When smart people tell us that NextDrop’s isn’t making the social impact we really hope to be making, we usually tend to listen. NextDrop informs residents in India via cell phone about the availability of piped water.
So then the next obvious question is: What’s our next move? Well, after talking to some other really smart people from Unitus Capital, we realized that we are straddling the social and the non-social. We’ve found a product that people (across a whole lot of economic levels) really like (for various reasons). Which is great — we’re all for people loving us. But since we went into this business to maximize social impact, that’s what we are going to try and do.
How do we do that? Elementary, my dear Watson: Use Hubli to perfect the information delivery mechanism, and pick the next city we scale to based on where we will make the most social impact. (OK, we lied — we didn’t come up with that idea. One of our amazing advisers, Catherine Berman, did. This is totally why we have advisers.)
what we’ve learned
Tier II cities like Hubli probably don’t have a high number of people that fall into the “If Statements” that Amanda Meng of the the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy outlined, which will get to the type of impact we’re looking for. We think that there will be more people who fall into that category in larger, Tier I cities, like the working poor of Bangalore. This is still purely speculative, and we have no numbers to back this hypothesis up … yet.
We at NextDrop understand where we make discernible socioeconomic impact: in households where both the man and the woman work, they don’t have the social network to help them collect water, and they don’t have the coping mechanisms (storage containers vs. number of people in the household vs. number of days between each supply) to deal with missing the water supply. What we need to do is quantify this market size in Bangalore: What percentage of the population (if any) does this definition apply to?
That’s very specific. What if you find that the market is too small for the business to be viable?
Upon talking to more smart people, (like April Rinne from Water.org), we realized that this could very well be the case. Are there people who are new enough where they don’t have established social networks/coping mechanisms for missed water, but old enough to have access to piped water/in-home connections? We don’t know — that’s what we have to figure out. But if we find that this market is too small, what we will do is figure out what other types of water information we can provide to serve low-income households. We’re thinking things like timings of water tanker truck arrivals — basically things that can still leverage the same NextDrop mechanism but in a slightly different water context.
We’ve perfected (or are in the process of perfecting) the delivery mechanism here in Hubli, and it may be a great chance to see how the mechanism works in a new context. How robust is it? What tweaks do we need to make it work? All exciting questions we would love to be able to answer.
the big picture
Also, a note on “big picture things” — just for kicks. As always, input is more than welcome.
Paul Graham said it best in his blog post about “Frighteningly Ambitious Startups.” In this post, he goes on to talk about how to create the next generation of competition for Google, replacing email, replacing universities (you get the idea) — basically things that are incredibly difficult and at the beginning sound ridiculously crazy. I want to quote his advice on tactics — how he thinks companies should go about actually making this happen.
Let me conclude with some tactical advice. If you want to take on a problem as big as the ones I’ve discussed, don’t make a direct frontal attack on it. Don’t say, for example, that you’re going to replace email. If you do that you raise too many expectations. Your employees and investors will constantly be asking “are we there yet?” and you’ll have an army of haters waiting to see you fail. Just say you’re building todo-list software. That sounds harmless. People can notice you’ve replaced email when it’s a fait accompli.
Empirically, the way to do really big things seems to be to start with deceptively small things. Want to dominate microcomputer software? Start by writing a Basic interpreter for a machine with a few thousand users. Want to make the universal web site? Start by building a site for Harvard undergrads to stalk one another.
And that, my friends, is our strategy (well, not the building a site for stalking part): Start with deceptively small things. We want to tackle big, hairy audacious goals, like structural change. But you know where we start? With the small, focused thing, because that is actually really hard to do well, it turns out. We’re still trying to figure out how to provide accurate water information to the city of Hubli, and we’ve been at it full time for the past year, working our tails off.
That’s not to say we’re not close, but I’m saying that on paper, it looks really easy to do. Geez, I came in thinking it would be really easy to do! And it constantly amazes me how long “simple” things take to accomplish. That’s what people say when I tell them our business. “Really? That’s it? Don’t people know this already? That sounds so simple” Yes. Deceptively simple. But when we pull this off, our team will know just how hard it was, and we’ll definitely be patting each other on the back.
Doing good things means a doing a lot of really painful, really unsexy/boring things 99% of the time. It’s looking at a lot of data, hearing a lot of things you don’t want to hear, and making decisions that are really not fun (because honestly, who wants to say that their brilliant ideas are not so brilliant?) You think finding out that you are currently not making the social impact that you thought you were making is fun? No, it is not. Not by a long shot. But you face it, brood a little bit (like maybe 1-2 hours), and then move on. (And write a blog post about it).
So that, for anyone curious, is our strategy. We’re doing Hubli well — getting the information delivery mechanism down. Then we’re gonna do it and measurably make people’s lives better. (Maybe in Bangalore, we’ll see if the data backs it up.) And then when we get that under our belts, we’ll tackle bigger things.
What are those bigger things? Honestly, it’s too early to tell. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we have a lot of ideas and theories. But I’m not out here to distract everyone from keeping the eye on the prize, and holding us accountable.
What is the prize? Delivering results in Hubli and showing we can make measurable social impact in one more geography. If we can do that, we are well on our way to tackling those big hairy audacious goals that everyone loves talking about.
P.S. If you are a smart person and want to consult for us/work with us/be part of our awesome team, shoot us an email! We are always looking for smart people to tell us what to do.
Anu Sridharan graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 2010 with a master’s degree in civil systems engineering; she received her bachelor’s degree from UC Berkeley as well. During her time there, Sridharan researched the optimization of pipe networked systems in emerging economies as well as new business models for the dissemination of water purification technologies for arsenic removal. Sridharan also served as the education and health director for a water and sanitation project in the slums of Mumbai, India, where she piloted a successful volunteer recruitment and community training model.
A version of this post first appeared on the NextDrop blog.