Tinker, Tailor

It’s not hard to see the opportunity in mega-markets like India and China. That probably accounts for the public travails some of the world’s largest tech companies are willing to endure to capture those markets. Facebook’s Free Basics was derailed by regulators and net neutrality advocates in India a few months ago, and Apple tangled with Indian regulators (different ones) over their intention to sell refurbished iPhones in the country. Refurbished iPhones are sold by the millions in the US, but Indian regulators said the practice amounts to e-waste dumping, and undermines Narenda Modi’s “Make in India” push.

Tailoring products or services based on affordability is notoriously tricky. In today’s emerging markets, a small but growing subset of the population can afford mature-market prices and demand the best features and functionality. But companies can find opportunities to differentiate other aspects of their solutions. Netflix (not exempt from pricing challenges) is working hard to tailor content to local markets. To capture the linguistic and cultural nuance of a new talk show, Netflix livestreams it and sends a real-time transcript to a small army of translators. Twenty different translations of the show air 34 hours after taping in all 190 Netflix markets. Netflix is also hiring local talent to produce original, locally-relevant shows in key markets. Another example of market-specific adaptation: Vodafone is creatively tweaking M-Pesa to find new markets as far away as Albania and Romania. In those markets, the primary use case is international remittances, while in Kenya it’s domestic cash transfers, in Mozambique it’s paying bills, and in other African countries it’s disbursing salaries and welfare benefits.

Done right, tailoring solutions expands opportunities for companies. M-Pesa is no longer just a tool for sending and receiving cash; it’s a platform for a growing range of digital financial services. Netflix started as a virtual video store, but is now a formidable media producer and a global force in digital streaming technologies. Due diligence, local partners, and cultural informants are critical for multinational expansion, but no doors will open without a willingness to adapt core product or service – even those that fueled past success. Solution innovation will sometimes flop, but the process of innovation often has positive consequences. Two cases in point: 1.) the same Free Basics that was rejected in India was launched last week in Nigeria, to generally positive reception by the public and government officials, and 2.) an Albanian family just received $50 from brother Eno in Denmark so they can subscribe to Netflix.


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