First impressions are critical controllable inputs for new products’ growth

Usefulness of a product during its first use by a customer is the most critical controllable input for a new product’s adoption and growth. Many new products (especially games) coerce the user to take an action such as signing up or connecting with a social network, without paying any regard to that user’s goals. Although such products may achieve short term goals of activating a user or increasing their count of new user registrations, they tend to lag in long term engagement, stickiness and loyalty from their customers. After studying first time user experiences of over forty new consumer products over the last eight months, I’ve noticed that products with a compelling first time experience tend to grow faster.

A new product’s first time use experience can be measured by its effectiveness in solving my needs as a user. In most cases, needs of a first time user are simple and obvious. For instance, Youtube clearly addresses their first time customer’s need to watch a video and Pandora addresses their first time customer’s need to play music. How would you feel as a customer if Youtube required you to sign up for an account before you could watch your first video?

Let me highlight an effective first time use experience by a relatively new service – Lovely, the apartment rental discovery service. As a first time customer on Lovely’s website or iPhone app, my goal is always to find apartments for rent in a location of my choice. Lovely makes it simple, easy and fast for a first time customer to search for an apartment with cost and location preferences and contact the landlord to schedule a showing without prompting or requiring to sign up for a free account. After solving the customer’s need of connecting her with a landlord, Lovely requests the user to sign up for a free account so it can serve her better in future.

Home page of livelovely.com Search for apartments

Search results on a map

Picking the apatment

Contact the landlod

I signed up for a free account and I’m sure majority of their first time users must be doing the same. The case would have been different, had Lovely would have asked me to sign up before finding me an apartment or even before letting me contact the landlord.

Let’s build products that solve customer’s needs in the first time use. Please share examples of exceptional (or worse) first time use experiences that you have encountered.

Onward,
Kintan

Reimagine the obvious

I admire Gauri Nanda from Nanda Home for reimagining the obvious – a mundane alarm clock. Snooze buttons in an alarm clock defeat the purpose of an alarm clock, especially for the occasional over-sleepers like me. Gauri redesigned the alarm clock and called it Clocky. By outfitting wheels to it and enabling the clock to jump off the bedside table and hide in the morning, Gauri forces the user to wake up to find the ringing clock. Alarm clocks were designed ages ago and wheels were designed even before. It takes an unencumbered perspective to re-imagine existing designs and exponentially enhance the user experience.

© 2010 nanda home inc. | clocky ®

Many objects and systems around us suck. Let’s attempt to reimagine them. Why can’t we bid on flight tickets? Priceline attempts to handwave at the problem by simulating a close-door bidding, but fails gloriously at it. Why can’t the microwave oven know how long to run for, based on what’s kept on the heating tray inside? Can’t my pack of pop-tarts come with a QR code/RFID that can be read by  standard microwave ovens such that the oven knows to run for 30 seconds as soon as I put a pop-tart in the oven? Can’t my jeans beep, if I forget my wallet? If I put eggs and milk at the same place in the fridge, can’t the fridge order them automatically from Amazon Fresh, as soon as they’re about to deplete?

I’m attempting to reimagine the way in which movie showtimes are displayed on mobile devices. All major apps IMDb, Fandango, Flixster, Moviefone, etc. display them in the same old vertical grid. That sucks and can be remaimagined.

What are you attempting to reimagine?

-Kintan

Delta between thought and action

On my comfortably long flight from San Francisco to Dubai last week, I got a chance to reflect upon things I’ve learned since my last trip to the subcontinent. Amongst many things across various personal and professional realms, the highest order bit was obvious – delta between thought and action determines the impact one can have.I define this delta as the difference between the moment when a new thought strikes your mind to the moment you act upon it. The smaller the delta, more thoughts one can act upon. There is a fine line between acting hastily versus quickly. I’m referring to the latter. While it is important to think and analyze before investing meaningful resources on any idea, how quickly one can transform the thought to action indicates his or her expertise. 

One of the core leadership principles that Amazon.com cultivates amongst its leaders is “Be right a lot.” This trait, often considered a barometer for one’s judgement, is highly sought after at Amazon, because leaders are required to decisively execute on a “lot” of ideas. Last year, our small team at IMDb shipped five products in nine languages that directly impacted over 30 million users worldwide and started working on three additional gutsy products slated to be launched this year. Following factors helped us keep the delta between thought and action minimal and instill a strong bias for action:

1. Become an expert – be in the top 1% in your craft: Develop subject matter expertise such that no one can do it half as good as you can. Over the last year, our team developed expertise in building mobile products on multiple platforms mostly by building those products, but also by attending conferences, talking to industry experts and hiring the experts. This engineering expertise helped us quickly prototype a ton of ideas and see them in action, so that we could make product decisions based on working prototypes as opposed to wireframes. Roger Federer or Sachin Tendulkar doesn’t think before hitting every shot. Right shots are second nature for them. Building similar expertise dramatically shrinks the delta between thought and action.

2. Stick to your decisions: Stand by the decision, despite short-term setbacks. Often, there were instances when we were operating on incomplete information and several folks rightfully questioned our decisions. It was important to not waver from the critical path to success, even with incomplete information. For instance, shipping our iPad app at launch without having access to a real iPad was a bet and we were operating on incomplete information. Once we decided to ship an iPad app, we stuck to it despite early setbacks in the iOS SDK an it paid off. We repeated it when we shipped the IMDb experience on Windows Phone 7 later that year and that paid off too. When there isn’t a lot of data to support the decision, it may get tempting to waver at the first setback. It is important to resist that temptation. While decisiveness plays a critical role in shrinking this delta, it ultimately boils down to conviction in one’s ability to execute on an idea.

3. Ship: Given a choice between shipping and not shipping, ship!

As I said, this post is a note to self and while it may seem preachy, it isn’t intended to be. As an entrepreneur, I often measure the delta between my thoughts and action and then challenge myself to shrink that delta by at least half.

What’s the delta between your thoughts and action?

-Kintan

My approach to time management – Not To Do list

My approach to time management is simple – eliminate tasks which don’t absolutely require my involvement and focus on a few important tasks where only I can add value.

I learned time management while preparing for the dreaded college entrance exams – SAT. I quickly realized the power of elimination while trying to guess answers to those esoteric vocabulary questions on SAT. It worked, so I started applying them to life in general.

Life is too short to waste on doing things which you don’t love to do, tasks where you don’t have an expertise, and things which won’t help you grow and move forward on the critical path to success towards achieving your goals. Entities around us have a tendency to inundate us with things which fall in each of those categories.

I’ve also realized that at any given time, my mind cannot really focus on more than a few tasks (and those tasks are obvious.) Regardless of their interestingness, some tasks need to get done. The highest order bit is to identify the tasks which absolutely require my involvement (coincidentally these are also the tasks, which I enjoy). Then delegate those remaining tasks to someone who is competent, who would enjoy and who would be willing to do the tasks, which don’t require my involvement.

The easiest way to do so is to hire a personal assistant (or even a virtual assistant.) Ideally the best folks suited for such tasks tend to be college students (they’re smart, educated, affordable and fun to work with).

When I refer to the tasks, which absolutely don’t require my involvement, I don’t mean mundane redundant tasks which can be automated. For instance, buying groceries, making bill payments, etc. Most such tasks can be and should be automated. There is a class of tasks which may be boring for me, but really interesting and challenging for some folks. For instance, doing preliminary market research, organizing events, prioritizing reading lists, filling in expense reports, etc.

Here’s how I manage my time.

  • Make a list of all tasks which I need to do.
  • Divide the list into two: To Do and Not To Do
  • Delegate the tasks from the Not To Do list to folks best suited for those tasks. Follow up diligently until the task is done.
  • Focus all my mindshare on the To Do list, which doesn’t contain more than five tasks at any given time. In fact I don’t even need to look at the list to remember which those five items, as they’re often obvious.

I try to make sure that the tasks are delegated to a person who would enjoy doing the delegated task and I’m genuinely express my gratitude as well as appreciation to that person for agreeing to finish those tasks.

My Not To Do list contains:

  • Get the car repaired.
  • Organize an event for a non-profit organization.
  • Research about three industry trends.
  • Submit four expense reports
  • ..and a few other..

What’s on your Not To Do list?

Kintan

Photo used under Creative Commons from flickr.com. Photo taken by Patrick Hocker.

why I read magazines..and why you should too

How many magazines do you subscribe to?

Most interesting people I know subscribe to at least five to ten magazines (often in areas outside their primary occupation.) Most magazines have beautifully designed websites (often available for free), but I prefer to subscribe to the paper copies of at least a few interesting magazines. I’ve been subscribing to magazines for over a decade and I’ve learned immensely through them.

Blogs and magazines serve different purposes and are not mutually exclusive. I read magazines for three main reasons:

1. Keep up with the trends:

I often find myself reading three-four back issues of magazines at a time. For instance, it is not uncommon to sit on a Sunday morning and read last three issues of Fortune and the last two issues of GQ and compare the trends in content, editorial tone, advertisements, magazine cover designs, fonts, photos and color palettes used in various articles and many more attributes. Magazines couldn’t be seen as distribution channels for news. Blogs, tweets and news websites are much more efficient at that. However magazines often reflect the zeitgeist in a particular industry. In fact certain magazines serve as tastemakers for some industries (especially in fashion).

One of the key traits of entrepreneurs is “vision” – ability to visualize how their product/service will solve a problem in a durable, visible and obvious way over years. Vision can be curated through observing and anticipating trends across various industries and geographies. Magazines facilitate just that.

2. Keep up with the ads:

Some print ads are just beautiful. More importantly they indicate what the big brands are focusing on currently. For instance, while reading the issues of Fortune and Forbes from September 2009 to February 2010, the ads indicated a trend that Android was picking up at a much faster rate. More and more ads for the Motorola Droid started to show up in November and December. That’s an obvious trend, which I would have known even without looking at those ads, but you get the point.

3. Experience the “magazine”:

Reading my favorite magazine – Wallpaper – just on its website and not on the printed version would be unfair for the reader. Some of these magazines are carefully crafted to provide the readers with an authentic experience of the content. The layout on the page, typography, quality of the paper, etc. convey a deeper story, which must not be missed for some magazines.

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Which magazines to subscribe to?

In addition to subscribing to the usual suspects – magazines related to technology, design and entrepreneurship, I force myself to subscribe to a new magazine (which I normally wouldn’t subscribe to), just to get an introduction to a new industry.

Here’s the list of magazines that I’ve enjoyed reading:

Technology:

  • MIT Technology Review
  • Popular Science
  • Wired

Entrepreneurship:

  • Harvard Business Review
  • Fast Company
  • Fortune
  • Forbes
  • Inc
  • Strategy+Business by Booz Allen Hamilton

Design:

  • Wallpaper
  • ID
  • How
  • Architectural Digest

Lifestyle:

  • GQ
  • Esquire
  • Entertainment Weekly
  • Dwell
  • New Yorker
  • The Economist

Experiments to learn about trends in new territories/industries (at least for me):

  • Make – hobbyists
  • Real Simple – house wives
  • Digital Photography
  • Boating Magazine
  • Golf Magazine
  • Parenting

Magazine subscriptions don’t cost too much. One year subscription to FastCompany costs less than $10!

Start reading a magazine today.

Kintan

ps: Photo is used from flickr.com under Creative Commons

What keeps me going? – joy, action and imagination

Joy, action and imagination are my biggest motivators and we work very
hard to ensure that everyone I work with also experience them through
their work. I’ve been taking a lot of interviews lately to hire for our
growing team. One of the most common questions, I’m asked by candidates
is “What makes you coming back to work day after day at IMDb?” I love
this question, because it provides me a direct segue to “sell” the
culture. I’m writing this post to not sell the culture, but to
highlight the key factors of a high-performing team.
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I didn’t start out on day one with an intention of looking for joy, action and imagination in everything I did. In fact one of my biggest motivators has always been “the impact made by the product”. After my team shipped the beautiful IMDb app for iPad in April under extremely tight constraints, I asked myself –

“What kept/keeps us going as individuals and as a team?”

“What made a team member create a custom video player from scratch on the day of launch, when we discovered a bug in the default video player provided by the iPad SDK? All other apps launched with that bug, except ours. What led us push the envelope?”

“What kept a new dad of a one month infant code furiously (of course by choice)?”

Joy, action and imagination surfaced as obvious themes.  We realized that we truly enjoyed working on the products which we were working on. I enjoyed some of it so much that I would even pay someone to let me work on it. When “What’s in it for me?” is measured in terms of joy, the equation becomes more so interesting.

Action is an overloaded term. In a product manager’s language, action = shipping. There is something innately magical about shipping products. Projects with in-built inertia in the form of unrealistically long product cycles and fluid ship dates tend to suck the magic out of shipping. Our approach of being shipping-oriented (action-oriented) assures us that we’ll continue to experience the sheer joy of shipping on an ongoing basis.

Nobody likes to work on unimaginative and bland products. In an ideal world, all unimaginative tasks could be automated and delegated to machines. We ensure that we stretch our imagination and be creative in our approaches as well as products. Imagination is often considered our biggest asset as humans. We make sure that we ruthlessly leverage this asset. Whether it is designing the user interface for an iPad app (which could be visibly imaginative) or it is optimizing the backend caching so that the app is shockingly responsive, we ensure that imagination is the highest order bit in our approach.

Joy, action and imagination continue to motivate me and my team members. Your motivators could be completely different. The highest order bit is to identify your motivators, communicate them to your team members and leverage them to continue to do great things.

What motivates you?

Kintan

ps 1: On a related note, the 37Signals guys have listed passion, pride and craftsmanship as key tools to optimize a person’s happiness and thus productivity in their latest book – Getting Real. http://gettingreal.37signals.com/ch10_Optimize_for_Happiness.php

ps 2: I realized that I had first heard about joy, action and imagination from Subroto Bagchi in his book – High Performance Entrepreneur.

ps 3: The beautiful photo used in this post is from flickr.com and is used under Creative Commons

iPhone appstore marketing – old school marketing rules apply

What's the primary difference between a brick and mortar mall and an online marketplace for both buyers and sellers?

The buyers are able to instantly search and discover desired products and sellers are able to target their services to buyers who are most likely to search/discover their products. While location is critical for the success of a store in a brick and mortar mall, it doesn't have any significant impact for sellers in an online marketplace.

The appstore is more similar to a brick and mortar store than it is to an online marketplace. Discovering apps is painful for users and making the apps more discoverable is even worse for app developers. iPhone users don't typically search for apps (search in appstore is not the best either). Users install the apps which are either listed as the top 25 apps in a particular category in the appstore or the ones which are featured by appstore's editors.

Ranking:

There are several interesting blog posts out there, which talk in detail about increasing the appstore rankings. These rankings are based on the number of downloads in the last few days (with today's downloads given the highest weight). Many app developers use in-app advertisements from companies like TapJoy and AdMob to boost their downloads. faberNovel from France has explained "how rankings work" in detail here: http://www.slideshare.net/misteroo/how-to-market-your-app

Getting featured by Apple:

There is no secret sauce here, except to make an app really "interesting". If the app is unique and interesting, the editorial teams at Apple are always on the lookout to highlight those apps for the users.

Brick and mortar approach:

I want to highlight that app developers can take lessons from old school marketing to succeed in the appstore. Imagine you're are a retailer and are deciding to open a store in a new shopping mall near your home. The highest order bit in that decision would be the location of the store. Location also decides the price a retailer would pay because there are fixed number of stores in the mall.

In a mall there are three types of stores:

  1. Large department stores like Macy's (Nordstrom, JC Penney, etc.) open a large prominent store either near one of the entrances of the mall. These stores depend on both location and their advertisements for bringing the buyers to their store.
  2. Other retail brands like Gap, Abercrombie and Fitch, etc. which have one flagship store in some section of the mall. These stores depend primarily on their advertisements (their brand) to bring buyers to their store.
  3. Coffee shops like Starbucks often decide to open multiple coffee shops throughout
    the mall (say one near each entrance of the mall.) These stores depend
    primarily on their location in the mall, to bring buyers to their store.

 
image from www.flickr.com

The app store is not much different from a mall. Each of the
categories (Entertainment, Lifestyle, Games, Navigation, Reference,
etc.) serve as individual sections of a mall. Users typically browse
only a few categories on the appstore, when they're browsing for new
apps. If your app is not a top app (overall) or is not present in a
category browsed by a particular user, then that user is unlikely to
discover your app.The ideal approach could be to launch a portfolio of apps (often in different categories) and try to cross-sell the apps.
Pick three or four primary categories where your apps could fit (say
Games, lifestyle and entertainment) and develop three apps instead of
focusing on just one app.

 
image from www.flickr.com

Most app developers often don't have an established brand or large
advertisement budgets, so the most optimal strategy for them would be
akin to #3 above. Larger established brands often take approach #1,
where they launch a high profile app (say NY Times) and promote it on
their website. That app could become the #1 app in one category (say
News) and users who browse the "News" category on the app store would
discover the app. However, they'll still miss out on millions of users,
who never browse the "News" category. The key would be to choosse two
or three categories in addition to news and launch apps in those
categories. For instance, NY Times could launch a politics trivia game
under the Games category and  a "What happened on this day in the
past?" app in the Reference category in the app store.

Sometimes launching multiple apps in the same category could be effective as well. Several game developers launch multiple apps either under Games or Entertainment categories and cross-sell them heavily to drive downloads. It is important to note that real estate is limited to top 25 slots (most users only browse for the top 25 apps), so having two or three apps in the top 25 means that your competitors would have to fight for a slot from the remaining 23 slots.

Net net, taking the "Starbucks" approach of launching multiple apps is likely to generate more awareness and downloads for apps instead of taking a Macy's approach and focusing on just one flagship app (at least until the "discoverability" problems are fixed in the appstore.)

Kintan

ps: Thanks Mike Schneider from www.hivebrainsoftware.com for sharing some of these observations earlier this year.

ps: photos are used under Creative Commons from flickr.com   

The f words – fight, flee or flow

Fight, flee or flow – are the three obvious approaches to any challenge.  When faced with a challenging, one can either fight it (read "change" it) or can flee away (read "give up") or flow (abandon your judgement and accept things).

While I've known myself choosing "fight" in more situations, "flee" could proven to be an equally effective approach in certain situations. My intention is not to "preach" here, but share a quick summary of my approaches to address challenging situations.

Fight:

Fight is synonymous to persistence. It is the most common trait in everyone whom I admire. It defines entrepreneurs. In fact, it gives birth to entrepreneurs. Most successful products/ideas have been born, when someone fought the status quo and created a company/organization to manifest that fight. Think "Dyson" vacuum cleaners, think "Apple" computers, think "facebook", think "Kindle" and thousands of other entrepreneurial stories. Most people get this, so I'm not saying anything new here.

Flee:

Fleeing means accepting that fighting may not be the most optimal approach for you, so giving up the fight (and hopefully start a new fight). It is considered a taboo to give up, especially in the entrepreneurial circles. Quitting is often not an option. "Finish what you started" is often the advice young entrepreneurs receive. Most importantly, the spirit of "fighting" is so strong, that even a thought of "fleeing" away from the situation is traumatic for the entrepreneur.

Yesterday I caught up with Peter (an old friend and the co-founder of my first startup – Securamed) over dinner. It was one of those classic "catching up" meetings and the obvious topic of discussion was – "where we were in our entrepreneurial quests." After gobling loads of fried tofu at Thai Tom in the U-district of Seattle, we asked to ourselves – "What would we have done differently at Securamed, if we were starting it today?" We discussed the interns we had hired, tens of conferences we had attended, business plan pitches we had made and hundreds of rejected sales calls, we had experienced as student entrepreneurs.

The over-arching theme of the discussion was – "We should have accepted that our product was not fit for the market conditions at the time and should have started working on another idea sooner. We could have realized the opportunity cost of pursuing the idea further at that point to pick up another fight sooner."

To set the context, we were trying to create a reverse-auction-based marketplace for health insurance by converging health insurance and personal health management. We eventually realized that despite winning five student business plan competitions and a brilliantly designed product, the market was not just ready for it. In some ways the market isn't ready yet for some of the advances in the "business of healthcare". It is apparent from the not-so-successful attempts in the healthcare realm by effective companies like Google and Microsoft. We eventually realized the opportunity cost, reduced the scope of the product and continued a very small portion of the product offering.

The highest order bit is to realize when to fight and when to flee. I'm not a huge fan of putting "stop loss" orders on my investments, but as entrepreneurs the opportunity cost of not doing so could be high.

Let's flee a dud and start a new fight.

Kintan

ps: Don't just flow. It is immoral to abandon your own judgement, so either fight or flee, but don't flow.

Delightful products

I’ve always enjoyed creating and using products which not only fulfills the needs of the user, but also caters to the desires of the user. A well designed product does what the user expects it to do, but some go beyond to delight the user. While Apple has sprinkled such delightful experiences throughout Mac OS X and iPhone, several web companies have used user-delight as a unique value proposition.

One of my favorite website is www.picnik.com , which never ceases to surprise and delight me. The first time I had met Picnik’s co-founder Jonathan Sposato at a panel discussion, he asserted that what differentiates Picnik from its competitors is a little magic, which is hard to define. Over the next few “Picnik” experiences, I was amazed by that magic and got hooked.

Users experience magic from the very first experience. Upon clicking “Get started” on a simple landing page of Picnik, the user is taken to a “loading” screen, where Picnik delights the user by using metaphors of a real picnic to set the tone. It could have easily chosen to display the text “loading” next to the progress bar, but instead Picnic uses one of the following –

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Painting sky, Laying blanket, Buttering sandwiches, Coloring flowers…… 

The personality of the software reflects the personality of its creators and is often not guided directly by user feedback. For instance, creators of picnik were not told by their users to use “laying blanket” instead of “loading”. Even if they had used the term “loading”, users would have used their software, because it is a useful software. However, users will spread the word and convert into raving fans, only when they see a unique delight factor.

Similarly Amazon has done a terrific job with the classic screensavers in the Kindle. The screensavers are simple and display a portrait of a popular author or a poet. What else could bring more delight to a reader?

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There is no end to the subtleties used by Apple throughout their experiences. Most users of MacBook would know that a small light on the front of a Macbook pulsates, when the computer is on standby/sleep mode. Apple took this one step further by designing their storefronts to mimic the sleeping laptop. The Apple store on University Avenue in Palo Alto (small, but one of my favorites) pulsates after the store closes at 9 PM to indicate that the store is sleeping.Here’s a video.

Does Apple do it at the expense of core functionality?

Did Apple’s customers complain that the store is not sleeping?

How do we add delight to our software? In addition to offering the best utilitarian user experience, the product must appeal to the senses of the users by adding unexpected subtleties throughout the experience.

Let’s make delightful experiences!

Kintan

In search of an optimal micro enterprise

I’ve believed firmly that microfinance is one of the most effective instruments to alleviate global poverty on a huge scale. I’ve been fascinated with microfinance, because it fosters entrepreneurship amongst the poor. However, the entrepreneur in me was always curious about the business plans (demand/supply, distribution, access to markets, etc.) of this class of new micro-entrepreneurs. I’ve always wondered, if there were proven micro-enterprises, which could be easily replicated or even franchised. In my search for such proven micro-enterprises, I’ve always looked for three key parameters in this order:

1. Direct access to highly scalable markets

2. Alignment of required skills in an entrepreneur

3. Transparent accountability

During my current visit to India, I got a chance to explore both rural and urban poverty and share my thoughts on poverty with several leading individuals and institutions. During these visits and conversations, I focused on finding consistent themes in finding examples of optimal micro-enterprises. After visiting a few rural areas, it has been apparent that “milk production” is clearly a micro-enterprise with the most direct access to the markets, due to the well-established dairy cooperative system in India. 

Direct access to highly scalable markets : It is safe to say that there is seemingly infinite demand for milk by the milk processors, a sophisticated distribution channel to collect milk from every village daily at a standardized rate and a well-understood payment channel which enables the milk producers to get paid thrice a week (every ten days).

If a poor person is empowered to purchase a water buffalo or a cow through a microloan, he/she can immediately become an entrepreneur and start leveraging the established distribution channels to sell the milk produced by that buffalo/cow.

Alignment of required skills in an entrepreneur: Maintaining water buffaloes is common in most rural areas in India and most rural poor are familiar with the tasks involved in maintaining water buffaloes.

Transparent accountability: Since the entrepreneur will get paid
only by the milk processor (which is part of the national dairy
cooperative system – Amul),all monetary transactions can be easily tracked, thus adding transparency and accountability.

There are several open questions and I’m working on finding answers to them by visiting more villages and talking with both the poor and thought leaders in poverty alleviation. But, from a variety of micro enterprises I’ve looked at/thought of so far, “milk production” seems to be the most optimal.

Thoughts?

Let’s eliminate rural poverty, one buffalo at a time!

Kintan