by Dan Kidera, Principal at OB-C Group, a bipartisan boutique lobbying firm in Washington, DC. Dan will be writing a quarterly column for Imagine H2O on water issues on Capitol Hill. Here, he assesses recent progress on federal support for water infrastructure, and advice for entrepreneurs who think that federal policy is outside their sphere […]
Lemons into Lemonade — How the Worst Things in our Job might Spell Opportunity
The water sector is filled with tedious but solvable inefficiency. This trait can be a foundation for successful businesses. With thanks to Paul Graham, take a peek into the business of schlep solving…
Have you ever had to complete a tiresome task — bad enough for you to roll your eyes thinking there has to be a better way to do it — and then completed it anyway?
You just Schlepped.
Schleps are the inconveniences people internalize as inevitable. But once shown a different way, they immediately choose the alternative. It is the basis of some colossally successful companies — Amazon vs going to the store, Stripe vs online payment systems, and the iPhone vs, well, kinda everything. In the water sector too, startups have harnessed Schlep Blindness and developed solutions to improve their customer’s lives.
A successful Schlep Blindness business identifies a schlep, develops a fix, educates customers that they’re schlepping, and upgrades their life with the solution.
At Imagine H2O, one of our core beliefs is that successful water businesses are built in the service of miserable people — whether they know it yet or not. Schlep Blindness businesses, when done right, can unlock a vast amount of value by showing people that their daily grind is solvable. And once word gets out, these companies grow very fast indeed.
Imagine you are a sewer monitoring crew, looking for leaks and defects via a video feed from a robot-mounted camera. This is crucial to ensure that sewers don’t fail, because sewer failures are both polluting and deeply gross. But, this current real-time monitoring method is not only cumbersome, it lacks accuracy. (Could you stare at videos of sewers for 10 hours a day everyday and catch everything? More importantly, did you even know this was happening?).
William Gilmartin and Matthew Rosenthal of SewerAI (IH2O ’20) lived through this schlep in their previous roles. To solve this problem, they developed an AI-based tool that automatically labels defects in sewer pipe inspection videos. But this doesn’t put the operator out of work — the data allows them to be far more efficient. SewerAI’s inspection platform enables operators to inspect videos, view reports, access data analytics, and utilize predictive models to make better decisions about sewer maintenance. Less schlep + better output + happier customers = a successful business
Take Dante Cook, Steven Naimark and Tyler Henke’s business Ziptility (IH2O ‘20). It works with small and medium water utility operators to transform their data records and workflows from paper (yes, paper) to digital. With their intuitive map, operators can mark and share infrastructure improvement project updates and scheduling. No more paper getting lost, or having to make sure operators have seen their task list — Ziptility’s app has all the information they need. They are approaching 2 million assets listed on the platform. At the start of 2020 it was 550,000. As we said, schlep elimination can mean fast growth.
What about the water quality management space? Imagine you had to go to every testing point in a water network to test Chlorine levels. Pull out a vial, turn on the tap, fill the vial, cork it, use a test strip, write down the reading…. Extremely schleppy, but just another day on the job. As their beachhead market, Jamail Carter and Seyi Fabode of Varuna (IH2O ’20) automate these readings for understaffed utilities, ensuring these dedicated professionals can spend time on more complicated and pressing issues. All they need to do is watch out for an alert if a fix needs to be made.
Schlep Blindness businesses are powerful because they help customers eliminate pain from their life (that they didn’t know they had) and realize value (that they didn’t know they were missing out on). Customers are deeply grateful to those who identified the pain in the first place, and until a competitor emerges you have these customers all to yourself.
Wondering how you can help? Whoever you are in the water sector, whatever you do, take a moment and ask yourself “is there a better way?” If you can get clear-eyed about your problem, you can let others help you do better. But bear this in mind — if you’re schlepping, there’s a pretty high possibility that a bunch of other people are schlepping too. That’s a market. And you just might be the entrepreneur to fix that market’s problem.