I recently had a conversation with a friend about whether startups in the developing world should attempt to create technology products for users in the United States. For instance, should an entrepreneur in Kenya develop a website that targeting users in California, ten thousand miles away?
My friend thought that entrepreneurs in the developing world should stick with their own markets. After all, he said, you need to be intimately familiar with your users to create products that meet their needs. You should observe them in person and interview them regularly. If you have never lived outside of your own country and don’t understand American culture, you don’t have a chance to successfully develop products for Americans, and by extension, any users outside your home country.
I disagree with this position. If you take it a bit farther, it means that entrepreneurs from a particular culture shouldn’t attempt to develop products for people in other cultures. Yet Americans export consumer web and mobile technology at a tremendous pace. I ran across this post on a Kenyan blog that listed the top websites that Kenyans visit as of March, 2008. Nine out of ten were started on the West Coast of the United States, and seven in Silicon Valley. The other one was from Germany. Not one site was located in Kenya. According to Alexa, as of today, only one Kenyan site has actually made it onto the list – #10 is The Daily Nation, a Kenyan news site. Almost all the top sites used by Kenyans were developed 10,000 miles away! I bet that the founders of Google, Yahoo, Youtube, Facebook and Microsoft didn’t do much usability testing in Nairobi!
Consumer web technology clearly crosses national and cultural boundaries, typically flowing from the United States to the developing world instead of vice versa. However, as the cost of creating web and mobile products drops, there is no reason we shouldn’t see startups in the developing world serving users on the rest of the planet. If you have web and product development skills, the time to create a site or app, and a very small amount of money, you can invent a product for a global market. Your success is more likely if you adopt product development techniques that enable you to understand your users, but you don’t need to meet them in person. In a future post, I’ll write more about potential techniques for understanding users even if you aren’t sitting in the same room.
The point is that just because you can’t afford to travel outside your country or you can’t navigate the bureaucracy inherent in acquiring a visa, it doesn’t mean you can’t make a website that people worldwide will find very useful and even pay you to use.