I just read this story on the BBC news magazine. click here to read it. I was so inspired that I spent some time studying the story to try and draw out some lessons.
So what can we learn from an entrepreneur whose whole business is guided by purpose and goes on to overcome huge obstacles and then succeeds despite remarkable odds being against him?
Image from BBC world service
When I read the story of Arunachalam Muruganantham, I was in awe at the 1300 microbusinesses he has helped to create and amazed to learn about the 1 million jobs he has stimulated as well as the health and hygiene benefits he has helped Indian women obtain. It is incredibly inspiring. Possibly also like me; you are slightly in awe of his determination and courage?
Read his story click here
But sometimes perhaps we fail to learn lessons when we read about experiences like this. Especially when the circumstances seem so different from our own situation. So I took a long hard look at Arunachalam’s story. Here were my five main takeouts.
Lesson one: PINPOINT the problem: Keep on researching until you have not only identified the customer problem but you really understand it.
Arunachalam’s doggedness in trying to understand the womens’ problems and the real reasons for their behaviour during menstruation (which was threatening their health, hygine and lifestyle) is remarkable. What I noticed is that he tried everything in this phase of his work. Despite the immense social and cultural stigmas he tried out prototype products, he talked to women about their worries, he observed their behaviours and finally he put himself in their shoes and experienced the issue as best he could. Funnily enough, he never showed them a concept board and said “would you buy this?”. He did much of the research himself.
He combined this exploratory work with research into the competitors and their products and sought to understand the home made alternatives that women were using.
He spent 4 years working at this question, which is extraordinary, but probably explains why he came up with something that really works.
Lesson Two: POSITION the product by explaining what it does better than the alternatives. You have to explain how your product solves the problem better than the alternatives that the customer uses.
In some cases for the customer to see your product as a better, you may have to change how the customer see’s what is important. This is very difficult. The customers existing paradigm may not allow you to sell the product without education as to how it helps them.
In Arunachalam’s case, the alternative forms of sanitary protection that were available were either too expensive, unavailable or were unhygienic and ineffective homemade solutions. Apparently, Arunachalam had solved all these problems, so it looked like it would be easy to stand out.
But there was a bigger hurdle. Being private and discreet was overwhelmingly important and seen by women as a bigger issue than staying hygenic. Homemade protection was an easy way to stay discreet. Going out to buy pads was not discreet. This is the barrier he needed to overcome. As is often the case the reasons why people buy stuff or don;t buy stuff are personal and emotional. Here was no different.
Arunachalam had to help women understand that being hygienic was more important to them so they would be willing to go and ask for a pad. His solution was to use word of mouth advocacy and testimonials by the women involved in the local microbusinesses.
Lesson Three: Keep PERFECTing your purpose and your story. As time goes by do keeep your resolve to do something that really helps customers not just makes money in the short term. It will keep you going and make your products and solutions even better.
Especially in this case where people will keep telling you “That will not work” or “You must be mad”.
Instead of being put off, Arunachalam used what he learned on his journey to take his purpose to a whole new level. He had started out by trying to make sanitary pads that Indian women could afford. He ended up realising that the best way to do this was for women to make them locally. He did not manufacture pads and maximise in a big factory for short term profit. he designed a machine that local women could use to make the pads. He helped to create 000’s of microbusinesses and millions of jobs which made the whole project even more fulfilling for him and for many small business owners and communities.
Image from BBC world service
He clearly disliked the major branded manufacturers who charged high prices for sanitary protection that women really needed and then sold it to them with dreams of an active lifestyle whilst ignoring the real issues around hygiene. Arunachalam challenged the way that big business approached sales of sanitary protection by going local. He stuck to his guns on affordability and providing a hygienic solution as a result he also created new businesses and new jobs.
The quote from BBC news sums it up for me
He was once asked whether receiving the award from the Indian president was the happiest moment of his life. He said no – his proudest moment came after he installed a machine in a remote village in Uttarakhand, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where for many generations nobody had earned enough to allow children to go to school.
A year later, he received a call from a woman in the village to say that her daughter had started school. “Where Nehru failed,” he says, “one machine succeeded.”
This whole new level of purpose must have powered him forward when he hit obstacles.
Lesson Four: PROMOTE be available and understood: The product has to be available where the customers can buy it and customers need to understand what it is, what it does and where it comes from.
In this case Arunachalam realised that localised small scale production in the hands of a local group was the way to ensure the product was available where it was needed most and that this enabled sales to happen through word of mouth. One woman could explain to another how the product worked and where it came from. This method helped with the education task to reframe the women’s view of sanitary protection and help them see being hygienic was at least as important as being discreet.
Lesson Five: PITCH your story to get help: When you have clarity about purpose and have developed a solution then it may be that there are thousands of people out there who can help you deliver it.
Having a clear PITCH and story is essential to make this happen. Arunachalam must have put an amazing amount of effort into explaining to women (pitching) why his machines to make sanitary pads would help them improve their lives. He is obviously still doing this today as he speaks with students and young entrepreneurs and shares his experience.
But then I read he is planning to go much bigger.
“My aim was to create one million jobs for poor women – but why not 10 million jobs worldwide?” he asks.
He is expanding to 106 countries across the globe, including Kenya, Nigeria, Mauritius, the Philippines and Bangladesh.
Read his story click here
There are lessons in here for both entrepreneurs and leaders in established larger businesses. There are parallels in your situation. So when you read stories about entrepreneurial success, do try and draw out the lessons for yourself.
Whilst I cannot promise that Differentiate will always help you show the dogged persistence and determination of Arunachalam, the decision points you face are the same as the ones that he describes here.
Each of the five steps in our approach to turning your purpose into products customers love to buy will force you to examine the same questions and apply them to your business.