Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Lessons From Polak

The role of business is to make the world a better place. And Dr. Paul Polak knows it. For three decades he has devoted his life to improving the lives of people who live on less than $2 a day, but rather than giving stuff away his focus has been on selling groundbreaking equipment to those who need it most.

The New York Times ran a great interview with Polak last month. The story goes that he first got involved with a group of Mennonites providing rower pumps to provide water for irrigation in impoverished areas in Bangladesh. They’d given away 2,000. Polak’s idea was to sell 25,000. Which they did. Then he found the treadle pump, a simple but brilliant step up the technology chain. Polak and co set up manufacturers, distributors, rolled out a marketing campaign, complete with Bollywood movie. Two million units later and the rest is history.

Here are the keys to Polak’s success, both as businessman and social entrepreneur: Empathy – born and raised in peasant Czechoslovakia, he knew poverty and he knew his market;
• “an eye for the obvious” – in 1938 his father saw the signs of coming disaster early, and moved the Jewish family to Canada, escaping the holocaust;
• an entrepreneurial streak – Polak was putting his own money to work long before he turned to the rest of the world;
• and – most important – a conviction that the customer knows best.

In 1981 Polak made a promise to interview 100 $1-a-day families every year and learn from them first. He’s kept this promise for 28 years, personally interviewing over 3,000 families.

He sums up: Any businessman knows this – you’ve got to talk to your customers.

That’s good medicine, doc.

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