I’ve always envied Anne Habiby and Deirdre Coyle, whose job it is to unearth promising entrepreneurs in the most unexpected places. I first met Anne and Deirdre in the late ’90s when they were working with Harvard Business School professor Michael “Five Forces” Porter (his real middle name is Eugene) on the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City. ICIC is a nonprofit that promotes development through entrepreneurship in beat-down spots like Detroit; Compton, California; and Gary, Indiana. Porter contends that such locations offer businesses many advantages, including cheap real estate, proximity to transportation, and abundant eager workers. The ICIC publishes an annual list of fast-growing urban companies, called the Inner City 100. Operating in a whole other dimension from antiseptic office parks, the Inner City 100 are a spunky and resourceful crowd.
A few years back, Porter, Anne, and Deirdre created AllWorld Network to take the ICIC model global. AllWorld is mapping the expanding entrepreneurial world through a series of regionally based growth-company lists: the Arabia 500, the Africa 500, the Asia 500, and so forth. The goal is to raise these companies’ profiles so they can attract investment, win customers, and inspire would-be founders everywhere to start founding. AllWorld also hosts events and technology platforms that help these companies transact with and support one another. And it researches best practices for governments hoping to promote entrepreneurship at home.
AllWorld’s annual summits, at the Harvard Faculty Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are lively affairs. Attendees are unusually vocal: they have opinions about everything and will debate points loudly across the room. Their stories are amazing. My favorite comes from a gent I met two years ago: Abid Butt of Pakistan. As Butt explained over lunch, 40 percent of Pakistan’s agricultural production (which accounts for roughly a quarter of GDP) is destroyed or lost in shipping. Through his logistics and trucking company, e2e, Butt is trying to reduce those losses to 4 percent. But he’s not just modernizing the way food moves from point A to point B. He is also researching inefficiencies at points A and B-;the farms and groceries-;and attempting to fix those as well. (Butt also bought a human resources company in hopes of improving hiring and training practices.) In a country like Pakistan, an imaginative and skillful entrepreneur can reinvent an entire system rather than take on one small piece of it. Forget reinvent-;he can invent the thing virtually from scratch.
This is a long windup to a point I want to make about globalization. Recently, Deirdre sent me an article authored by Anne Habiby and Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which you can read here. The article calls on small and entrepreneurial companies to make better use of the Internet to do business worldwide. You would think this would be eye-rolling-ly obvious to business owners by now, but it’s not. Less than 1 percent of U.S. companies export, the authors remind us.
By contrast, AllWorld companies were born global, using social media and other channels to build the visibility and trust that greases commerce. The article describes how LinkedIn helped Obinna Ekezie, founder of Nigeria’s equivalent to Travelocity, land venture funding from an investor in New York. (I met Ekiezie at this year’s summit after Deirdre insisted on finding him so she could point him out to me. I could probably have found him myself: he is 6 feet 9.) The AllWorld crowd are smart and ambitious. And they consider you their competition even if you don’t yet think of them as yours.
But never mind about playing defense. Let’s talk about growth. When you ask CEOs of small-to-mid-sized companies how they intend to grow, they generally cite innovation--coming up with new products for existing markets or to win market share from competitors. And they cite acquisition. Far fewer mention exports. But many companies can sell their existing products with few or no changes to entirely new customers in global markets. As the AllWorld paper points out, the Internet significantly reduces the burden of doing so.
Of course Internet sales are small or no potatoes for many companies, particularly those that offer expensive or highly technical equipment to other businesses. They will have to go in with a sales force and educate, educate, educate. They can also form alliances or joint ventures. But it seems to me the brilliant opportunities are the blank-slate ones, where there’s no one to partner with because yours is the very first footprint in the sand. As European companies know, the welcome mats come out in virgin territory for players that have strong reputations in established markets.
An AllWorld world is one where ideas, expertise, and experience translate everywhere. Mastering global sales is in many cases easier than constantly fielding new products or distribution channels to feed old markets. You break ground. You teach. You grow.