Last month while I was visiting Ashesi University in Ghana, I met with a few students (two in CS, and one in the MIS program) and talked to them about what they want to build when they leave Ashesi and what they see as their biggest future challenges. One of the CS majors talked about wanting to build a software company, and how he saw his biggest challenge as getting customers to use the software and apps that he builds.

That conversation stuck with me. In the moment, I suggested that he think about inverting that statement: how can he build software that users are compelled to get their hands on and use?

I’ve been thinking about Google a lot recently (partly spurred by reading In the Plex), and in particular the combination of heavily data-driven decision making and their intense focus on doing what’s right for users. There’s a fine balance to strike in building software, weighing understanding what users want to do and what will make them happy while innovating in ways that users might not even know they want. We struggled with this at Mifos, and often ended up in the no man’s land between the two ends of the spectrum, dragged down by a never-ending list of feature requests while trying to build for the future of microfinance. In the end, we didn’t do either one terribly well and that hurt our market traction.

The right fundamental principle is to find user pain and solve it, whether the user knows that pain exists or not. This assumes that pain is indeed pain… if solving the pain doesn’t get noticed by users (whether measured by clicks on ads or by hardcore business process improvements in a microfinance institution), you probably were wrong about the pain point. This is where metrics and data come in, and picking the right metrics is critical. Collecting data that you can sift, mine, and find interesting correlations in helps a ton – you can test multiple hypotheses quickly – but it’s not always easy to collect user data. This, too, was a real struggle with Mifos and it’s something that Google very clearly both a) understands well and b) is really well positioned to act on.

For budding software entrepreneurs like the guy I talked to at Ashesi, the right approach will evolve as his business evolves. By starting with a few core principles (find the data that matters and understand it, ruthlessly make users happy) he’s likely to succeed. If he instead goes down the path of “I built something cool, now I have to convince people to use it” he’s likely to find it much harder to get real traction.

There’s an explosion of mobile application companies (mostly startups) in East Africa, and especially in Kenya, and from what I’ve been able to gather most of them are very focused on the customer experience and the front-end technology. This is not unreasonable, as it’s the customer experience as provided by the front-end (on the phone) that is likely to make or break adoption of the app, especially in the early stages of a company.

However, a big part of the value that I see in mobile apps – both in general and specifically here in Kenya – lies in the ability to aggregate apps into “meta-apps” and in the potential value of the data that is flowing through the apps. Any app developer who moves data from the phone to somewhere else will have to do something on the back end to store and process that data, and structuring the data from the beginning with analytics in mind will prove beneficial in the long run.

Consider a health application that delivers pre-natal tips to pregnant women (such as Grameen Foundation’s MoTeCH initiative). The primary purpose of an application like this would be to provide information to women that helps them to ensure the best possible health outcomes for themselves and their children. Beyond that, though, the application could answer questions that the mothers ask via an SMS or USSD interface. There’s some complexity in building the parsing engine needed to interpret the questions and find the right answers to send back, certainly, but it would also be super valuable to build the back-end in a way that the organization could analyze the questions being asked, cross-reference that against the information being sent out, and make better decisions about how to further improve the outcomes of the app.

Apps that involve mobile commerce, or politics, or just about any other domain are likely to have very interesting analytics implications. Further, many apps may have interesting cross-referencing possibilities. For example, with a common back-end that serves both health and financial purposes (and gathers health and financial data), the aggregators of that data will have the ability to mine the data to find correlations (maybe between savings and health?) that can be used to improve the apps and to identify new potential apps for specific target markets.

The key thing in getting interesting use from the data – including usage patterns, data collected, and the like – is getting enough scale to make the analytics possible. Building for the back-end from the beginning rarely makes sense, and instead scale will come from killer apps that get hundreds of thousands or millions of users over time. A couple of apps at scale, integrated on the back-end, would provide an incredible dataset for the application developers and other stakeholders.

For my current work looking at Mifos possibilities in Ghana and Kenya, this becomes very interesting. Mifos could become the back-end platform for a wide variety of microfinance-oriented apps (and eventually for other poor-focused apps). These might include access to account information for microfinance clients, loan officer apps to improve productivity and security, and management tools that tell MFI executives what’s happening in their organization and where their attention is needed. Mifos could be the back-end for those apps even if the MFI wasn’t using Mifos as its core technology platform.

The business model, like most technology ventures, may be the hardest part. If we were to pursue this idea, getting the apps and other services to scale is the necessary pre-requisite to building a business on the back-end data aggregation and analysis for both individual MFIs and (with the right privacy protections) for meso- and macro-level stakeholders. A methodology like the Customer Development Process that starts with a strong product vision but then uses a rigorous approach to testing hypotheses and building a viable business model before trying to get to scale would be key to making this work.

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m building out two different business plans for organizations that would work on Mifos in Africa. I originally built out five conceptually scenarios* based on what I learned and heard on my first trip to Accra and Nairobi in June, and am now focusing in on building actual plans for two of those scenarios. This second scenario would build a new organization in Kenya, blending (and hopefully simplifying) two of the five original scenarios to create an investment organization and R&D lab (loosely modeled on MPOWER Labs) with an initial focus on building a Mifos company that delivers a mobile-centric experience.

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As part of my current exploration of opportunities for Mifos in Africa, I’m building out two different business plans. The first, detailed here, would create an Institute for Open Source and Software Entrepreneurship (IOSSE – just a working name) based in Accra, Ghana. The second, which I’ll outline in a future post, would create an investment organization and R&D lab (loosely modeled on MPOWER Labs) based in Nairobi, with an initial focus on building a Mifos company that delivers a mobile-centric experience.

For the IOSSE in Accra, the primary goals will be:

  • Work as part of the global Mifos community to foster further software development and innovation in Mifos and to work closely with Mifos specialists and MFIs in sub-Saharan Africa to maximize the positive impact of Mifos for the poor
  • Work as part of the local software community to develop and nurture software entrepreneurs in Africa
  • Support the development and impact of open source software in Africa

The core idea is to build a small organization that is actively working with real customers, initially focused on Mifos but later expanding to other open source projects, and that partners with local organizations (such as Ashesi University and MEST) to provide opportunities for local software entrepreneurs to gain real-world experience, learn from more experienced software developers and entrepreneurs, and contribute to open source projects that have an impact in Africa.

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