Bright Lights, No City
by Max Alexander
Hyperion, $24.99, 375 pp.
Business books aren’t often funny. Typically they come in three varieties: the academic tome meant to pad a B-school professor’s CV; the exclamation point-filled, how-to paperback designed as a gateway drug to feed some smooth-talking charmer’s seminars; or a mainstream journalist’s 250-page narrative about some successful entrepreneur or company.
The latter usually finds its way to a traditional trade publisher and is often quite enlightening and successful. Some of the best known of these include the one that perhaps kicked off the genre, Tom Peters’ In Search of Excellence, or later Jim Collins’ Built to Last and even Walter Isaacson’s recent biography Steve Jobs.
Max Alexander’s Bright Lights, No City, the chronicle of his brother’s start-up business venture in Africa, is like none of these; rather, it’s like a very funny story told to the kids around a family Thanksgiving dinner table about a brother’s wacky journey into a weird kind of entrepreneurial heart of darkness.
Two Kids From The Suburbs
Whit and Max Alexander grew up in suburban Grand Rapids, MI. While still in their teens, their parents divorced and the brothers separated. Older brother Max, the rebel, kicked around working here and there until he finally decided to go to college at age 26 due to no small urging from a new wife. His curiosity and vagabond background took him into journalism, editing, and writing his first book Man Bites Log: The Unlikely Adventures of a City Guy in the Woods (if nothing else, he knows a catchy book title when he sees one).
Whit, the math and science nerd brother, took the more traditional path which according to Max meant “he got good jobs, saved money, and tossed around phrases like ’scalable business.’”
Whit went to Georgetown and did a year abroad in West Africa where he spent a few post-college years consulting. He came home, married, did five years at Microsoft developing the Encarta mapping software, and then kicked off his own wildly successful start-up board game company Cranium and sold it to Hasbro.
Financially comfortable, the entrepreneurial Whit still couldn’t quite shake his experience in Africa; and so he plunked down a quarter million dollars of his savings, said goodbye to his very understanding wife, and set off to start a company called Burro to sell rechargeable batteries to the off-the-grid villagers of Ghana.
Africa for Beginners
Why Ghana? Its popular nickname “Africa for beginners” partly explains Whit’s choice. White people are comfortable there. Formed in 1957 out of the former British Commonwealth colonies of Gold Coast and Togoland, it is Africa’s oldest democracy. English is the official language, Christianity is the largest religion, and despite a few coups here and there during its post-independence history, parliamentary government more or less keeps order for a nation of 24 million famously friendly and happy citizens. But most importantly (if you’re going to sell batteries), 80% of Ghanaians have cell phones but only 50% live on the electrical grid to recharge them (or to power their ubiquitous radios, CD players, and flashlights).
Max’s practical wife thinks Whit’s business plan is crazy and wonders “if Africans need more ’stuff’ as opposed to, say, electricity and good government,” to which Max reports Whit replying: “Your wife is a Waldorf kindergarten teacher…She plays with sticks all day and doesn’t let kids use video games. Of course she worries about consumerism in Africa…I mean, she spends all her time around six year olds and you.”
An idealist as well as a successful entrepreneur who could smell profit amid the pervasive diesel fumes and local fufu stews, Whit has a one sentence plan: “Burro is about supplying affordable, productivity-enhancing goods and services to low-income people, and doing it profitably so that we can continue to do so without infusions from governments or charities.”
His cautious wife notwithstanding, Max joins Whit to help with the launch, chronicle his younger brother’s efforts like a modern Boswell, and satisfy his own rebel wanderlust to find the place where “venture and adventure intersect.” As it turns out, for all its western-friendly characteristics, Ghana is still a developing country with open sewers, disease, pot-holed roads, mystifying street foods, and extreme poverty – especially in the rural areas where Burro seeks its customers.
Bright Lights, No City is Max’s amusing story of how Whit took to the wheel of his broke down Tata truck wearing his bright green branded Burro t-shirt (“In Ghana a necktie means you are an important person…with a good job that doesn’t require a machete.”) and pitched his batteries in every village and hamlet within a day’s drive of his headquarters/apartment in the second largest Ghana city of Koforidua.
Business is Business
It’s also a business book with all the savvy eyewitness information one needs to understand the dynamics of launching a new company in a country where “so many charities and NGOs have provided so many services at little or no cost to these villages that expecting something for free from white people has become perfectly rational behavior.” The economics of Whit’s “always fresh” rechargeable batteries make perfect sense to him, but to convince his skeptical potential customers he has to show them.
From the get-go Burro needs sales people signing up villagers and servicing them instantly with newly charged replacement batteries. To find them, Whit has to arrange for the local gong-gong man to assemble a group and translate his pitch. The gong-gong man is the respected village town crier (or village idiot in some cases) who helps round up sales employees. The business starts slow, but Burro batteries in their trademark green begin to make inroads into the market in spite of the cheap Chinese Tiger Head competition. Although his batteries are made in China, Whit insists on the highest quality because he knows that the brand will win out in the long run based on performance as much as the lower cost of recharging rather than discarding.
While Max has plenty of funny stories to tell about his brother’s business, he clearly admires his intensity, dedication, and perseverance. His book shows the many difficulties of launching a new enterprise, difficulties just as prevalent in Silicon Valley as in Koforidua. After Burro is up and running and close to profitability, the rebel brother Max is ready to go home. He concludes “while there is a business to be made serving the world’s poor, it’s not a get-rich-quick scheme. It’s not for people who whither in the heat, worship Wi-Fi, and like their food cooked just so. It’s not for me, in short – but I admire my crazy kid brother for making it his.”
Who could want a better Boswell than that?