, and more. It cools the planet, mitigates wars, feeds starving millions, and offers hope to billions of people, me included.
But it doesn’t help entrepreneurs. When it comes to the distribution of business opportunities, UN agencies favor the established elite, the status quo.
What a pleasure then, to Zoom it out with two people capable of actually changing things.
But were they?
“Everyone in the world over 18”
The problem was their unwavering answer to the same question I always ask: who’s your target audience? The answer:
“18 and up. From any country in the world. Anyone interested in GIS. And from any industry related to GIS.. which is most industries”.
I’m good at paper-napkin B2B-math, but here I was stumped. This audience is in the millions, at least. And the only way to market to that is to have 10s of millions, at least.
Facebook’s target audience at launch was 6,800. All in the same country, state, city, age group, language group, mindset, Dockers, and sweatshirt. Unlike many disastrous startups that have taken 100s of millions in venture capital (like Postmates), Facebook was not just bootstrapped but narrowly focused. Facebook was more niched down than 98% of the startups and consultancies I’ve done business with.
The idea of bootstrapping is spreading through much the world, as far as I can see. So has the complementary but differing concept of a lean business. But a narrow focus? That may be a decade or so behind. It’s this idea that we need to make an emotionally tough sacrifice – that’s hard for someone who dreams big.
But maybe Zoom will help work through difficult emotions faster.
Footnotes & Errata
- My source for worldwide coronavirus data is https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/, which aggregates data from credible if not comprehensively accurate sources ↩
- I looked up the largest companies in Cameroon – none have an international presence ↩