When I lived in Pakistan in the 80’s, I was always on the lookout for peanut butter. I found it at an upper class import store in Liberty Market for triple the price I would pay in the US. As a young entrepreneur living on a shoestring budget, I usually didn’t have the money for it. But when I did, I sure made it last. Even the smell of Skippy was enough to bring peace to my Western food-starved soul.
Then one day I found an affordable jar of peanut butter in the market that was made by local Pakistani Christians. I was excited, so I bought some. To my disappointment, it wasn’t very good—it was the natural kind that needed to be constantly stirred to blend the oil back in with the peanuts, and it lacked salt.
“Who buys this stuff?” I wondered. Pakistanis don’t eat this, and I’m eating it only because there are no other affordable options. Skippy is so much better! I finally concluded that some Westerner had missed peanut butter like I had and taught local Christians to make it. Somewhere, Pakistani Christians were grinding up peanuts to satisfy a craving an American had had many years ago. The thought made me laugh and cry at the same time.
I think this is a mistake many of us make when setting out to do overseas business—we create products we think are attractive, products we think are beneficial, and products we think are necessary. However, we forget that we are foreigners and don’t really know what the local people like, want, or need. The only way for us to tap into the local market is to remove ourselves from the process and bring the locals in. They know the people, they know the culture, and they’re the experts.
Lessons I learned from this:
- Peanut butter made by people who don’t eat it themselves is really bad.
- It’s very important to encourage innovation in business, and not always do things out of rote or tradition.
- Business is not about your desires or cravings, but about your customer’s.
Originally written: April 12, 2017