Reinventing my personal blog

02 Feb 2017

The Last Mile

How to create products for emerging markets

Nearly everyone wants to cash in on emerging markets. Facebook wants to fly drones to deliver internet connectivity over rural areas. They may or may not collide, in scale, ambition and delivery, with Google’s balloons (link). Whoever you are, emerging markets are hard.

Every time you see a Singaporean or Malaysian startup raising a fund, you see them want to expand to Indonesia, like it was a mere thought_._ How do you make apps, websites or any kind of media for a market so different from anywhere else in the world?

In our case, coming to Indonesia to create a product aimed at the last mile in a country of 17, 508 islands has been some of the most challenging work we have ever done.

As a cofounder and first product owner, here is what we did.

  1. Listen. It is not possible to parachute into a place so fundamentally different, so unique, with a suitcase full of tips and tricks that have worked elsewhere. We listened extensively. Who you listen to can be just as important as how you listen. We went right to the source: we literally had listening parties where our target customers, who are Indonesian housewives and students, had fried food and sweetened tea with us as we studiously thought about how our product could work for them. Before writing a single line of code.
  2. Iterate. Anyone who has put an app or a website together knows that constant iteration, improvement, is key. From our paper prototypes to our app version 3.7.5, our iterations have come a long way. There comes a point where iteration has to be backed up by metrics, though when you are just starting out, flexibility and rapid adaptability is more important.
  3. Speak their language. Literally and figuratively. We found, for example, that in some locations it is not wise to send out young men into conservative neighbourhoods. From the early days of visiting homes and communities as a merry band of random people with clip boards (and fried bananas), we now have community leaders who are respected and respectful. It is sometimes still funny to trot out my Singaporeanized Indonesian as a joke, but when work has to be done we always get so much more accomplished by reducing cultural, linguistic and other kinds of friction.
  4. Consider all assumptions. Thinking on the intersection of product and business is hard enough. Thinking about it without assumptions can be very difficult. Somehow, it seems even harder for some to do this without being condescending. If your starting point in building a product is, “Indonesians like X”, you are on the wrong track.
  5. Conduct ethnographic research. This may be extreme, but I consider it very important to live in the same environment as the people who are likely to use Wobe. Paying for my (prepaid) electricity just like everyone else in my kos-kosan, standing in line to pay for my online purchases including air tickets with cash, all of those things were essential for our product. Very soon we will be able to pay for all that with Wobe. Extreme ethnographic research helped us begin our journey from idea to product, from the same starting point as our customers: in cash, in line, in wait.
  6. Consider your stack and architecture. Where we are it is still PHP-land. Services are massive, not micro. Hosting is local, rarely in the cloud. Bandwidth can be narrow and coverage can be spotty. We knew we had to avoid building a traditionally synchronous app to have any chance of Wobe working well outside of the cities. More than ideology, our micro-services architecture is supplemented by the concurrency of Go, the ease of native mobile development with React Native, and a team-wide obsession with improving performance and cost savings for our customers (every byte counts..).

There was scarce literature for us when we started out on this journey, so we hope in the months to come we can share what worked for us. If you’ve built something for an emerging market, what worked for you!