BoP Career Paths: Interview with Peter Frykman, Driptech CEO & Founder
In this series, NextBillion brings you Base of the Pyramid career path stories and best practices from across the BoP industry spectrum. To help our readers better navigate potential options and career decisions, we’ll feature interviews with BoP professionals working in start-ups (such as One Acre Fund, Driptech, and d.light), supporting institutions (like AIDG, IDEO, and the Grassroots Business Fund), and corporations (like SC Johnson, Accenture, and Danone), as well as founders of organizations, on-the-ground BoP practitioners, and others.
There are many different paths to working in BoP development. But for a large portion of changemakers, at one point in time, it may seem like the only path is the one created from scratch. That’s the path that led Peter Frykman to found Driptech. Peter has an entrepreneur’s view on the world. He saw a need, and as he describes below, “had to found Driptech.” Driptech is an innovative company that creates “extremely affordable, water-efficient irrigation solutions for small-plot farmers in developing nations.”
Read on to learn more about the experience of starting your own company, from the “aha” moment to building out a management team. For more information on Peter’s company, I encourage you to check out the Driptech site before reading on. If you’re joining us at SoCap 2010 be sure to look out for Peter. He’s one of the esteemed SoCap Fellows who will be in attendance. Here’s what Peter had to say about starting his own company:
Josh Cleveland, NextBillion.net: Let’s take it from the top, Peter. What were you up to before Driptech?
Peter Frykman, Driptech: Before founding Driptech I was working towards my PhD in Mechanical Engineering at Stanford University. At the time I was focused on medical device design because it seemed like the best way for me to combine engineering, entrepreneurship, and social impact into a career. I enrolled in a course called Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability (www.extreme.stanford.edu), which combines business and engineering students to develop enabling technology products for BoP customers.
Through this amazing course I traveled to Ethiopia and saw the need for affordable drip irrigation that could be made locally with high quality. Over the next few months my team and I developed a working prototype of our first distributed manufacturing unit.
NextBillion.net: And when did you decide to start Driptech? When was your “aha” moment?
Peter Frykman, Driptech: As our project progressed successfully I began to realize just how large the global need was for our solution. Hundreds of millions of small farmers suffer from water scarcity without access to affordable, water-efficient irrigation technology. This is the main barrier for them to grow more crops and increase their income and standard of living. I realized that if I could reach a small fraction of these farmers with an appropriate product it would create enormous positive social impact. If I could do it profitably, it would ensure sustainability and help attract more commercial players to design products for this underdeveloped market. It would also satisfy my desire to combine engineering, entrepreneurship, and social impact.
For a while I told people that “I am thinking about starting a company,” which is actually a pretty common phrase around Stanford. After talking with my family and advisors I decided that I couldn’t pass up this opportunity and that I had to found Driptech. I still remember the first time I announced in public “I am starting a company.” I don’t know who was more surprised to hear the words, the group or me.
NextBillion.net: The challenges with starting an organization from the ground up are enough to fill up an entire post (or probably a ten-part series for that matter). Let’s focus on the top two circumstances that were the most difficult to overcome in launching a startup.
Peter Frykman, Driptech: The first big challenge after committing to start a company was raising funds, which is a typical complaint from entrepreneurs. The key for us was identifying the most important milestones to focus on to reduce uncertainty from the investor perspective. It’s easy to get distracted but we did a good job of maintaining focus on our product and distribution.
The next challenge is building and maintaining a solid team, which is of principal importance to me and still commands a large portion of my attention. Growing from one to over ten full-time team members is a continual lesson in leadership and interpersonal dynamics.
NextBillion.net: Tell us about a day in the life of Peter Frykman, CEO and Founder of Driptech.
Peter Frykman, Driptech: I don’t think that two days have been the same since the beginning of Driptech, but here are certain elements that occur regularly, if not daily:
5:30-8am – Rowing: I haven’t been able to give up rowing, which I did competitively throughout college. I row regularly with a masters’ group or by myself in the Port of Redwood City.
9am – Arrive at work, check email, call India team if necessary before it gets too late there
10am- 12pm – Team brainstorms, updates and individual meetings
1pm – Pizzas for a team lunch meeting
2-4pm – Calls or visits from investors, advisors, and job applicants.
4:15pm – 15 minutes of arcade hoops in our office (our Engineering Manager has temporarily beaten my high score)
5-7pm – Email
7-9pm – Dinner with my lovely wife, Allison.
9-11pm – Any necessary calls to India or China
NextBillion.net: As the founder of an organization, your skill set is clearly pretty broad and varied, but what do you think are the top three skills that make you the most successful?
Peter Frykman, Driptech: My most important skill is listening to our customers. Whether it’s a rural farmer or a distribution partner it is critical to understand their needs first in order to design a product or partnership that presents a good value proposition for them.
Startups generally take a huge amount of effort to get going, so it’s important for any entrepreneur to have the determination and endurance required to weather the many challenges.
Finally, I have relied heavily on my sense of humor to get me through the baffling variety of delays and disasters associated with rural development work. Sometimes you just have to laugh.
NextBillion.net: I’m interested to know what you think the BoP development field needs more of. What can NextBillion readers interested in being involved in this field do to make the biggest impact?
Peter Frykman, Driptech: Learn to weld. I believe that creativity stems mostly from one’s physical understanding of the world combined with the various layers of theory and design abstraction that we are taught. Because of how our brains are wired, the main way that we gain physical understanding is through touch and creation with our hands. I’ve taught many people how to weld and for some reason the simple act of melting metal together unlocks tremendous creative potential. Additionally, most of the tools that these BoP customers actually use day-to-day are manufactured locally from welded metal.
The BoP development field needs more creative people empowered to generate creative solutions. So find someone to teach you how to weld.
NextBillion.net: What are some of the skills you look for in people you hire?
Peter Frykman, Driptech: I look for individuals who are creative, honest, and hard-working because I find that they are the hardest traits to change in someone.
NextBillion.net: Presumably, we have more than a few folks reading this article who have at one point thought about launching their own startup to address development issues at the BoP. What words of advice do you have for those who might want to follow a path similar to the one you have chosen?
Peter Frykman, Driptech: Before I started Driptech I was talking to an entrepreneur and mentor of mine. I told him I thought I was entrepreneurial and wanted to start a company. I asked if he could give me any advice. He said that about 50 people came into his office every year and asked him that same question. The only difference between them that he could tell was that the ones who started a company just went and did it. He said: “If you want to be entrepreneurial, you just have to go do it.”
So make sure to really understand your customer, find good advisors that care about you and can help you grow as an entrepreneur and a leader, and then go make it happen!