Anybody can come up with ideas, for business that is. The question is: are any of those ideas sustainable? Could any of them resist the test of time? I checked the literature at hand and learned that plenty of good ideas are tried and ended all of the sudden, without flourishing. There is something inherently contradictory on aiming to build for the long run in this age of rapid innovation changes. Good ideas are developed at an amazing pace and methods are tailored to bring them into market ever faster (see "The Lean Startup" by Eric Rise). And yet challenges such as social inequality, systemic risk, and cyclic recessions persist. Perhaps we are reaching a saturation point. In the quest to outpace ourselves, maximizing the use of available resources, we may be overlooking something basic, something that can lead us to produce ideas for the long run.
My teammate Ching and I were mulling over an assignment that Professor Marti Nyman handed to us and other teams at the end of a Technology Commercialization seminar. We were trying to come up with an idea to build a business around something that could be useful, promising and good for society, all at the same time. It was quite a challenge.
Ching suggested, "This business education should really be available to everybody, don't you think?" I paused for a moment, then started going over the canvas in front of us, writing whatever words or phrases came to mind that seemed to fit predefined categories: Value Proposition, Distribution Channel, Targeted Segment, etc. At some point I let Ching evaluate my proposals; he criticized them, added some of his own, we removed several of them.
We continued this process until the canvas was nothing else but a hodgepodge of phrases, squares and circles. Time ran out. I stood up in front of the class (Ching nominated me to be the presenter of our plan) and shared our work.
--"Who is your customer?" asked professor Nyman; his expression turned doubtful when I replied with a broad range of options. I felt my cheeks burning.
--"Do you think they would care about your product?"
--"Yes!" I replied without hesitation. Our product, an educational service tailored for rural communities, would make business education available (and more affordable) to small business owners, or young entrepreneurs avid to start something on their own.
--"Why rural areas?" My mind scrambled for answers. I was thinking how to articulate examples such as WalMart, which started operations in small towns, were competition was scarce, before establishing on big cities. That was what Ching and I wrote on the canvas anyway, but there was another reason, something related to a vision I had when travelling back and forth from Mexico City to Oaxaca.
There are places on the World where formal education is not only scarce, it is not affordable.
On the hills of Oaxaca's Sierra Mixteca (a chain of mountains) I could see from the bus little houses here and there connected by unpaved roads, dotting the slopes, low clouds partially covering the landscape in the early hours, sparkling the rough vegetation with morning dew. I felt amazed.
As I grew up, that amazement translated into an appalling sentiment. In the Mixteca, decades have past and poverty and lack of opportunities are still the norm. Progress, as we define it in economic terms, has not arrived to communities in need, still living in isolation, trying to fend for themselves. Finally that sentiment transformed into anger, similar to what Hessel describes in Indignez-vous! What good does it make to have any business development in the form of eolic parks, mining, oil, banking, etc., if we cannot make a difference for those who need help the most?
My parents always told me that education is the one thing that no one can take away from me. It is something like a long term insurance policy. One of the problems we have today with education is that it is becoming less and less affordable. Many of us have to take loans to pursue higher education and the tab is not getting any cheaper. Hence the idea Ching and I had. Our customers would be those who have the drive to pursue a career in management, but do not have the means to do that. We would tend to people like the immigrant students featured in a recent NPR show in California, who had to knit, sell books and do other works, to get through college and graduate school.
The idea may seem unrealistic, but it looks like a good starting point to us. After all, many ideas that generated prosperous businesses seemed far-fetched at the beginning. If the idea seems disruptive, that is Ok: that is exactly what innovation is about. Imagine a system where students are free to think about the next innovation instead of pondering how they are going to repay their own school debt. As Chomsky put it, "Students who acquire large debts putting themselves through school are unlikely to think about changing society..." .
Years ago I read on a classroom's blackboard (in that time boards were really black):
It means, more or less, "Necessity is the mother of innovation". I could not agree more now.