"CEOs can't wait to read Sunny Bindra's articles every week."

Your success comes from solving the problems of others

Oct 20, 2013 Success, Sunday Nation

I like Alain de Botton. Ostensibly, he’s a philosopher. But unlike most people who tag themselves with that description, he is a very interesting man. The focus of his work is not abstruse concepts, but the practical realities of life. He also keeps up a barrage of erudite tweets. One of those is the reason he’s on this page today.

Here it is: “Behind almost every inconvenience is a new business waiting to be born.”

One of the things I’m often told by young people seeking success is this: “I’m a born entrepreneur; I’m not cut out to be employed; I want to do my own thing; all I need is a viable business idea.”

First things first: the true entrepreneurs don’t ask anyone for business ideas – they know exactly where to find them. And so, it seems, does Mr de Botton.

What is our runaway business product success of recent times in Kenya? M-Pesa, of course. It is such an astonishing hit that it has changed the face of payments in this part of the world, and claims to channel a good chunk of our GDP every day. It’s even changed the idea of what a ‘bank’ is.

But why was it such a huge hit? The answer lies in the world before M-Pesa. How did you transfer money in the bad old days? Why, by having a bank account. Which entailed numerous visits to banks and endless interrogations and provisions of proof that you were indeed worthy of operating such a service. For the few who got an account, the transfer of money to others then involved more form-filling, signatures, delays and hefty fees.

If you didn’t qualify for an account, you stuffed some bank notes into a brown envelope, gave it to someone travelling by bus to pass on to your relatives, and prayed hard that it arrived intact.

That is the series of huge inconveniences solved by M-Pesa. Suddenly, money could be transferred by a few clicks on the cheapest phone. Once Kenyans realized that the money so transferred did indeed arrive at the other end, the uptake was phenomenal.

So it is with almost every big product success in history. It was big because the inconvenience it killed was big. Which inconvenience did the television set kill? That of leaving your home for visual entertainment. The digital camera? Think how you used to take photos in the film era – the cost, the many steps, the unreliable results, the difficulty of sharing the outputs – and see that the move to digital was inevitable. The smartphone? It killed the idea that ‘computing’ was something that could only be done sitting tethered at a desk using a large, expensive, difficult-to-use machine. The uptake figures of the cheaper, portable, more usable alternative are another phenomenon.

And so all the business ideas you need are hidden in plain sight, all around you. It’s just that they aren’t in the shape of ‘products,’ but are visible today only as ‘inconveniences.’ So if you’re serious about entrepreneurship, get serious about life around you. Stay curious and inquisitive. Observe ordinary people in their ordinary lives, and see what annoys and vexes them the most. Your success comes from solving problems for others.

If you’re a Nairobian and have your eyes open, you might see the following: the impossibility of getting anything done that involves moving around in our world-bottoming traffic; the paucity of dignified public-transport options; the fear of insecurity around every corner; the time sqaundered standing pointlessly in queues everywhere; the unreliability of artisans and technicians; the growing pollution that blights the atmosphere.

Might I venture that there are enough future products hidden in even that short list to power a future economy?

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  • Richard Arao

    Wise words indeed. Noted and done. Already pursuing my opportunity with a facet of waterbody pollution in Nairobi. Preparing for the R&D, and hoping to make it a money maker. Nairobi, watch this spot!

  • I really liked your column.What struck me as an eye opener was your discussion that what is hidden from all ordinary eyes except those curious eyes of an entrepreneur,innovator or inventor is the ability to see”People’s problems,inconveniences hidden as “products” “. I couldn’t agree more.I was once undertaking a research on design of a mobile phone application for utility sectors customers and I was amazed how much people embrace people who wants to solve their problems.
    Keep it up brother ,you have earned yourself a committed fan.

  • Elvis Ackel

    I have had the privilege of attending a motivational talk once by Sunny at Panafric Hotel organised by AIG and it was very incisive. This article could not illustrate the opportunities that are available better, simple yet concise. I am an entrepreneur in the micro insurance industry and i can say for now is watch this space Tumaini ya Jamii Micro insurance concept will attest to Sunny Bindra’s article.

    • Elvis:

      Happy to have provided some inspiration. Go for it.

  • Naanjie

    I really enjoy reading your articles. I am a Kenyan living in the US. I work in health information technology. I have a question about innovation. How can a country like Kenya reward innovation?We have many brilliant people with great ideas, but our current enviroment does not seem to rewards innovation. I see that difference here. The US rewards innovation. I believe its one of the reasons we have so many start ups especially in healthcare.What can be done to change this in Kenya? Keep up the great work! Your one of the few respectable leaders we have left.

    • Naanjie:

      Innovation’s reward is success, no?

      The problem in Kenya is more that the culture of innovation is under-developed. We believe more in seeking ideas by copying or even stealing them. But true innovators will always stay away from this culture. Innovation is also not backed strongly here by banks and financiers. Their loss.

  • If we look for a list of ideas 99% of the time and only spend 1% being inquisitive, observing, and thinking of ways to create solutions for the inconveniences around us, the likelihood of reaching the level described above (Safaricom’s M-Pesa, Aplle and Samsung) are very slim.

    We give ourselves (and the people seeking better solutions) a better opportunity by flipping that around.

    • Philos:

      Indeed, that was the point of the article. Success won’t come from seeking business ideas; it will come from observing business ideas hidden as inconveniences.