Tayo Akinyemi

The Truth about Lapdesk, A South African FOPSE: An Interview with Dan Isenberg, HBS Professor

lapdeskIt has been increasingly clear to me that there is a large grain of truth to the not-so-old adage, ?If you want to get something done, give it to a busy person.? As I navigated the handful of near misses with Harvard Business School Professor Dan Isenberg, I realized that I had much to learn about the ?busyness? of business school. He surely wins the award for fastest turnaround time ?ever. I suppose that explains how Professor Isenberg has time to conduct research, teach classes, write cases and field random interview requests from first year MBA students like me. In any event, I was eager to chat with Prof. Isenberg about the case he wrote about Lapdesk, a South African company that provides portable desks to school children who need them, all 4.2 million to be exact. (Isenberg, 5)

Lapdesk’s business model is unique because it capitalizes, literally, on the desks? advertising real estate to attract company sponsorships. Companies buy the desks, which are then emblazoned with corporate branding, and given to the students of facilities-poor schools. Lapdesk CEO Shane Immelman has been well-recognized for his work, receiving the ?Proudly South African New Business of the Year? award in 2005 and becoming an Endeavor entrepreneur in 2006.When he is not moderating panels at conferences like: Controlling Our Destiny: Celebrating Africa’s Success, presented by the Africa Business Club at HBS, Prof. Isenberg finds time to write about super chickens, remittances in Latin America and FOPSEs (rhymes with oopsy) like Lapdesk. Confused? Then read on?

Tayo Akinyemi, Nexbillion.net:
What is the nature of your work at HBS?

Dan Isenberg, HBS: My primary area of interest is entrepreneurship. I teach a full semester second year course called ?International Entrepreneurship? that is built upon my research on global ventures. The course is structured around nine case studies that I use to help students understand global ventures and what makes them work. My research focuses in particular on understanding the growing phenomenon of “born global” ventures and how to help global entrepreneurs identify, create, and exploit global opportunities.

Tayo Akinyemi, Nextbillion.net:
What exactly is a global venture?

Dan Isenberg, HBS: A global venture is one that has some key element of its vision, strategy, or operation that is global from inception. It could be sourcing of materials or services, human or equity capital, customers, or the identification of opportunities which are themselves inherently global. Some types of global ventures would have no reason to exist if they were not international. For example, companies focused on international tourism, medical tourism, shipping, etc. are inherently global from inception.

Tayo Akinyemi, Nextbillion.net:
When did you first learn about Lapdesk?

Dan Isenberg, HBS:
I am always looking for companies that demonstrate the principles of entrepreneurship and global venturing. When I learned about Lapdesk through Endeavor, I thought it would be useful for a case.

Tayo Akinyemi, Nextbillion.net: Why Lapdesk?

Dan Isenberg, HBS: There are four basic reasons.

First, Lapdesk is an example of a FOPSE, or ?for profit social enterprise?. Many FOPSEs address challenges in global markets by using international resources. In the case of Lapdesk, it was the world-wide network and support provided by Endeavor.

Secondly, the company was addressing a major social problem in South Africa that was well-defined and focused. This allows you to ask key questions like:

  • Does the company have a reason to exist after the problem has been solved?
  • Is it possible to internationalize, i.e. export the business model?

Thirdly, Lapdesk is run by Shane Immelman, an experienced businessman and entrepreneur who brings business skills to bear on a critical social problem. The notion of utilizing a profit motive to drive solutions to social challenges is an increasingly common and useful model.

Additionally, Lapdesk is an ongoing venture with operational challenges that one can ?seek one’s teeth into,? and asks questions about international markets and whether the products can be sold outside of the context in which they were developed.

Finally, Lapdesk’s business model is unique and fascinating. It’s a very simple desk that has been turned into an advertising medium.

Tayo Akinyemi, Nextbillion.net: Is there a functional focus for the case?

Dan Isenberg, HBS: The operational issues in the case span the spectrum, including strategy, marketing, negotiations, and HR, so no one perspective is emphasized.The case has actually been used in the orientation curriculum for first year Harvard Business School students–they find it interesting, fascinating and inspiring.

Many HBS students are interested in social entrepreneurship and the opportunity to leverage business skills toward achieving a social mission. Using the case in this way conveys that HBS is concerned about the double bottom line.

Tayo Akinyemi, Nextbillion.net: What lessons do you hope business school students will draw from the case?

Dan Isenberg, HBS: I hope that they will be able to identify the key issues facing small ventures looking to expand internationally. Should they move into other markets? If so, how?

Students should also understand the trade-offs between different functional perspectives, i.e. the challenges of managing suppliers, customers, and people. Often times these demands are beyond what we can realistically address.

Finally, I’d like students to be cognizant of and familiar with a variety of innovative business models.

Tayo Akinyemi, Nextbillion.net:
Do you have other cases similar to the Lapdesk case?

Dan Isenberg, HBS: Yes, I have several. One entitled “Microfinance International Corporation? explores how Microfinance International confronts the challenge of helping Hispanic immigrants to remit cash and access microloans in Latin America. Another, ?”Keggfarms (India)–Which Came First, the KuroilerTM or the KEGGTM?? examines a company founded by an Indian poultry farmer who has developed a breed of chicken that is twice as big, five times more productive, and does not require special feed. This type of innovation is poised to address poverty in India. In fact, the business model, which distributes day-old chicks in rural villages, has helped close to a million households.)

See? When I say super chickens, I mean super chickens.

A hearty thank you to Professor Daniel Isenberg for agreeing to this interview. His patience, understanding and good humor are much appreciated.

Please stay tuned for part II, an interview with Shane Immelman, CEO of the Lapdesk Company.