We asked several participants in the upcoming Techonomy 2014 conference to write an article for us on what they are passionate about right now.
In 2011, I set out to trek up the highest freestanding mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I spent hours and opened a dozen Web pages researching all of the companies that offered treks. With the help of a friend who had been there, I found a Tanzanian-owned company that seemed trustworthy. After a week of back-and-forth emails, the company demanded an international bank transfer. It was a complicated, expensive process that my bank almost refused to handle for fear of fraud.
The tour was amazing, but our professional guide Mdeme from Arusha was by far the most impressive part of the experience. He knew the ins and outs of the mountain, stories from past treks, first aid, Tanzanian jokes, and how to cook delicious Tanzanian food. He even taught us some phrases in Swahili like, “Poa kichizi kama ndizi!” (I’m cool like a banana).
After the 5-day hike, we learned that Mdeme was getting paid around $10 per day, though our trip cost $2,000. Though he provided all the value, without a website, a bank account, and a way to accept payments online there was no way he could offer treks on his own as an entrepreneur. He had to rely on larger trekking companies for work.
Access to a marketplace is the first way digital technology empowers more people to conduct commerce. Transformative companies like eBay, Airbnb, and Etsy have gained incredible competitive edges in product-based commerce by giving individuals and small businesses access to a global audience of buyers, and the tools to transact safely online.
Digital also empowers SMBs and solo-preneurs to leverage the same tools large companies do so they can compete on a global stage. These tools give them the freedom to run their business however they want.
At AnyRoad, we call the intersection of the marketplace and these tools the “enabling economy.” There are other innovative companies that see the power of enabling small businesses and individuals around the world, many focused on product-based verticals. We concentrate on non-commoditized services, starting with SMBs and tourism professionals. We bring the tools of tech to independent guides and small tour companies around the world, in order to empower them to grow.
In order to compete in a free market, individuals should have the opportunity to grow their own businesses in the digital ecosystem. That’s good for both the free market and for the growth of entire industries. But few are as geographically dispersed and complex as tourism.
Often, the massive economic effects of global tourism don’t directly benefit local communities and businesses. Large companies control much of the commerce, and the gaps between small and large companies are widening. Success has typically required large budgets to obtain technical infrastructure, digital tools, and marketing clout. In the tourism industry, companies like Contiki, Abercrombie and Kent, Grey Line, and City Sightseeing Bus Tours can control large pieces of the market, even if the quality of their tours is subpar.
Want to hike up to Everest Base Camp, go scuba diving in Bali, or spend a week birding in Nova Scotia? The large companies that have flashy websites, credit card merchant accounts, and customer service staff are waiting attentively for your toll-free call. But what about an entrepreneurial family that may have been doing this for a century, but doesn’t yet have smart phones? There are many such experts and professionals around the world.
The printing press was once inaccessible. Now anyone can have a blog.
The Internet used to be complicated and slow. Now we all have it in our pockets. Commerce is the next step. Companies like ours are offering business tools and access to a global market to everyone with a phone.
Through cooperation and engagement across a range of stakeholders, including governments, we give individuals and local companies the platform to compete in the international tourism industry. That will help create more engaging experiences for tourists, keep tourism dollars in local economies, and create new employment opportunities for local populations.
Ultimately, the enabling economy is both a fantastic equalizer and a movement connecting people like Mdeme to 3 billion new customers around the world.
Jonathan Yaffe is a participant at the Techonomy 2014 conference, Nov. 9-11.