Scaling Up: How Silicon Valley Can Accelerate Global Social Impact

When Aldi Haryopratomo launched his startup, Ruma, in Jakarta, Indonesia, the last problem he foresaw was too much success.

Instead, he worried about the stuff that every entrepreneur worries about — like raising money or hiring the right talent. As it turned out, that was the easy part.

Today, his company Ruma, which was recently featured in the Wall Street Journal, is firing on all cylinders. The problem is that Aldi urgently needs to upgrade its engine. The question is how? When building a business in a developing economy, the the technical answer to that question is rarely straightforward.

For Aldi, it wasn’t always like this. That’s because he started his career in Silicon Valley, where he joined Kiva.org, the prominent lending platform, when it was only six employees strong.

“I was having a great time in the Valley,” Aldi told me. “Just by hanging out in a coffee shop, you could find the solution to really complicated technical problems.”

This sort of access to collaboration and community simply doesn’t exist elsewhere, especially in emerging markets.

“From a tech perspective, it’s a bit lonely here,” Aldi admits, lamenting the paucity of startup veterans in Indonesia.

Ruma, which is backed by the Omidyar Network and an Indonesian conglomerate, seeks to raise people out of poverty by providing them services through mobile devices — like the ability to re-up wireless minutes or pay for groceries with a phone. In a country where less than a fifth of the population has regular Internet access, those fundamental tools are a big deal.

Local storeowners empowered by Ruma to provide financial inclusion services via mobile devices.

The concept is catching on, but that means Ruma needs to catch up to growing demand. That means answering questions like, How do you scale a platform by 15 times more customers over the next 5 years? Will the system break? If so, when? And when it does, what’s the best kind of architecture to move forward?

The are also questions about organizational structures and best practices.

“There are so many questions,” says Aldi. “You can’t grow fast enough because there’s a limit. How do I make sure my architecture scales? How do I grow my engineering team?”

Aldi’s experience is hardly unique.

In a comprehensive report released this past December conducted by the GSMA in partnership with the Omidyar Network that included dozens of incubators, funding channels, and emerging market startups, the conclusion was telling.

While entrepreneurs had a wealth of resources to get their feet off the ground — from startup accelerators and angel investors to like-minded communal hubs for ongoing support — “once startups expand beyond early-adopter customers, local resources are often insufficient to support further scale.”

In other words, for the majority of new ventures, there was a ceiling to their success. What they lacked was the know-how to take their companies to the next level once they’d created a functional business — the kind of know-how that only comes from having done it before.

The report defines “scaling” as “a stage in a company’s development after it has established a viable product or service, a proven market, a clear commercialization strategy, and a considerable customer base.”

These firms had growing revenues and user bases, plus all the tangibles to support further growth, such as money and talented employees. The missing puzzle piece was the kind of knowledge that Silicon Valley is perfectly positioned to provide.

Accelerating social impact

When we began the process of creating RippleWorks, a foundation to support financial inclusion around the world, we wanted to hone in on where we could have the most impact.

Throughout our investigation, we kept coming across this same story over and over again. The problem was that there was no infrastructure to connect Silicon Valley talent with international startups in need.

Moreover, this was more than just matchmaking. Formalizing that connection was just as important, which is the vision behind RippleWorks. Guys like Aldi, who have worked in the Valley, already have a network of experts whom he can call.

“While you don’t need someone to be a full-time employee, you need more than some casual, friendly advice,” Aldi explains. “You need someone who intimately understands your company and the local community. That requires a bit more of a commitment.”

“Building a tech company in Indonesia is very different from building one in the Bay Area,” he continues. “For instance, in the Valley, you have fast Internet. How do we develop our app so our end customer doesn’t need a fast data connection? There are technical answers to these questions, such as certain cache optimizations you can implement. But arriving at those answers requires expertise and experience. You’re not going to find those answers here at the local coffee shop.”

“So to have someone actually visit is a big deal,” Aldi says. “It’s not just a Skype call. The entire team gets access to this knowledge.”

“This is thing that RippleWorks hits dead on.”

Doug Galen is the CEO and co-founder of RippleWorks, which pairs volunteer technology & business experts with promising social ventures globally to conquer scaling challenges and accelerate impact. Visit our website to learn more and join our community.