Building relationships, communities and ecosystems

I had a conversation earlier in the evening with one of my co-founders, Jason, about how to measure community engagement – or even – how are we even defining community. We quickly breezed past this question in favour of getting to the more tactical nature of our conversation – but on my walk home, I was mulling over this concept and the different levels of community. Thought that I would share some of my favourite readings/ discoveries on community and relationship building, starting from an individual’s perspective and how this rolls up into an ecosystem.

Individuals

1) Why being the most connected is a vanity metric – Michael Simmons, Forbes.com

Simmons talks about about the science of network brokering and committing to discovering ‘new groups’ as a way of gain vantage point and provide value to your communities. I also enjoyed his more recent piece of the evolving nature of building relationships

 

Companies

2) 1,000 true fans – Kevin Kelly

A lovely way to think about the long tail, the importance of acquiring fans and how it connects up to making a living. Bonus read: Kickstarter subscribing to the 1,000 true fans philosophy 

3) Tribal Organizing – Seth Godin

If you tee up the previous article, with this one by Seth Godin – it might give you some ideas about how to separate out engagement points to gain ‘true’ fans. Seth Godin talks about effectively building tribes around: connection, commitment and conversation

4) What to learn from the man who managed  Reddit’s community of millions – First Round Capital, The review

I believe that there’s a pretty large difference in the way that you manage in-person communities vs. online communities. The rules of the game are different, and was struck in this piece, how the community manager balanced managing time and cultivating connections. Worth the long read

 

Ecosystem 

5) How did Silicon Valley become Silicon Valley? – Endeavor Global

Thoroughly enjoyed this report about the power of alumni in creating an ecosystem and how entrepreneurs can kickstart a community

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Leading Change in Emerging Health Markets

About a month and a half ago, I was in Istanbul attending a global private health conference hosted by the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and John Hopkins Medicine International. The event brought together global leaders in the private health industry to have share ideas, knowledge and lessons in the industry. Participants were mainly senior management/CEOs across the health value chain from health service providers to pharmaceutical & medical technology manufacturers to investors in emerging markets. On top of the conference, my team organized a separate panel session for health providers in sub-Saharan Africa.

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I just wanted to share some of my notes and key takeaways from the conference as I was really struck by the discussions of the world’s leading health providers and how it feeds into my work as an investor in emerging markets. Essentially, how I should be looking at the overall market and types of deals I should be focusing on. There were two presentations in particular that I would highly recommend going through, which is Credit Suisse’s Capital Markets Perspective on the healthcare services sector and IFC’s lessons from investing in hospitals.

  • Health is a major driver of GDP growth in OECD countries averaging approximately 7.3% as a percentage of total GDP.
  • There is an upward trend of life science tools and medical equipment providers in terms of performance
  • When comparing trading valuations (EV/EBITDA), EMEA and RoW companies significantly outperform American companies in terms of revenue growth, particularly in Acute Care provision
  • Banks are shrinking their lending portfolios particularly in SSA
  • M&A activity will continue to increase in a fragmented market with private equity playing an important role in sector consolidation
  • Healthcare services are trending from inpatient to outpatient, invasive to non-invasive, and from treatment to prevention
  • The global financial crisis slowed growth rates of companies in IFC’s portfolio, but none experienced a drop in sales – indicating that hospital businesses are resilient but not immune to the global financial crisis
  • IFC’s revenue projections were reasonably close to actual, on average erring 5% lower than actual (which is impressive!)
  • The health market in SSA is an SME market, hence a need for smaller deal sizes, or a consolidation of deals for increased access to financing

Overall, the conference left me feeling uplifted, but also a great sense of urgency in terms of the work that I am trying to do. The conference was IFC’s 5th annual healthcare conference and am already looking forward to the next one.

Responsibilities of an (Impact) Investor

For the past few months, I have been reflecting a lot on my role as an investor. Business plans and proposals come across my desk and as I shift through them, it really struck me on how large a responsibility investors play in accelerating trends, shaping a community or even country’s economy, but yet how little this responsibility is spoken about in the investing circles. We place so much emphasis on finding the right business, the right management team, the right social impact, that sometimes we get lost in our own capacity to recognize what really is innovative and what truly deserves to be funded. So, from my experiences, here’s what I think an investor’s responsibilities are on top of the typical investment work:

1) Investors need to live in the future. 

This is a point I feel very strongly about. If you’re an investor: VC/PE and particularly if you play in the startup and impact investing work, (as Fred Wilson pointed today in his blog post and what Paul Graham said):  you should live in the future and see what is missing. So well said. I’m currently in an environment (yes, I recognize that I am in Africa – so feel free to shower stereotypes), where I know investors who are still using yahoo mail, internet explorer and Windows 2003 (true story!). Not to say that there are anything wrong with the products, but more so – I think it’s so important to be keeping up with the trends in the world, technology being one of them. How can you expect to identify an investment that is ‘ground-breaking’ if you’re not even following the newest trends in your sector? Taking this a step further, if you are following these global trends vs. local trends, it is then our responsibility to seek out entrepreneurs who can close this gap and further elevate the developing world, or the developing world would forever be playing ‘catch up’.

2) Don’t be a sheep. 

This responsibility is particularly important in the impact investing space. Given that we’re playing in a field that is largely uncharted, risk is high and typically, most investors are unable to size up a new market and end up relying on the opinions of other investors. aka. I’ll invest if someone else will too aka. a sheep. Impact investors say that they are risk tolerant, but few translate this tolerance into signing along the dotted line. A very chicken and egg situation. Hence, I have to constantly push myself to understand what is the right balance of being a market leader but also not be a reckless investor. Balance is key.

3) The need to close and disburse faster

There are a lot of delays that occur in [impact] investing. The courting of investors and [social] entrepreneurs, the dance between finding the right termsheet, the issue of making sure that the social impact actually has an impact, and [insert your traditional delays in investing here]. This is the norm. This is my challenge to investors: recognize that the longer the delay, the bigger the strain on the business/organization. From an entrepreneur perspective, you’re constantly watching your ‘runway’ aka. how much money do I have before I run out, and a delayed closing round and disbursement is to the [social] entrepreneur’s disadvantage as well as to their customers. If we’re really standing with the poor, then deals need to close quicker with clear and simple terms, as the longer the delay, the more people are missing out on potentially experiencing the product/service.

This is by no means supposed to be an exhaustive list of responsibilities, but instead ones that I feel are most important given my experience. As investors, we are in a privileged position to start/continue or end trends. I think it’s time that we started thinking a little harder about where our responsibilities lie.

Storytelling & Four Shifting Forces

Back in New York, I attended one of the best Creative Mornings sessions, a captivating talk delivered by Jonathan Harris on the storytelling. I’ve blogged before on deconstructing the power of storytelling, and if you’re looking to understand more about this, Jonathan Harris’ projects are absolutely remarkable. They have ranged from documenting an Eskimo whale hunt to capturing human emotion on the interwebs to interviewing Tibetans on happiness. Here’s his Creative Morning talk and my visual notes from that day:


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So my notes couldn’t quite capture the tail bit of his talk (I basically ran out of space!), but essentially, he highlights key trends that he is observing in our evolving world of tech and storytelling:

1) Rise of Social Engineers: Never before has there been such a small subsection of society ( aka. software developers in tech startups who are having a big effect of millions of human through design of software.

2) Urges & Outcomes: All tech extends some preexisting urge. What is the urge within humans that needs to be enhanced?

3) The Ethics of Code: How can we regulate software? Could there be a self-directed ethnics from the creators of software? This ties in back to point 1 on the responsibilities of a social engineer, given their wide-spread influence.

4) Healers & Dealers: Startups are basically falling into two buckets: healers and dealers. Healers: marketplace companies that connect people. e.g. kickstarter. Dealers: Attention economies that take up your finite resource aka. time by convincing people to spend time on their product/sites. e.g. facebook.

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All in all, I was very struck after the end of his talk with this question(s): what kind of presence do you want to have in this world? Am I a healer or a dealer? As our world’s language continues to trend towards a technology-based one, how do we position ourselves to become creators once more, instead of just curators of information?

For now, I suppose I am satisfied with being a Healer in the investment world. The bigger picture of all of this, is wondering, as an investor, what trends in society do I want to help accelerate…

My Week’s Discoveries: Malaysia

So, I’ve been in South East Asia for the past three weeks, namely Malaysia and Singapore. The trip has been long time coming as I haven’t been back to my home country in over five years, and boy – am I ever glad I did. I have never been so inspired, humbled and proud of my fellow countrymen for the incredible work that they are doing in South East Asia. If you have the privilege to be involved with their organizations or have a coffee with these remarkable individuals, I assure you that it will be time well spent. Also, given that today is Independence day in Malaysia, thought it would be timely to share a few of my discoveries with you.

1) Malaysia Social Enterprise Alliance

This is a Malaysian organization for social enterprises and entrepreneurs with solutions to some of the most urgent social problems in Malaysia and globally. One of their more notable endeavors is ChangeWeekend, a 9-10 month program as a facilitative platform that would equip organizations with design thinking and developmental skills. Even more incredible is the driving force behind all of this is a wonderful lady, Ellynita Lamin, who has a heart of gold and is trailblazing her way in this part of the world. Don’t just take my word for it, check out what one of the local newspapers has to say about her work too!

2) Teach for Malaysia 

Teach for Malaysia (TFM) enlists Malaysia’s most promising leaders to improve education in Malaysia. It models after Teach for America, where it is a two-year, fellowship program where fellows are placed in local schools. Besides the fellowship, the team has not only enlisted an incredible amount of support from private and the Ministry of Education, but clear strategy and vision in how fellows can transform Malaysia’s education system from inside out. Change is on the horizon. This initiative is particularly close to home for me as I went through the public education system in Malaysia (yes, just like the adorable kids in the video!) and to get a glimpse of what TFM is up to, check out the video below.

3) Weekend: The Weekend Movement 

This is a community of people that is creating a weekend movement where they come together to build projects, create solutions and bring great ideas to life. So far, their weekends consist of Hack Weekend, Make Weekend and Change Weekend, and I’m sure it doesn’t stop there. The weekends are designed to kickstart innovation and new projects. If you ever are in Malaysia for a weekend that coincides with one of their workshops, definitely don’t hesitate to check it out!

4) Malaysia Design Archive 

This is a beautiful project combining design, history and preservation of culture. The project traces, maps and documents the development of graphic design in Malaysia to protect our visual history. Malaysia’s historical design influences are particularly fascinating as this is a meeting point and cultural crossing of the East and West – from ornate Islamic texts, to Chinese calligraphy and European engravings. As you browse the site, the graphics tell a wonderful story of Malaysia’s cultural transformation. I highly recommend you start here.

5) Other notable mentions:

  • SOLS 24/7: education program in Cambodia, Laos, East Timor, Malaysia and Thailand that has educated over 80,000 youth.
  • Gawad Kalinga: Building communities through tourism, social enterprise, disaster relief, reconstruction and development to end poverty.

Thanks to Ellyne, Shie Haur, Nicole, Tasnim and John for inspiring this post.

Matters of National Pride: When All is Said and Done

I have long since desired to write about this topic to some degree, but it was only after a series of recent conversations and following the Olympics Games that called forth an unexpected wave of patriotism towards my country.

I grew up as a Malaysian, through and through. Born and raised in Sarawak, educated in Malaysia’s public school system and seen first hand my country’s political and racial stance. The older I became, the more I came to understand the indoctrination of nationalism that the country has imposed on its citizens, the more I concluded that we were made to love! From standing in the equatorial heat during assembly saluting our “Jalur Gemilang”, singing the different anthems: Negaraku and Sarawak, Ibu Pertiwiku on a daily basis to memorizing Malaysia’s geography and history everyday in our public school system. The older I grew, the more I questioned the underlying racial intolerance in our country, the more I heard my fellow compatriots scheme to “study overseas and stay there”, that if you could obtain a PR from a first world country, “go for it and don’t look back”, the more I saw a brain drain in my country’s top minds as they throw their hands up in frustration at Malaysia’s economic and political situation.

Apparently, being made to love something is a flawed strategy, and rightfully so. As my generation grew up, our understanding of the world expanded and we look back and criticize the flaws in our own country. We tell people, “I love Malaysian food, but to go back and be discriminated based on the colour of my skin and last name? Why should I subject myself to such treatment?” spoken sometimes out of disappointment, sometimes out of disdain. When I saw Dambisa Moyo speak at my university on Dead Aid and development, someone from the audience asked her whether she would ever go back to Zambia to help her country. She retorted that people often forget that every human being at the end of the day craves equality, dignity and access to basic needs. If Zambia could provide those needs for their citizens, Zambians would go back in a heartbeat. I looked around and saw my friends: South African, Iranian, Pakistani, Chinese, all nodding silently next to me. Apparently, I was not the only one who felt this way.

Now, working and learning in the social enterprise/development space, I come across many individuals who are passionate about changing the lives of others in developing countries. Some take a more economist standpoint of helping where people need it the most, other are driven by a certain cause/skillset – be it health, finance or human rights. I see others have a deep drive to help countries that they never even grew up in, and sometimes have never even set foot in that continent, let alone country. I ask myself: Why? Then, I look at Malaysia and wonder: What good is it that we are made to love a country when our hearts are filled with complaints/disdain for it? I look around again and I see my friends: who have gone back to Peru to create change in her hometown, who have dreams to advance South African films in the world and who are waiting for an opportunity to return to Kenya. Apparently, I was missing out on connecting with my birthplace and identity.

I can finally say that working in the social enterprise/development space, have meant personally for me, of understanding Malaysia better. For its decaying political and administrative structure, for the incredible courage of Bersih protestors, and for new economic programs that are aimed to improve the country. More importantly, I think I have finally understood what it means to love unconditionally, even if I was made to in the first place. To love anyways despite all of Malaysia’s flaws, because love keeps no count of wrong. It is this choice – To love, not for a tolerance of corruption, crime or racism but to love unfailingly, stubbornly, for a beauty of a nation is not in the laws or the ruling party at that time, but in the dignity and essence of every citizen who have contributed in one way or another to shape our early views of the world.

So to all my fellow compatriots and those who have yet to make the choice to love for your own country, when all is said and done, here is my challenge to you:

If not us, then who? If not now, then when? – Acumen Fund

 

Thanks to Kristina, Nanjala, Cynthia and Robert for inspiring this post.

So, what is strategy anyways?

Two weekends ago, I attended a four hour session on Strategy taught by Mark Pollard (who also has a really thoughtful blog). I spent the afternoon learning about different tools and frameworks and below is the four hour session distilled into two pages in my notes. Overall, I thought the class was useful in getting a peak into the digital branding world, and Mark was a particularly great facilitator, a highly underrated skill! If you’re interested in learning more about advertising and marketing, definitely place this class on your watchlist.

 

As I thought more about what I took away from the session, I felt that the focus was primarily around the digital agency world (which is fair as it is where Mark’s background is in). However, I wanted to share a couple of my personal thoughts on what I think is strategy in a general setting.

Good strategy stems from the question of: How do you maximize impact given a limited amount of resources? Here’s a couple of guiding thoughts:

1) Kernel of Strategy: A diagnosis, guiding policy & coherent set of actions

I recently picked up Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt and it has since influenced a substantial amount of how I think about strategy. I came across this book when a good friend asked me “How do you define strategy?” As I stammered and stumbled across my different perceptions of my answer, he promptly handed over the book and had my eyes opened since.

The basic premise of the book is that strategy consists of three components, a diagnosis, guiding policy and a coherent set of actions. A diagnosis is not a description of symptoms, but an analysis. A guiding policy ensures that you understand your constraints and is an element of strategy. However, the first two need to be translated into specific actions by coordinating policies and actions on critical keystone objectives.

1) Value Creation: Price is what you pay, value is what you get

I think a key development point of strategy is understanding what value you are creating. The  value of product/service needs to be at the core of what you are developing. There is a desperate need to escape the existential terrors of bad and inefficient products/services. You achieve this by taking a close and hard look at product value.

Value creation is particularly important in the world of social change, where the product development is critiqued less than the storytelling around it. We have become so accustomed to ‘feel good’ exhortation in this space that we feel ‘guilty’ questioning further about the real impact and value a non-profit/social enterprise is creating.

2) Defining a Challenge: Making choices and overcoming obstacles

A great strategy starts by understanding the fundamental problem at hand.  A great deal of a company/ organizational task is knowing how to identify the biggest challenges to keep progress and create a practical approach to overcome this barrier. Two effective methods to get to the root of a problem is the 5 Whys question asking technique developed by Toyota during the evolution of their manufacturing methodologies, the other is the Why-because analysis. Essentially, don’t stop at the obvious answer and determine the cause-effect relations between the factors.

All in all, good strategy is like a hypothesis. It’s tested and adjusted over time. You pressure test it, see what works and you pivot. Oh, and the biggest thing: don’t ever mistake tactics and goals for strategy.

All men can see these tactics whereby I conquer, but what none can see is the strategy out of which victory is evolved.

– Sun Tzu, The Art of War