Archive for the 'teams' Category

Essmart: Building a channel through which products can sell

It has been a busy few months for the Essmart team. After the encouraging results of our pilot in January 2012 and the support of organizations like the IDEAS Global Challenge, we returned to India to launch our enterprise in August.

For the past two months, we have been focused on doing – on building our distribution network and getting essential technologies into local shops. We found office and warehouse space in Pollachi, Tamil Nadu, India. We brought on board our Director of Field Operations and a sales agent. We built relationships with 20 retail shops, and then cut this down to the 12 most promising shops. We started marketing our catalogue of essential technologies to shop owners and rural households. We tested and added a few new products to our catalogue. We have sold over 50 units through our retail shop network, and we are bringing on two new sales agents in the coming week to start expanding our reach.

It has all been very exciting, but in the midst of all this doing there has been little time for thinking. We have been focused on building relationships with shop owners so that we can sell products and get our business off the ground. But it is important for us to remember that our mission is not, in fact, to sell products. That is the task of our partner retail shops. Our mission is to build a channel through which products can sell.

To this end, we would like to forget all of the numbers for a minute and focus on our process. At the heart of our channel are retail shop owners, and we have been learning a lot by watching them over the past few months. First, we are learning about how crucial it is for shop owners to understand our product catalogue. It is not enough for shop owners to want to sell the products for profit; they must understand and believe in each product before they feel comfortable marketing it to their customers. Our demonstrations in shops have been critical in building understanding and confidence in our products. We’ve watched the comfort levels of our shop owners increase over time, to the point where they’re ready to take over the marketing.

Second, we are learning how important it is for shop owners to trust and believe in Essmart. The effort that we put into our relationships with shop owners far exceeds other distributors’. In rural India, companies come and go, taking advantage of the locals. As an enterprise based on a social mission, we take a different approach. We’re in this business for the long haul, and we need to build up our presence and brand. This begins with gaining the trust of the shop owners, who are more willing to sell our products when they know that we’ll be around to service them.

Each shop owner is different, which brings us to our third lesson learned: How much structure is needed to help our enterprise scale while also giving us the flexibility to cater to each shop? This is more of a question than a lesson learned, as we’re still trying to figure out the answer ourselves. We’re aiming to strike a balance between flexibility and structure as we’re creating this channel that facilitates and supports the flow of information and goods.

Despite lots of doing in the past few months, we still have a long way to go in building a sustainable, scalable channel for technologies that will change the lives of people in rural India. Some of this will be accomplished by doing – by repeatedly testing new ideas, increasing product sales, and marketing and servicing the products that are sold. But a good chunk will come from focusing on relationships with shop owners and end users, information exchange, and customer feedback. In a sense, these are non-tangible items that are not reflected in the numbers that we post. Yet although they don’t contribute to the nitty-gritty building of Essmart’s channel, they ultimately inform the shape of it.

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Written by Diana Jue and Jackie Stenson with Essmart Global, a 2012 IDEAS Global Challenge award recipient.

Essmart creates a marketplace for life-improving, essential technologies in places where people already shop. www.essmart-global.com

Hitting Backspace – Recovers.org Focus on Preparedness

After winning the IDEAS Global Challenge, our team took a hard look at our project’s mission and vision. One of our greatest strengths as first a student group and then a company has been that we never assume we are doing the right thing. I can imagine nothing less helpful to disaster recovery than to build a complicated pack of tools and try to force people on the ground to use them. For this reason, we develop by constantly flying into disaster areas and checking our development against needs on the ground.

It was during this same process of boot-on-the-ground testing, we realized that our favored method of dropping out of the sky to deploy software was not best way to help communities recover. In fact, we realized that much of the work needed to increase community resilience must be done before the storm.

Morgan and Dave flew to Florida in the wake of Tropical Storm Debby, only to find that no one they spoke to in the communities they visited seemed to realize how important it was that they begin taking in some of the aid being offered. After a frustrating week, they left (read more about the trip and our lessons here: http://recovers.wordpress.com/2012/08/18/slow-burn/). Eventually, a local organizer using Facebook to scrape together volunteers would take over use of the platform. Under her watch, the software has helped build a community of volunteers that not only responded to Debby’s damage, but also sandbagged homes to prepare for Hurricane Isaac.

Preparedness: the missing ingredient

Whoa, hit the backspace key. We’re talking about two very similar disasters in two very similar communities. What made New Port Richey, FL after TS Debby different than Northfield, VT after TS Irene? It wasn’t our ability to reach the community. We arrived at roughly the same time post-storm. It wasn’t the resources available on the ground – both areas were being served by a multitude of national and regional aid organizations.

It was preparedness.

Suddenly a lot of pieces fell into place. A group of four flying into disaster areas to save the day, while a cool plot for an action flick, is not practical or what is needed. A team of four focused on building tools that will prepare a community to recover, and distributing them before  a disaster is infinitely more useful. We’ve pivoted accordingly, licensing the software as a preparedness tool to interested communities.

Tools:
Back at the drawing board, we took a more critical look at the “community facing” side of our software. Small things, like an easy sign up process, a way to keep involved after signing up, preparedness tips and integration with existing social media chatter, are just as important as volunteer tracking features. It doesn’t matter if we have the best hours logging program in the world if the community isn’t aware they can volunteer.

Timing:
We’ve swung our focus to getting these tools in place ahead of a storm. We can keep our team small and focused, build faster, and provide better service if we’re in place when things hit the proverbial fan. We’ve also realized that it is much more economically sustainable to charge a small fee for preparing towns than it would be to somehow find a sponsor for recovering towns.

We’re on our way – with this new list of priorities, we’re able to narrow our focus and devote more time to the features that will have the greatest impact upon recovery. We still fly into disasters to test things, but we’re building a sustainable business around being there before that.

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Written by Caitria O’Neill with Recovers.org, a 2012 IDEAS Global Challenge award recipient.

Recovers.org provides easy-to-use tools to help communities efficiently structure volunteers, donations and information. http://recovers.org.

MIT IDEAS Global Challenge now on Pinterest

All IDEAS entrants, if you have visual content you would like to display to generate publicity for your team as public voting goes on, there is now a Pinterest board dedicated to showcasing all teams in the Global Challenge, MIT IDEAS Global Challenge Teams.  E-mail yangbodu@alum.mit.edu with your Pinterest username so that you can be added to the list of collaborators who can post to the IDEAS Board.  If you are not on Pinterest yet, you may request an invite via the site itself or by e-mailing the same address listed prior.  Happy pinning!

Team Profile: Recovers.Org / Developing a New Solution for Disaster Relief

49 teams are signed up to enter this year’s IDEAS Global Challenge. Nick Holden, helping with his knack for writing and interviewing has created a series of profiles on teams.

Last week, he profiled Team Recovers.org who are working to finesse a tool to harness and deploy the power of people’s help after a disaster. I included a snippet of the profile below. You can read the entire profile through this link.

Q. What’s innovative about the solution you are proposing to make an impact on disaster recovery?

A. There’s this huge spike in interest after a disaster. Fifty percent of all web searches seeking to help occur in the first seven days after a disaster.

An affected town loses the potential resources it could get from the initial spike in interest because it doesn’t have the capacity to accept the physical or financial resources. Without the proper technology in place, towns can’t capitalize on that early interest, and they are left without a platform to build more interest and no money for recovery.

Every single community that is affected by a disaster is affected by this technological black hole. For example, FEMA makes aid distribution based upon data it receives from communities after a disaster. That data includes how many volunteers worked, where they worked, for how many hours they worked, and what heavy machinery they used. In the first two weeks after a disaster, towns don’t even know that data needs to be tracked, and they don’t have tools to track it.

We’re disaster experts now because we’ve done this before. What we can do is structure the inputs with really easy-to-use software. We can make a button that says: “Where are you sending this volunteer?” Then we give coordinators this software that allows them to track volunteers. Now, FEMA gets their data, and the town gets more money because of it.

We started going into disaster areas as part of our development. Chris [Kuryak] and I just got back from Alabama. In the course of three-and-a-half days, we were able to set up an online recovery hub for a city that was ravaged by tornadoes on Jan. 24.

Using our website, the community has already flagged tons of cases of fraud attempts — of people going to multiple distribution centers. They’ve collected a massive database of donation items, especially things that are too large for people to bring in and store, but that are going to be needed six months to five years down the road, like china cabinets for people who are rebuilding their homes. It was pretty phenomenal proof-of-concept.

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Keep reading over at the MIT News site.

(Great profile, Nick!)

From the Field / Solar-Powered Autoclave

The Solar-Powered Autoclave team is working on harnessing the sun to power autoclaves for improved sterilization of medical devices. This week they’re down in Nicaragua working with women from the solar tech start-up Solar Women of Totogalpa.

Two quick peeks into what they’re working on:

SolarAutoclave / Nica July 2011

Teammate Ted working with the women in Ocotal.

From Anna: The photos are from Ocotal, Nicaragua outside of the IIH-MEDIK lab and include Alejandra, Yelba and Maria from the Solar Women of Totogalpa and Juan Miguel a local lab technician who was part of the MEDIK class taught by IIH.