Establishing Yourself in a Market
24 September, 2021
Watching the refugee crisis in Europe unfold in 2017 was nothing like anything I had ever experienced before. It was this humanitarian dumpster fire; I was obsessing over finding some way of participating in the solution as a technologist.
I started to take some initiative and did a lot of research. I looked into all of the apps and other services that existed to help these people in order to wrap my head around the landscape of what was being done. It was Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The refugees coming in were looking for a safer life.
I realized that a lot of apps had been created to help solve the problem, but there was a gap there. The missing link: a service that resembled something like Yelp for refugees in need of shelter.
If you stayed in a shelter in Berlin and the people treated you poorly, you could give them a bad review. The opposite would also be true for a place that provided for you graciously. Nothing like that existed. That was my million-dollar idea.
I put this information into a deck of material so that I could turn the idea around and pitch it. I got in touch with many names in the humanitarian space who were trying to help refugees. This included offshoots of the UN and UNICEF, all of these different groups. I also interfaced with other entrepreneurs and hackathon groups working on helping refugees, as well as impact funds that provide capital for these types of efforts.
I showed them the opportunity and asked them what they thought. What I learned very quickly was that they did not need another app. A lot of people like me have had this idea looking in from the outside and had built a variety of websites and mobile apps. None of these apps were solving the crisis, however.
Some big, name-brand companies would throw some money behind efforts like mine, or entrepreneurs and hackathons would bootstrap building their own offerings. The problem with them all: none of them had actually acquired any refugee users. I started double-clicking on why that was.
I learned that, while 85% of refugees own smartphones, most of them use these devices mainly to use peer-to-peer chat services like FB Messenger and What’s App. They were therefore only as looped in as their circle of immediate contacts were — family and friends, typically. The refugee users had no idea that these apps had been built and were available for them.
As I learned more I realized that the app developers had no good strategy for acquiring refugee users. They mostly abided by “if you build it, they will come,” which turned out to be incorrect. In some cases they would partner with NGOs to do in-person workshops where refugees would be educated on the applications and manually signed up. These efforts didn’t scale.
I ultimately realized that I should not just build another app that no one will use. Instead, I should focus on the fundamental problem of connecting the supply of apps that have already been built with the demand of the refugees who would find them useful. My solution: I identified was to repurpose my background in adtech / martech and build a humanitarian ad network that all of these different humanitarian agencies and resources could use to reach refugees.
By virtue of having a smartphone and being in Europe, you are going to show up in real-time bidding exchanges everywhere you go. These are your apps, the browsers that you’re using, and all of the rest.
The commercial use case for buyers in these ad marketplaces is to observe what I know about this device, the app that they’re using, and where I’ve seen them before, and determine if this user is a good fit to show an ad about, say, diapers or a car. Similarly, I could use these exact same signals to guess whether or not a user is a refugee. A smartphone in Paris is being used to play games in the morning and to consume news from Syrian websites at night? There’s a good chance that behind the device, there is a refugee family involved.
I spent 4 years trying to network and to push this idea forward as I sought out funding. It’s a very dry market, unfortunately. There is not a lot of money to be won for an effort like this and ultimately I could not unlock funds. I was explicitly told by my wife that I was not allowed to fund the endeavor myself, unfortunately.
- The entrepreneurial spirit had me searching high and low for a new point of view on the matter. It’s all about taking a kernel of insight and transforming it into a plan of action.
- As an innovator, I try to cross-pollinate different ideas from different domains in order to solve problems laterally. The “Ah-ha!” moment here was when I decided to apply my background in Ad-Tech.
- You can have a great idea, but without establishing a base of users and an actionable plan, you’re going to have a lot of trouble helping anybody with your product.
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