What it takes to be Successful in a Frontier Market? A sense of Humor at the very least.

Wikipedia tells us that “A frontier market is a type of developed country which is more developed than the least developed countries, but too small to be generally considered an emerging market. The term is an economic term which was coined by International Finance Corporation’s Farida Khambata in 1992.” Pakistan is on the S&P, MSCI, Dow Jones and Russell Investments list of Frontier Markets.

By the above measure most Executives, westerners or otherwise, have very limited exposure to a frontier market until they are relatively senior and set in their ways. (Let me also point out that going to China/Hong Kong etc does not remotely constitute any viable frontier market exposure or experience). Late in the careers of western executives, their view of the world is largely formed and they are typically winging it in the end. They typically misjudge or simply pretend to draw parallels to their own experience, which are vastly different from any authentic experience on the ground. Not to say their own experiences aren’t valuable but clearly not in this context.

Spending time early in your career in a frontier market has a lasting impact on all your subsequent management decisions and it typically avoids you eating humble pie in the end. Not only do you get a birds eye view into the markets, but it also sets you apart when thinking about markets at home. I strongly believe, now having lived and built a relatively small operating frontier market company that the flow of human capital should not happen from the Frontier Market to the West, but more importantly the other way around at least in the beginning.

In Pakistan, consider the exposure to corner stores and small kiosks selling air time for mobile phones, or the small vendors who make up the agent network for branchless banking at the heart of Pakistans most visible money transfer service. They reflect a decentralized, de-institutionalized commercial structure that’s now clearly part of the US/Western economy (think Air B&B , Uber, Square etc).

Unfortunately those who research frontier markets on Google and seek tips online have a huge void of experiential learning; if they haven’t spent time in those markets, falsely believing they are rooted in an era gone by. I believe that young executives, entrepreneurs and generally any one who wants to be successful in the future should spend time in a frontier market even if it’s for a short duration. The life lessons, challenge and ingenuity of how markets evolve when resources are scarce are equally valuable if not more when I look back and compare it to economics courses I was fortunate enough to take at LSE.

So what does it really take to be successful in a frontier market? At the very least a great sense of humor, because there is no Walmart to run to or a Home Depot, alas neither is there an Ikea typically, nor is there a Better Business Bureau to redress any complaints you may have. All you have is your sense of humor and hopefully the perseverance to manage through any and all challenges. Challenges in the frontier market space aren’t like your utility company over charging you or you loosing your credit card, the challenges are real and typically “left field” that any where else you’d almost think you were in bizzaro world. It not all bad. Its just different.

So for comparisons sake on an average day in Karachi I would be dealing with a limited strike, logistics and transport issues and trying to figure out how to get teams into work safely. Nothing less than a master class for urban warfare planning. Whilst my larger challenge was never bringing in people safely or on time, it was to bridge the gap a few thousand miles away where a strike is some thing unions do, or you see at a Yankees game. Dealing with that, is a master class that doesn’t exist any where. Perhaps time to start one no less.

Entrepreneurs who are starting off in a frontier market will have an edge over the rest, they are forced to innovate due to lack of resources typically, in trying to solve the same problems as the rest of the world but their solutions need to go further and deliver longer. The moral of the story being, no time better than the present and no place better than Pakistan to exploit the bounties of what a frontier market has to offer, just make sure you bring your sense of humor to work every day.

Q: So How is Pakistan treating you?

A: Where there is chaos there is opportunity, can you handle the chaos? If not then read on.

That is what we call a loaded question with a more loaded answer. Pakistan for business is like going out on the street and finding them lined with gold bullion. If you know which streets to walk on. If you don’t, then you have an other thing coming.

Like most markets which are under developed or developing, the balance of power lies in the imbalance of information.

But chaos is not for every one, we have simple reasons in front of us which make it ever so hard to want to stick around and see if the balance of power turns out in our favor. The environment around us in general is negative and stifling, entrepreneurship, innovation, outside the box thinking or even dreaming big are crimes punishable by the sentiments from friends and family that question your mental state of mind.

When there is a general sense of hopelessness every where, not just in government or political circles but in and around our every day lives, from employment opportunities, law and order to the “in-bred, closed mindset” of every one around us, its almost impossible to break free of that thinking.

But you must do your self a favor, you must leave, you must give your self the opportunity to experience normalcy, apathy, moral courage, humility, civility and being human. All the things that seem to be drawn out from within us the day we enter the adulthood fold in Pakistan.

It wont be easy, you must therefore be prepared to “leave”. One has to open their eyes, see new things, learn new things, garner new experiences, understand how people co exist and how people debate ideas and build consensus. All it takes is the act of going away and experiencing it, without that, you will never figure it out, even though its not astro-physics, you will only see it if you remove your self from the daily rut of where you are today.

Once you have given your self the runway to see what else is on offer in the rest of the world, you then bring those learning’s and try to disseminate them, by coming back. Don’t try to solve big problems that ail the country, try to di-sect and solve problems that will bring meaningful change. Start small, from you neighborhood, to your self , then perhaps national and then potentially regional and from there on global. You cant solve things that have an internal inertial longer than your years you have to break them down first.

The worst kind of Pakistani, is the remote analyst, when you learn what you think is enough, don’t become a TV Preacher equivalent and talk about change and revolutions on FB and Twitter. No one likes or wants any one who doesn’t have skin in the game. Decide, if you want to have skin in the game and if you are committed to change, then by all means be a commentator, but with out being a competitor ever, those commentators generally don’t have a following of any kind and yield no influence.

We have the NY Times the WSJ and CNN who do a decent job at taking a stab at Pakistan every day, we don’t want to see more of our own doing it without offering solutions.

Remember the time when you left and dreamt of coming back and to inculcate change?

Never think, that one person cant change a system. The very crux of local, social, societal, corporate change is typically driven by one person. We need more people to leave and then come back to drive that change. One step and one person at a time.

 

Pakistan awaits your return.

The Old Guard of Industry | Sahab, Sir, Boss, CEO, Chairman, Head, Member…..

After being away for a host of years from Pakistan and then returning back about Three years ago(full time). The biggest most positive change I saw was 20-30 some thing years olds at Multi-nationals and other large corporations were finally referring to their bosses on a first name basis. Thankfully no more Sir, Sahab, Boss etc at least that’s what it seemed like.

Far from the truth no less, across the industry as a whole. We some how misconstrued respect with ones title, designation and link it to their intellectual status in society. How badly are we mistaken and who is to blame for the ruin of the working class where professionalism has gone down the drain due to the Saith Culture on one hand and the false title inflation culture of corporations on the other hand.

This problem actually has to do with the old guard. Let me explain; I recently met an old friend a good 10 years after high school. She is very well settled but doing some thing professionally I’d never expect some one of her intellect or background to be pursuing. No less she said some thing to me that fit in so well that opened my eyes to why people make the choices they make. Its all about circumstances.

She was introducing me to her family and her husband and I was a little taken aback when I found out her husband had barely even completed high school and then had some vocational qualification, but the cover story was that he ran a textile export group(by virtue of inheritance) that was valued over 300m$. No doubt the gentleman in question was a businessman par excellence and a phenomenal person in his own right.

Knowing my friend to not being the type to marry for money, I asked how this relationship had come about. The answer I got was a the best I’d heard in a while , she said, whilst most of the people who were likely candidates for marriage(from an intellect/education/background /affinity for the same things perspective) had gone abroad for either education or work, her choices were limited to those who either didn’t need to go, or couldn’t. So she picked the one that didn’t need to, as opposed to the ones that couldn’t.

That to me is the old guard, people who have hung around for no special purpose or have continued to outlive the system(s) in place and just happened to either be in industry or got lucky by virtue of timing, presence and happenstance. Their current success or excellence has nothing to do with their skills, neither does their dominance in the sectors where they are considered vanguards or pioneers. What I Value about them is their perseverance.

They were basically hanging around, not knowing any better and filling a vacuum, when most of the real talent got sucked out of the country or didn’t have the ability to compete with respect to un-even allocation of resources, timing, access, family status , social status or business status, these old guard are the ones that made out. Essentially they were well placed societally to take advantage of a system, their fore fathers left them (in the case of the saiths) or in the case of the corporations and their local chiefs (70/80/90s) their principals didn’t know any better, the principals cared only about the bottom line. Minus a few rare instances and people most of these executives who rose from the cadres of these domestic corporate programs essentially stuck around for 2 to 3 decades, in some instance long after the companies had packed up and left. What they were successful in doing, was to get legitimacy from the brands/companies they had represented.

They are still floating around, patting each other on the back, showing up and doing industry events where they give out shields and mementos to each other. For gods, sake we have to put a stop to this. If they really want to contribute, they must retire from the social circus and elevate them selves to genuinely giving back to society. Id love to take names, there are dozens who are doing this, but a greater majority who are not and continue to be involved in the circus, misguiding the youth and rising stars of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Crushing dreams, one day at a time, with their cynicism and know it all attitude and without the background and wherewithal of what it takes to build and scale enterprises in the year 2015. In a country where 21% if not more of the population is between 15-25 years of age, they need role models from at least within the same decade. Just like packaged consumer goods, CEOs and Saiths from the Old Guard have outlived their shelf life.

They continue to cash in on that association and we continue to hero worship them. We must put an end to this Sahab/Hero worship culture. Whilst we must celebrate true success from every decade gone by, we have to engage and educate our masses to tell the difference between real success and engineered success. We must break the fold of the lingering Mafia of Saiths/CEOs, self appointed vanguards of industry and trade, the know it all’s.

We must start by making sure in our own individual capacity we help guide the rising talent of the industry and level set the playing field. The first thing that can help with that, if you really mean business, drop the Saith or Sahaab in your organizational culture, be a mentor to the ones that need you to mentor them and lead from the front as opposed to hearing from behind. Our people are smarter than this and we OWE our kids a better shot at the future.

The Digital Expert : Phenomenon

Not a day goes by that I don’t come across a Sr. Manager – Digital, Director of UI/UX & Digital, Lead Digital Strategist or some form of Digital Marketing Guru in Pakistan. Not a day goes by that I am surprised by the caliber of people who hire these self-professed gurus.

An industry as nascent as Digital Marketing globally, let alone Pakistan I am more confused than amused on a daily basis. The motivation for this blog post came from a posting I saw via Twitter: (Pasted verbatim, I cant make up this stuff even if I tried )

Required: Digital Marketing Wizard Guru & Expert

 Leading local group needs to hire an expert at making

  • Viral Videos
  • Increasing SEO/SEM
  • Reducing marketing fees paid to agencies on “google buying, facebook buying” other skype and local sites also good.
  • Experience from Agency is good
  • Max 3-5 Yrs experience

 Note: Initially you will be given a short term contract that can be extended into permanent position subject to your performance.

 

Where do I start. You want to hire a Guru and Expert but you want to do a short term contract:).  I mean do you go to any other expert in any other field and say hey I want an expert anesthesiologist but I want to incrementally build up the relationship by trying out the services. I want to faint , but just a little bit at a time, not all the way. Clearly you are hallucinating if you expect that.

What needs to happen is following the same instinct we follow for selecting a medical professional i.e references, the hospital of affiliation, where the person graduated from, what their track record is, do they pass an interview/screening process. So to all the hiring managers, please do our nation a service and stop screwing up on your hiring strategies, we know you don’t have an ounce of tactical and subject matter expertise in the pure play recruitment space. Just because you suck at recruitment and copy JDs from all over the internet and compress them, doesn’t mean that the potential candidates should suffer because of your compressed world view.

Now to the meatier parts of this JD, I want to hand a Darwin award to the genius who came up with wanting to hire an Expert but wants them to have no more than 3-5 yrs of proficiency at the task. This is so bad that I don’t even have an analogy to equate this to. It’s a crisis of intelligence both for companies who recruit like this and the hallucinating candidates who think that a 3-5 yr stint qualifies them for being an expert.

Who am I to judge? Ive only built one of the the largest Pay for Performance, Digital Media and Customer Acquisition teams in this part of the world. This piece is not about justifying my rant or my professional lineage, but I had to give some perspective, on why; I can qualify these JDs as a Joke at best and why every morning I scour the web for these nuggets.

My favorite piece is still to come, “Googe/Facebook Buying” wow, I said, it. Its like a crack addict admitting to the world they need some more of the good stuff. The reason why we are stuck in the “Mad Men” era of media and haven graduated to the digital school of thought in Pakistan is due to the fact that most of us don’t know any better. A 90 second synopsis is as follows, most of the traditional advertising agencies, came of age and decided, hey we need to do digital, they added some nice .Coms and .Nets and did some Facebook campaigns bought a few LinkedIn spots and placed an Ad or two via a banner exchange. Also had a cousin who had a friend who had a credit card and they bought a few Google Adwords, Wow just like that they become (pick one or many) “largest, biggest, media house, company, digital buying house “ in Pakistan. By their own admission, they probably are. They are the “biggest”, I just don’t know what yet. This led them to having their clients believe that they have some special “arrangement” with Facebook or Google to procure cheaper inventory of ads. Just like they did in traditional media, where bulk discounts were more applicable. Poor clients, fall for this every day of the week. I really do mean poor as no amount of money spent here has the ability to drive meaningful returns ever, so the client will be all the poorer for it in the vast majority of instances.

Not a day goes by that I have to resist the temptation in correcting either the candidates I happen to interview or otherwise prominent CEOs of local companies who cant stop talking about how they know how to get a deal on FB/Google Buying.

Next we come to viral videos, I literally have nothing to say there. People who either think they are viral video producers or experts in that space are most certainly not looking for placement ads online. Neither are they reading this blog, they are gifted and a rare breed who do not need to be applying for jobs or have the time to read opinion pieces. They drive those opinions by the work they do.

A quick look at the clients or agencies hiring these digital experts or one/2 person agencies, they only know Facebook, they only know likes. But they haven’t a clue on ROI , Consumer Engagement or Brand building. A cursory analysis tells me that of the vast majority of FB likes driven by such outfits & individuals in PK are store bought, meaning charging’s ones credit card online and buying likes for between 15-1500$ depending on the size, geography and type of fake likes you want to buy.

Its no surprise that the vast majority of enterprising folks I meet these days are in the category of self professed digital gurus, because the market is ripe for the taking. The end customer has no to little idea on what to expect and they are being swindled for the most part. Money spent with these agencies or with such freelancers or others is better burnt, because the ashes have a larger likelihood of being able to turn to compost and nurturing the growth of some thing from the ground. Sadly the same cant be said about their strategies.

The question to ask your self is, when you go to NYC, what does the T-Shirt say? The T-shit that every one ends up buying. Let me refresh your memory, It says “I ♥ NYC” it doesn’t Say “I Like NYC” so don’t go with the guy who guarantees you the likes on Facebook, because there is a huge difference between people Loving a brand and Liking it.

The customer service society, we are not.

The art of customer Service is an art that we need to look at very carefully. Just look around, from banks to telcos, from restaurants to every thing else in between. The common thread is the apathy in how we get treated. It seems that we don’t value the basic tenent of what makes a good customer experience, let alone a great one.

Lets examine the basic act of going to a restaurant. The experience starts from being greeted at the door, being seated followed by a server promptly taking your order. The orders are then written down(one would expect), so far so good.

Without fail, when multiple people are seated together and the server returns with the food, chaos ensues. Typically finger pointing starts as to where each order needs to go, a simple problem that perhaps is not a problem for many, but examine this critically as it sheds light into our customer service makeup.

All it takes to solve this problem is a simple note pad and a pencil and the act of noting who ordered what, so when the order comes through just placing the food corresponding to the person who ordered it. Without fail, every time I go to a restaurant in Pakistan , this is the rule and not the exception it seems. The servers are always scrambling to figure out, what goes where. Else where in the civilized world this is a common practice yet we some how fail to adopt it, frankly most of us don’t even care.

An other aspect of lack of customer service at any bank, utility payment outlet or other service oriented entity where people have to line up to interact and take turns to get their issues resolved, is the fact that we cant get into a line(just like we cant show up on time, or leave early as opposed to speeding and driving on the wrong side of the road to get some where faster). It is further complicated by the lack of training, as the staff that continue to ignore the first in first out model.

Without fail, it leads to inefficiency and more time than it would take to deal with each customer, should a first in first out model be followed. Customer service doesn’t happen by creating “gold” service lines or clubs; it starts by valuing the time of the individual being served. Irrespective of the service tier, basic service is the right of every consumer, but we fail to honor that commitment, sadly we are party to the crime.

We some how believe that technology will solve our customer service problems. Far from it, lets take the Call Center customer service phenomenon in Pakistan. If you have placed an order with Broadway or Dominos Pizza or you have had the misfortune of making a complaint via the PTCL Contact Centre, you are in for a rare treat.

Post the completion of an order, based on some random act of call back the Pizza companies call you back to check in how your service experience was. By calling a customer who didn’t “OPT IN” to be called the service provider has breached the first tenent of customer service “Privacy”.

Secondly the badly scripted or in the case of PTCL spammy or automated dial backs are a distraction with impeccably bad timing. For example on a Sunday morning at 7:30 . God forbid any one wants to sleep whilst they made a complaint to PTCL, till you press 1 on your key pad, that call back is not going away whilst your sleep may already have.

Forced rankings of customer resolution systems are to blame here. The people making the decisions to use these technologies do not or rather misinterpret the need and the deployment mechanisms.

An other big offender in this space are the mass SMS campaigns from otherwise noteworthy retail or service providers who feel that the act of buying mass SMS lists is an “OK” form of telling customers of an upcoming sale or thinking they may need roof insulation, or may have plumbing needs. In their mind, the customer was waiting for a godsend in the form a message with a Call back number.

We have to get our customer touch point data collection right, as opposed to buying carrier phone numbers and spamming them. There should be rules around the privacy of the consumers and strict regulation to manage the providers who engage in these services. The bigger offender are the telcos who now “allow us” to block offending messages by charging us a small fee. Wow, shouldn’t we sue the carriers and ask how the spammers got our numbers in the first place?

All this has to do with the mind set of the business. In an effort to follow the herd mentality of the latest and greatest technical solution, companies bypass common sense. This doesn’t draw engagement rather hampers long term brand value and growth.

True customer service for a brand would be the ability to walk into a store with previously bought unused merchandise and have the ability to return it for a full cash refund or do an exchange.

Typically businesses look the other way post the point of sale and once sold nothing is exchangeable without having a personal relationship with the staff of the outfit in question. From leading mall based retail to other more mom and pop shops the long term value of a customer is some thing we don’t think much about. Without fail people would return back to a brand if they have a unified respectful customer experience that does not involve a shouting match post sale or at the time of a service call or return.

One amazing example of such customer experience (local) is Brands Just Pret and their retail location. It has every thing to do with the mindset of the person running the show. Clearly in this case the founders intent is evident in the customer service that follows. Some others that come to mind who are very much local and getting it right are The East end and Kolachi. I am sure there are a host of others but these certainly come to mind.

We can draw inspiration for great customer service from global organizations like Costco stores, Zappos and Apple to name a few. There is always a starting point for these things and it must start from organizations reviewing who runs their customer service function and if they have real world experience in providing world class service. It’s a mind set thing, any body can get customer service right when you are dealing with higher end products, the real difference comes when mass market product and service companies get it right.

Here is a simple but powerful rule: always give people more than what they expect to get.Nelson Boswell