“Talking to people about tea.”
Charlie Satow, Kericho Fellow 2014
“Talking to people about tea.” … is the answer I have given every working day for the last week to the question, “What have you been up to today?” ‘Testing’ has begun, and for my partner Sehel and me, it has meant asking passers-by how much they would pay for a packet of Kapchebet; ascertaining from restaurant owners why they switched from Litein to Toror; and discovering that Tusky’s (the supermarket) stocks 12 different tea brands but none supported by the Kenya Tea Development Agency; and much much more.
In a way, our ‘Dream Team’ group of five entrepreneurs (coined by them), now streamlined to three business people all stationed at various overlapping perches in the tea supply chain, has worked out perfectly. From plantation to consumer, it’s allowed us the chance to immerse ourselves in the tea industry: fragrant, if nothing else. Plus we’ve been able to wow unsuspecting Kerichans with our in-depth knowledge of local tea prices, which is almost as good as speaking Swahili. Kericho gold, if you will.
Immersed in Tea
So we’ve been testing. The word brings to mind ideas of objective science, experiments, the confirmation or rejection of a hypothesis, and those are precisely the terms in which we were introduced to the concept in the Balloon curriculum. Go out and test your assumptions, convert those guesses into facts. A coffee business illustrates the alluring clarity of the idea: build your ‘minimum viable product’ (i.e. 20 cups of coffee) and test the assumption that people will pay for fresh coffee (run around town selling those 20 cups). In real life, it’s often not that simple. Talking to people, the method of ‘testing’ we have used most, does not give straightforward answers: confirmation bias, ambiguity, uncertainty, and the general messiness of human psychology and social reality gets in the way. ‘Just sell’ sounds easy, but translate that into a tea agent trying to get a school to make an order, and an hour sitting in the cateress’ office and two mugs of uji (porridge with the texture of liquid gravel) later and slowly the snappiness of the idea, and my ability to think, fades. Product accepted or rejected? Who knows. Preferences are elusive, inconsistent and unpredictable; we surveyed nearly twenty restaurants and hotels and asked them which tea they stock; we got 11 different answers but one reason: [insert tea name] ‘tastes the best’. This feeling of wading through mud makes me wonder if the Balloon Kenya-endorsed, build-measure-learn approach is really any different to how any other entrepreneurship consultant would go about things. But I would still say it is; the relentless emphasis on customer development has meant that there has been a rush to get to this phase, which cannot be taken for granted.
Testing: easier in the classroom.
Is speaking to people always useful? No: testing can be done well or badly. Witness this guide to customer development, or the laziness implied by the fact that many in our group resorted to the ‘customer survey’ within 2 days of the first pair to do so, with perhaps less reflection on how to do this well than eagerness to start. Personally I’d definitely confess to this. So, conclusions? Testing is a tricky concept, and not all talking is useful talking. But better to muddle vaguely with customers than to muddle vaguely inside your own head. For someone with antisocial tendencies and a penchant for writing lists, that is saying something.
–Charlie also writes about international development issues at http://bestofpossibleworlds.blogspot.com/