How Entrepreneurs From Developing Countries Can Succeed in Tech
I have created a thriving tech business in my homeland of Azerbaijan, and you can, too.
If you live in a small or developing country, it is easy to think that you will never be able to start a successful tech company.
Two insurmountable barriers, you will convince yourself, are that these countries lack the skilled researchers to develop breakthrough tech products and the capital to get the products from concept to market.
But I have created a thriving tech business in my homeland of Azerbaijan -- population 10 million -- and you can, too.
I have come up with a simple three-step blueprint for tech success not just in your homeland, but globally:
- Start a tech business exactly like one you have seen in the developed world.
- Grow the business by adapting it to local needs.
- Take your tech business from local to international by figuring out a global problem you can solve.
I had always wanted to start a tech business, but while fascinated with tech, I was no engineering or electronics whiz. I got my start by bringing the online payments system I had seen in the United States and other developed countries to Azerbaijan in 2006.
At the time, people scoffed at me. Azerbaijan was a cash country. Creating an electronic payments system would be throwing my money away, they said. But when my fellow citizens saw the convenience and speed of the service that I named GoldenPay, they embraced it -- slowly at first, then rapidly. Today 70 percent of Azerbaijan's online-payments transactions are done on GoldenPay, and we continue growing.
I succeeded with GoldenPay without new technology. I simply used technology that I had seen elsewhere.
Other companies in small or developing countries have succeeded by taking the next step — growing their business by adapting it to local needs.
An example of creative tweaking that has paid off is the Chinese washing machine maker Haier. When its employees visited rural areas, they were surprised to see customers using the company's washing machines to clean vegetables as well as wash clothes. The company modified its machines to wash both clothes and veggies, and Haier quickly became the biggest-selling washer brand in rural China.
Uganda-based solar provider Fenix noticed that a lot of rural Africans were unable to charge their mobile phones because they lived far from electricity or other power sources. Sensing an opportunity, Fenix created a small solar-powered mobile charger whose sales immediately soared. The company made the charger even more popular by letting customers pay only when they used it rather than having to make a sizable up-front payment.
By knowing their local markets intimately, and by tweaking their tech to meet unmet needs, Haier and Fenix grew their businesses without having to develop costly technology from scratch.
OK, let's say you have taken the first two steps I outlined: you have started a successful tech business by bringing existing technology to your small or developing country, and you have grown your business by tweaking the technology to meet local needs.
What's next? Can a tech entrepreneur in a small or developing country ever get their business from the $50-million-a-year stage to the billion-dollar stage?
The answer is yes, by meeting a global rather than local need.
My attempt to take a tech product global, with my partner, is a posture-correcting wearable called Lia that consists of lightweight straps across a person's chest and upper back. Two sensors on the shoulder portion of the device remind the wearer to correct their posture to prevent back strain.
Why does Lia have the potential to become a global tech product? Because back pain is a worldwide problem.
Look at the statistics. Eight out of 10 people develop back pain in their life. Americans are spending $50 billion a year treating it. And its indirect costs -- such as time lost from work -- are estimated at $150 billion a year.
The technology that we are developing with Lia is not rocket science. But it could meet a huge global need.
That would be particularly gratifying for a guy from a country that many people have not heard of -- and who was told he would never be able to become a tech success at home, let alone globally.