Posted by: mattnespoli | June 8, 2011

The scalability of WfW’s business model

by Matt Nespoli, WfW Founder and President

As an MBA student at MIT Sloan, I’m now immersed in an ecosystem that is obsessed with innovation. Many of my peers came to MIT to launch new business ventures that they hoped would leverage the amazing scientific research and invention that happens in the myriad engineering labs on campus.

If you visit campus on a given day, you’ll have the option of attending any one of a series of presentations by CEOs and founders of various startups, medium and large-scale enterprises to hear how they developed their business model and scaled their business. Many of these executives are MIT alums themselves. Needless to say, it’s a really exciting place to be.

Naturally, all this thinking about business models and scalability enters my thinking about WfW’s long term strategy. Have we created the best business model for WfW? How do we scale our efforts in order to provide more people with drinking water at a faster pace?

Here are some thoughts on these questions. Scalability assumes that you’ve got a product that can be easily replicable to different types of consumers. Facebook is the easy example: every user gets the same online template with which he/she can build a profile, and very little attention needs to be paid to each individual user once the template is in place. However, my sense is that implementing public works projects such as potable water systems for very different groups of communities is very hard to scale quickly. In my view, much attention needs to be paid to the idiosyncracies of each community’s geography, hydrology, economic situation, and politics in order to make sure each project is actually successful. This, of course, makes scalability very difficult for us.

One could ask: what about alternative approaches to bringing people clean water besides the capital-intensive approach of pouring concrete and laying pipe? There are certainly many products that have come to market that attempt to purify water cheaply for individuals and families, such as the now-famous lifestraw or the popular clay filters. While these are amazing innovations, and have the potential to significantly improve people’s health, they do not bring the benefit of relieving women and children of the time-consuming burden of fetching water, which is time that could otherwise be spent on studying or economic activities.

One strategy for scalability that we haven’t yet considered is a hybrid model. In such a model, WfW would continue to build gravity-fed water systems that bring clean water directly to schools and households. However, such systems always exclude families that live too far away from the water system or that live above the altitude of the spring from benefiting. For these families, WfW might consider purchasing clay or biosand filters to improve their health outcomes. WfW could also consider purchasing large plastic rainwater collection bins so that these families only need to fetch water during the three months of the dry season, thus increasing the scope of benefits to remote households.

Look for WfW to begin piloting some household treatment projects in several communities this summer. We’re excited about the potential for using these technologies to scale up and achieve our core mission faster: helping Waslalans access the clean H2O they need.

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