The Village Walk: Trust, Relevance, and Reputation in Tech

1/21/14Follow @chep2m

Dawn broke quietly that morning near Eregi, in Western Kenya, apricot light chasing the indigo of night, birdcalls and soft footsteps sounding outside my farm room’s door. I shared that room with my son, then 11. We were visiting Kenya to work at a favorite childrens’ home and meet with rural entrepreneurs in the “birthplace of Kiva” near the Uganda border.

It was Saturday, December 29, 2007, and as sunlight filtered into the room, we couldn’t know that the day would end much less gently than it began. With a recent presidential election rising into dispute, tension already filled the air. Banks closed, ATMs ceased to work, commerce shut down. The few cars in our village sat idle, owners knowing that whatever petrol sat in their tanks might need to last them through rough times ahead.

Life stilled. People waited and acknowledged each other with a local warning: “Watch as you go.”

Homebound and cautious, we abandoned our plans to visit a network of businesses scattered around Eregi and Kakamega and opted instead to stay close, visiting the area’s small enterprises on foot. Led by Juvenalis, a local business mentor for Village Enterprise, we began a day-long journey through the forested, verdant hills near Eregi.

We would have missed the trail had he not led us. Thick vegetation grew almost audibly, obfuscating views and often blocking the narrow path. Swinging a thick machete, Juvenalis cleared the way into the forest, sending cut tendrils and vines in a flutter to the ground.

“The jungle always wins,” he mused, blade whooshing through the air.

Looking around, I could see he was right. Yet our narrow path led to wider one, and soon another, until we reached a larger road: an artery of sorts between the small town of Eregi and its nearest neighbor. Footworn and bustling, topped with packed red dirt, it served as the main pulse of commerce, conversation, and community between the two villages.

For five hours we walked this road, out and back again, visiting with a group of soy and palm growers, a family of vision- and auditory-impaired knitters, tailors, one-cow dairy enterprises, and an array of other rural startups. I realized, even then, that I was experiencing a timeless microcosm of human interaction. From the first turn to the road—where scattered lean-tos sold sodas and gum and patient farmers sat on mats offering small crops of tomatoes or maize—to the surprise discovery of a group of church choir singers practicing hymns on a knoll where road narrowed back to path, anything I might want or need in this distant world was mine, simply spilling out before me.

We met neighbors who knew who was sick and what their symptoms were and when we could visit. Spoke with a man who was preparing to butcher his steer and willing to barter for meat. Met a retired politician who shared the history of the road and how it was built, sellers of onions and khangas, of milling machines and tea leaves. Bartered with people offering rides on boda-bodas (bike taxis) or willing to sell a days’ use of their wheelbarrows. Fortune tellers, brick makers, shamba owners with a room and karibu to trade for shillings, menders and egg sellers and purveyors of herbal tinctures: all of that was there, along with friendly greetings, curious questions and ready answers, tips on the best views or news of whose crops needed tending, whose dog had puppies, who was newly in love.

Gossip, laughter, advice, even the trust of a small hand in mine: the road hit me like its own separate world, every item or insight I needed, all in one place.

Back at home in Silicon Valley, as I’ve worked with emerging technology companies and used services like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Lyft, and Airbnb, I’ve returned to this day countless times. I’ve talked about it with hopeful entrepreneurs MVP’ing their nascent ideas in the hope of solving everyday problems, maybe even changing the world. The path I’d walked in Eregi was a platform: one upon which members of the local community layered solutions (services, offerings, products) and other forms of value (tips, insider information, instructions, entertainment), one that people wandered to find what they needed and return home better off than when they’d left.

Building a business is hard in any environment, but the village walk is a reminder to tech entrepreneurs that they must address real needs.

In places where it takes time and energy simply to address daily requirements, a “have to have” trumps a “nice to have” every time. Sure, you’ll find music and gossip and beautiful views on the walk: we all need that, too. But you won’t find one tailor shop trying to stitch slightly better than another. A shop with a better sewing machine might hope to attract more users—and charge more money—but unless the difference is worth the added cost, customers won’t stick. They will test and admire the shiny object and then walk on to the solution they already know is good enough.

On the village walk, the core of commerce is relevance. It’s about who knows your name and your interests when you walk by, who remembers that you like coarse-milled grain and suggests you add a little cornmeal this time around. Positioning, personalization, and access: those are also the keys in online experiences. Knowing your community, their needs and dreams, their financial priorities and even their family concerns: knowing “who cares and what matters” is what makes any business thrive.

The road outside Eregi is as much about people as it is about the things exchanged there. The crowd moved to the left as a man approached on the right: they’d heard he sold misappropriated goods. They knew which vendors’ wheels wouldn’t wobble, which fishmonger really had cast his lines that morning and which had probably kept yesterday’s catch on ice. They knew when to count their change and when to simply pocket it, which bora-bora driver would know the roads well enough to get both you and your basket of eggs safely home. Trust traveled and reputation mattered. Anyone who skewed the value exchange in his or her favor at the expense of the customer soon found themselves paying for that mistake.

And everyone on that walk knew one inescapable truth, the one Juvenalis had taught as we left the small farm that was our Eregi home: the jungle always wins. Left untended, even the most-walked roads can be narrowed by outside growth—the competitive forces that unendingly fight to win or reclaim turf. Watching, pruning, sometimes even making the tough cuts: an entrepreneur walks this path, carefully tending as she or he goes.

Where is your village walk? Who walks on it, and what do they seek? What do they find, for better or for worse, on the path to your door? What do you offer and what do you get in return, and how will you ensure that today’s customer returns to you tomorrow?

How can you increase your relevance—useful tips, insight, a little unexpected extra—to earn a smile on top of a transaction? How can trust and reputation travel through your village, so that your users return with confidence and recommend you to their friends?

And how do you humanize and build community through your user experience so that your offering draws new visitors from other villages, willing to wind their own ways through paths that they otherwise might not have taken?

Imagine your own innovation through the eyes of a passerby, one seeking essential and elective things served with a dose of recognition, collaboration, and integrity, then the road to your business, too, will be well-trod.

Ellen Leanse has worked in Silicon Valley for more than 30 years, spanning Apple, Google, Facebook app development, entrepreneurship, user experience, and strategic communication. Follow @chep2m

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  • http://www.kendall-press.com/ Kendall Press

    what a great story to share. Ellen. Trust and relevance is so pertinent at today’s real-time-web speed of business. Yet, life is still all about people to people connections and trust. THE VILLAGE WALK. I like the concept.