There really is a difference

by francine Hardaway on July 23, 2003

There really is a difference between a product and a company, although many entrepreneurs refuse to acknowledge this. Often they come to us with a product, a piece of software or a gizmo, and they want to build a company around it. Sometimes they come to us with an idea, and no product, and they want to build a company around that as well. I much prefer the latter, because a company takes much more than a single product: it�s an amalgam of products, markets, and personalities that takes years to mesh.

A real company is a difficult thing to build. Ask Anil Srivastava, the co-founder of Acrossworld. In 1999, I met the principals of what was then called Acrossworld Communications through Guy Kawasaki�s Rules for Revolutionaries listserv.

Anil and his partner Anat Bernstein-Reich were former Apple emerging markets people, and they were convinced that network technology could connect the poor to the wealthy, creating global opportunity. They started Acrossworld with a very strong mission: to connect emerging markets with the wealth of the developed world using the new communications technologies.

At first, they were going to build a reliable network from India to the United States,. Their customers would be Fortune 500 companies that did business around the world and Indian entrepreneurs who wished to serve as outsourced resources to American companies.

Building such a network required quite a bit of funding, so while Acrossworld was waiting to get funded, it began hosting the web sites of Indian not-for-profits. It was also trying to build a data center in Pakistan. It got involved in a Turkey data center proposal as well. It put together all kinds of relationships between Silicon Valley and emerging markets.

Teams of employees came and went while trying to define the product that Acrossworld would offer, consistent with both its large global mission and its obvious funding limitations. Would the first customer be the entrepreneur from a developing market who needed world class connectivity to compete, or the multinational corporation that needed to connect to its outlying sites?

And then the bottom fell out of the telecommunications start-up market. Funding of any kind was out of the question.

Acrossworld began looking for a faster way to revenue. It decided that it couldn�t build a network, and it couldn�t even assemble a network. So it decided to be a managed network services provider, helping companies manage their networks to emerging markets. Another team of talented people, this time working for pure equity, set out down this road. Many meetings later, most of the people went on to other opportunities, leaving the principals almost alone in a cavernous office. The landlord never kicked them out, largely because he believed in the mission, and didn�t have another tenant for the space.

Three years passed without revenue, save what the principals were able to generate in consulting fees based on their specialized knowledge of emerging markets. People began to call Acrossworld for information about emerging markets, and it developed a deep relationship to the World Bank.

The company maintained its mission-driven focus, using its resources and dollars to sponsor Stanford�s Emerging Markets Forum, a new magazine devoted to the Asian Subcontinent , and even an Indian Film Festival. It developed partners in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, although it wasn�t quite sure how to use them.

Fast forward to the present. (Although I�m sure this was agonizingly slow to the principals). Through its videoconferences for the World Bank, Acrossworld finds another team � now all volunteers � who are finally able to unearth the company�s real product, which turns out not to be technology at all, but expertise. Expertise about emerging markets, how to educate them, innovate in them, and contribute to their economic development.

So in the next few months, Acrossworld will drop the �Communications� part of the company name. Instead, it will offer three specific services to emerging markets: incubation, education, and economic development. The incubation phase is already under way, with a hosted call center solution that is already getting customers in emerging markets. The education phase kicks off August 6, with a videoconference on nanotechnology offered through the World Bank�s Global Development Learning Network. And the economic development services are offered through Acrossworld Development Partners, a �think tank� of Silicon Valley experts who offer themselves to developing countries through Acrossworld.

So four years later, is Acrossworld the same company it was when it was founded? O One might say �of course not; it no longer attempts to build networks.� But I beg to differ. Of course it is. It is still building networks.

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