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Seated in a quiet corner of an elementary school of a Maori community of New Zealand this past fall, entrepreneur Phil Smy took on a mission he’d dreamed about for a long time: teaching the students how to start an internet business.
The Harataunga community of about 200 people on the Coromandel Peninsula is about 25 minutes from the village with the nearest shop. Smy’s trip from October 18 to December 2 as a self-styled, volunteer entrepreneur-in-residence was not a typical occurrence, though there was one video gamer in town who ran a YouTube channel.
By the time Smy left, the students had already started selling a book on Maori life that they created called H – Harataunga. With his guidance, they designed and published it using Adobe and the Kindle Kids’ Book Creator and put it up for sale on Amazon. Smy, who studied film, also made a video commercial for the book. The goal is to give the community a way to raise funds for the school, so it doesn’t depend entirely on government funding, and also to enable residents to come up with their own businesses.
“We’re turning upside down this idea of the million-dollar, one-person business,” says Smy, 51, who spoke with me during his residence. “What we want to have is the million-dollar, community business. This place is all about family. There are half a dozen families in this valley. It’s all about family responsibility.”
Smy is a computer programmer who spends part of the year in Sarnia, Canada—about an hour from Detroit—but also travels the world quite a bit with his wife, who is from Japan, spending lots of time on his passion for playing guitar in between.
He is someone I’d normally profile in this blog to understand how he built his two businesses to nearly $1 million in annual revenue, combined, with no employees. His main business, ZonMaster, sells a software that helps Amazon sellers get reviews, serving about 7,000 customers. Another business he runs, LotteryCanada.com, publishes lottery results online, bringing in revenue from ads.
I’m looking forward to reporting on exactly how he grew these businesses and created the lifestyle he wanted in the future, but with many people looking for meaningful ways to give back in 2019, I’m going to focus here on how he dreamed up and launched his entrepreneur-in-residence program, which he hopes will give others ideas.
Here’s how he made it happen.
Invent your own way to make a difference. Smy got interested in teaching his skills to people in the Maori community after meeting a contact in the indigenous tribe online, via the members’ area of a YouTube channel they both followed, and chatting for a couple of years. They shared a passion for talking about modernism.
They gradually hatched the idea that he would come to the community as an entrepreneur in residence. He would teach members of the community how to run an internet store so the young people didn’t have to leave their town in search of opportunity.
“We talked about how we could interconnect my world of startups and technology with the world of a 200-person, Maori Village—and how those two could be brought together for the benefit of both,” he says.
Lynda Gratton’s book The Shift:The Future of Work Is Already Here, offered valuable insights into developing a mindset that would foster a healthy collaboration, Smy says. “You have to be adaptable,” he says.
With his contact’s help, Smy got tribal approval to run an “ecommerce awareness and training program,” in the elementary school. The program also included an evening component to train the adults.
“If you’re in a village of 200, your job options are pretty much zero,” says Smy. “Maybe you can do agriculture or fishing or if you’re one of the three people lucky enough to be a teacher at the school, you get to be a teacher. To get a job that pays outside money, you pretty much have to leave.”
Although Smy gravitates to a nomadic lifestyle, he understood that the villagers’ desire to learn ecommerce skills they could apply locally sprung from common ground: They wanted to work when and where they wanted.
“They want the same benefits of technology I have,” he says.
Don’t overcomplicate things. To minimize costs for the program, Smy’s hosts offered him a place to sleep in a small building next to the school. Smy spent his days running his businesses from the school—enabled by the excellent internet services and fiber optic connection the government mandates, even in remote areas.
“I’m that guy in the corner who is running a business,” he told me when we spoke. Often, children at the school would become curious about what he was working on and start asking questions about how he tackled different parts of his daily operations. “I’d explain about writing software, doing advertising, handling customer support,” he says.
Then he’d switch the focus to them, asking them what ideas they had for their own businesses.
“For me it was about emphasizing that you can be a producer as well as a consumer—and to focus on what is in your daily life and try to build from that,” says Smy. “Don’t get intimidated by the blank slate.”
The way he set up his businesses—so he could run them from anywhere he happened to be—made it possible to do this. Smy relies on a couple of contractors, and a heavy dose of automation, to get everything done. “I’m a software guy,” he says.
“Whenever I see something I’m spending a lot of time on, I try to write a system that will take that work away from me.”
Stay open. It’s tempting to try to impose one’s own definition of what success looks like in a program like this, but Smy made sure to listen actively to what the community asked for. One thing the school wanted was to be able to publish more books in the future, so he trained someone to do Kindle publishing. “I’m simply trying to give this community the benefit of what I’ve seen,” says Smy.
The Saturday after we spoke, Smy made the trip across the mountain to teach a class about how to set up a business on the internet, using Shopify and Amazon. About 10 people showed up, which was a start. “Huge steps can be made simply by meeting one person face to face,” he says.
The ultimate outcome of Smy’s experiment remains to be seen. “I’m showing them a path,” says Smy. It will now be up to members of the community to decide what to do with the knowledge he shared.
December 31, 2018 at 03:37PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs