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No more excuses

This article appears in the issue June 2017 [Volume 26, Issue 6]


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That’s what we said over a decade ago when we embarked on our quest for the enterprise of the future. Back then and even more so today we’ve maintained that knowledge knows no boundaries.

In a massively interconnected world of 7.5 billion minds, anyone anywhere can start and grow a global knowledge enterprise. All you need is an idea, an internet connection and some experienced guidance and mentoring.

We’re not necessarily talking about becoming an overnight “moonshot” or “unicorn” like Facebook, Tesla or Alibaba, although that’s entirely possible. What’s more attainable is being part of one of the 50 million small enterprises created around the globe each and every year.

Unfortunately, upward of 80 percent of those startups won’t make it past the first five years. But knowledge discovery is a trial-and-error process. Failure comes with the territory.

The good news is that in a global knowledge economy, failure means learning. And the more that people in a knowledge enterprise can learn, the better their chances for success. Let’s take a trip and see how our premise is holding up.

Our first stop is one many would never imagine as a place to start a business. Global Finance Magazine recently ranked it as the 53rd poorest country in the world. When you mention its name, people might think of war, suicide bombers and Osama bin Laden’s former hangout. That’s right, this model of millennial-driven social knowledge entrepreneurship is none other than Pakistan.

Big Bird’s nest

Many have never heard of Sindh, once a thriving civilization some 9,000 years ago. Sindh’s 200-mile coastline is now home to 15 million young, educated Pakistanis itching to make their mark on their country, region and the world. It’s here that you’ll find the bustling city of Karachi.

At more than 27 million people, Karachi proper rivals Shanghai as the largest in the world. Hidden in that mass of humanity, perched on the third floor of a supermarket building in the city’s Bahadurabad neighborhood, lies a tiny nest. Called The Nest i/o, it’s one of Pakistan’s nearly two dozen technology incubators.

The Nest is led by Jehan Ara, fondly referred to by her hatchlings as “Big Bird.” She and about 60 other experienced entrepreneurs provide loving guidance, mentoring and encouragement to each “batch” of roughly 20 hatchlings. They cover a wide range of industries including cybersecurity, Internet of Things, food, human resources, education and more.

After only two short years, 80 of the 100 startups they’ve graduated are still in business, totally flipping the traditional startup success rate. Their product portfolio includes an augmented reality gaming platform for children with special needs, a social app for sharing anonymous feedback and Pakistan’s first social hub for cricket players, to name a few.

Clearly, The Nest i/o is doing something right. As soon as you walk in, your senses are hit with a dazzling array of bright colors, open spaces and natural light (they’ve loudly declared freedom from “cubicle farm prison”).

Their work (and play) environment exudes vibrancy, energy and creativity. It includes a media lab for prototyping and experimenting and a “mind gym” where up to 120 people can huddle and brainstorm. Top it off with a modern cafeteria with breathtaking views of the city and it’s enough to make the best Silicon Valley campuses envious. No wonder Google (google.com) is a primary sponsor.

Let’s take a look at some other unlikely places for building knowledge enterprises, starting with Pakistan’s next-door neighbor.

A Silk Road for knowledge

Deep inside Iran’s mountainous desert is a 1,285-acre enclave called Isfahan Science & Technology Town (ISTT). It has two science parks, 10 technology incubators and more than 450 knowledge-based companies. Its combination of university partnerships (Isfahan University of Technology), research labs, manufacturing and service companies, and government organizations serves as an excellent example of the “clustering” model we’ve talked about in this column over the years.

For almost a quarter of a century, ISTT has gone relatively unnoticed. That’s all about to change. In September of next year hundreds of science park directors from around the world will gather to share ideas, knowledge and experience, as ISTT hosts the International Association of Science Parks and Areas of Innovation (iasp.ws) annual conference.

Continuing on our journey, we’re reminded of an entire continent we first wrote about in “Out of Africa: the next billion minds,” KMWorld, May 2008. According to The World Bank, Africa now has 117 technology incubation spaces, including one each in Liberia and Togo, the fourth and twelfth poorest countries in the world respectively.

Are those incubators developing technologies for mining asteroids or building tourist destinations on Mars? Hardly. They’re focusing on improving the lives of the “bottom of the pyramid,” the roughly 3 billion people in the world who struggle to survive on a few dollars a day. Their innovative solutions are aimed at providing cheap, affordable access to basic human needs such as food, water, energy, housing, health and education.

Opportunities for KM pioneers

Here are just a few of the many opportunities available for you as a KM’er to contribute to the exciting trend. The first is building, sharing and growing the vast bodies of knowledge generated within the world’s science parks and incubators. Sadly, precious little of that knowledge is captured and shared. That adds up to a lot of wasted time, money and resources from unnecessary trial and error and repeated mistakes.

Second, it wasn’t all that long ago when developed countries were stampeding into India and China in a massive offshoring wave. Now is the time to learn from those experiences, take the road less traveled and tap into the vast, growing pool of the young, educated, passionate, tech-savvy talent in smaller countries.

App developer 10Pearls has done just that. Headquartered in a Washington, D.C., suburb, most of its software developers live in Karachi. That allows 10Pearls to essentially hire from the top-tier universities without having to worry about competing with Microsoft, Cisco and other giants with strongholds in India.

Sure, there’s risk. But there are many organizations at the federal, state and local level with treasure troves of data and experience to help you find and engage the right partner.

You might be thinking about how difficult it is to do business in some of those countries. But times have changed. Burundi, the third poorest country in the world, is a great example. It’s now in the top 20 of The World Bank’s Ease of Starting a Businessrankings, far ahead of the United States (ranked 51) and most European countries. The surprising truth is that if you’re in a poor, developing country, you’re likely to encounter far less red tape than in many wealthier, developed nations.

Finally, if you’re in a developing country, it’s only natural that you’d be looking to the United States for help. But the lines to get in are long and the procedures complicated.

Instead, consider being more like the bright-colored high flyers in The Nest i/o, who’ve discovered a wealth of experience and resources within their own country. Sometimes the real diamonds are right in your own backyard. As we’ve said many times before, nobody knows how to solve a problem better than the people closest to it.

The bottom line is there are no more excuses. If the poorest countries in the world can do it, so can you.

 


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