We did an exploration project where we proved that 500 km of river previously considered unnavigable were traversable. But when we went to the commercial company phase, we failed. We learned that creating a high-tech transport business in a remote area was much more daunting than we expected: Water levels in the river would rise and fall by as much as 8 feet in a couple of hours because there were no dams on the rivers. We were able to navigate the rivers with world class boat operators, but to train the local people at that level of proficiency was difficult. We couldn’t modify the rivers when rocks blocked navigation in the dry season.
I felt very badly about that. But the people in Nepal I respected the most didn’t scorn me for failing; the head of the Agriculture Development Bank even thanked me for being willing to take such a risk for his country. I learned that if you’re in a remote area, unless you’re prepared to set up an infrastructure as complex as an international airport, you had better stick to simple, easily repairable and affordable products and services, so that’s what I’ve done. The whole process of talking to customers is a way of learning from mistakes, and mistakes are part of doing any business. If you don’t have a continuous process of learning from customers and correcting mistakes, you’re not going to be successful.
What personal characteristics does it take to be successful in developing products for the 3 billion customers at the bottom of the pyramid?
That person has got to be a real risk taker. Any entrepreneur is a risk taker, so multiply that by 10 if you’re trying to create a new market. You’ve got to be willing to chew through cement to get it done. It’s particularly attractive for young people interested in hands-on experience to make a difference. I’ve talked to a lot of students in business school who take a shot at something like this. Even if they fail at a social enterprise in a village, they come back after a couple years with such a depth of experience that it helps them get a job in a typical corporate environment.