Sunday, March 8, 2009

Can a healthy dose of idealism (in a skeptical world) help redefine markets?

Sometime in the 90’s, my then boss told me that he had taken his octogenarian father to Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai for a serious surgery.

My spontaneous response was, “Aravind in Madurai? Isn’t that a hospital for the poor?” I meant by this ignorant remark - poor quality, lousy service and above all how could one go to a small town hospital for a major surgery. My boss simply told me that they were the best and his father had recovered in record time. That was my introduction to Aravind.

Couple of years ago, C.K.Prahlad, the guru of strategy in his famous book ‘Fortune at the bottom of the pyramid’ devoted a full chapter on Aravind Eye Hospital and termed it as a Centre of Excellence. That is like winning the Nobel.

Aravind started by a retired professor, Dr.G.Venkataswamy, who wanted to provide world-class eye care to eradicate needless blindness. This is made possible by a Trust and a team of dedicated staff. The poor are treated free of cost and nor do they over-charge the rich. The fact that they do not depend on Government dole and meet all their financial requirements themselves makes their story even more amazing. From a small hospital in 1976 they have expanded to other towns in the state of Tamil Nadu and along the way treated millions of people.

Aravind is like a breath of fresh air that has completely redefined hospitalization and bucked the unholy trend of ‘corporatization’ that has crept into this noble field. In fact ‘corporatization’ is increasingly taking medical care out of reach of the poor and even the salaried class. Aravind is a case of idealism and profits working in tandem for a greater good.

In this connection, I cannot help talking about Mozilla Firefox. Here’s a browser created by developers from around the world with a simple goal – the best browser made available to everyone for free. Firefox has become a rage amongst users. It might never be able to overtake Internet Explorer, but that is okay. Its growing popularity (and that of others) has made IE uneasy enough to launch newer versions of their browser to stay ahead.

There is one aspect of Mozilla Firefox that I know nothing about – its revenue model, if any. If someone can throw light on this, I will be extremely grateful. Revenue or not, Mozilla Firefox is a case of idealism that has challenged a monopoly and thereby changed the landscape of browsing.

Then there is this interesting organization called 'Better Place' founded by Shai Agassi. Their noble ideal is to ‘Create a world free of oil’ and thereby heal the battered environment. They are building an electric car company and an electricity distribution network to charge the cars anywhere, anytime. Mobile and mobile networks are the inspiration behind their business model. The fact that countries like Denmark, Israel, Australia and the Bay Area of California are partnering ‘Better Place’ reinforces their growing popularity. Thomas Friedman even warns that Detroit might have missed the bus (or car) and therefore might lose out completely in the long run.

I wish countries like India actively adopted the model that Better Place has created. It could mean reduced dependence on fossil fuels (and thereby saving precious foreign exchange) and much less pollution to choke our lungs. Nothing much can be done about the choking of roads though.

In all this, am I confusing idealism for vision?

Probably yes. I would prefer to treat it as matter of semantics at this point in time.

What I meant by idealism in the cases mentioned above (and many such) was that doing good to a vast majority of people was the starting point for the creation of the product or service. Everything else followed thereafter.

Therefore, can idealism help redefine markets?

Yes, because doing good for people can actually be good marketing provided:

1 The product or service should be world-class which lives and breathes the ideal

2 It should completely overturn existing models in their respective category

3 This is not a CSR initiative. In most cases CSR is just a halo effect that organizations try to create for themselves. An earlier post of mine talked about this.

Finally, it was not very long ago that idealism and foolish were mentioned in the same breath. Now I suspect increasingly idealism will play an important role in driving economic growth. The current economic situation has made people cynical of things ‘business or corporate’ in nature. However, someone breathing idealism and ideas might be just what the doctor ordered.

For example, the financing activities of the housing sector was the starting point for the beginning of market collapse. The same housing sector with a dose of idealism can see its revival and that of the economy. This could be in the form of low cost, eco friendly mass housing projects (I don’t know the economics of it though) I can also think of Education as another area that the world could benefit with a radical approach.

Idealism plus action in business can probably save the world.

Now, am I being too idealistic or what?

(Image courtesy: Ivet Angelova)


  1. I fully agree, and no you're not too idealistic.

  2. True, even if idealism get a wee bit watered down at execution, we would have travelled a distance. Good one :)

  3. Thanks for the visit Saurabh and your comment. Since 'watering down' is defnitely bound to happen, it is critical to have a strong ideal.