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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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