A few years ago I read a fascinating study of poverty and decision fatigue in India. In the study researchers offered poor and wealthy buyers name-brand soap at a steep discount. The wealthy buyers made the purchase without second thought. It was a great deal. The poor buyers, however, agonized over the decision. The name-brand soap was truly a good deal but the soap still exceeded the price of generic. For those poor buyers the deal became a conundrum of brand-name prestige against money for food. The decision was tiring. But not only that, it left less energy for other decisions. Aha! Decision fatigue.
I shortly applied this decision lens to my own behavior. I observed how navigating life with little income was tiring. Every decision takes energy. Take the bus or walk or take a cab. Purchase name brand OJ on sale for $2.50 or store brand OJ slightly cheaper at $2.29? Should I buy a subscription to the Economist? These conundrums may appear petty but I began to realize their cost. Lack of resources meant less time and energy for bigger decisions.
Or consider another angle, habits of Mark Zuckerberg. He wears a grey t-shirt all the time. You know why? Such a shortcut frees energy for other pursuits. He can focus on running a company rather than sartorial decisions.
Indeed, those sartorial decisions take energy. I used to work in fashion in New York and would plan my outfits a week in advance. I enjoyed it, the art form. I even managed to earn the nick-name Diana Ross for my penchant for going home at the lunch hour and changing my look. But why not? I had a collection of pants 60 pairs extensive that needed celebration. All this shopping and fashion designing had its trade-off though—I didn't run a billion-dollar company. But I did look great.
These stories are a lengthy introduction into today, 4:45 pm on a Friday. I'm in Cove, a co-working space in Columbia Heights in Washington, DC. Despite a lifestyle of decision fatigue, I'm here having navigated a decision minefield. The question posed to me and to Al Mokha, P.B.C. is Where should the business be located? Since graduating from the Harvard Innovation Lab, fellow food startups such as Tomato Jos, Rumi Spice, and Six Foods have relocated to Nigeria, Chicago, and San Francisco, respectively. This is a big decision. Where will each company have the greatest chance of success? And it's one of many decisions. As a startup, I question every, single, assumption. What time should I start work when I wake up late? Should I work on the weekend? Is my development model sound? Is $89 a good price for four hours/day at Cove co-working space? Around every corner it feels lurks mistakes with opportunity hiding somewhere. My job is navigating this maze. And what's particularly cool is this maze has multiple levels. Staircases! I think I just faced one and climbed up to level two. That big, booming, corporate strategy decision was Where must Al Mokha reside?
I announce to you our new home: Washington, District of Columbia. Come visit our World Headquarters, a standing desk among others on 14th street.
In selecting DC I decided that being close to policy makers mattered most. We've been here nearly four weeks and in my gut I made a good decision. Since arriving I've strengthened my relationship with the Yemen embassy. In fact, just today they called me saying, we need Al Mokha coffee! Today! In two hours! And last week I spent a couple days at a Yemen cultural event hosted at the World Bank (see headline photo). During that event Al Mokha served coffee to upwards of 250 leaders (bureaucrats?) in the field of development. There you see Yemen's ambassador to the United States checking out Al Mokha. Not bad for a scrappy startup. We also did $1000 in sales. Clearly the thirst for good coffee knows no boundaries. This might be what has me particularly excited for Al Mokha. Every morning over 100 million Americans wakeup and have a cup of coffee. In that indulgent routine (no decision fatigue here) is our chance to share coffee from Yemen directly into your home. There is this intimate moment, at home, kitchen table, quiet, maybe a newspaper, where Al Mokha can tell a story. Coffee from Yemen is the best. You may open the paper and read of difficulty in the latest global hotspot, but our message of hope has reached you first. Good morning!
In other news, I'm down to four pairs of pants and fewer decisions. Next step a gray t-shirt and black turtle neck. Outfit of champions.
In my last post, I talked about numbers, about progress and about impact we could measure at Al Mokha. Economists tend to get wrapped up in numbers. This group of people is richer, you might say, and an economist wants to know, okay, but how do measure “rich”? Is it how much money or how many assets they have; is it how much they earn? How do you get a representative sample to answer your questions? How do you know that someone’s observable (or unobservable) characteristics aren’t influencing the way they perceive the question?
Economists have largely settled these questions. With a little effort, you could get to a point where you could measure “rich” satisfactorily, where you could answer the question of who is richest.
But some questions are simply unanswerable within the paradigm of statistical causality. Some of those questions are ones that Al Mokha wants to answer.
For instance, is coffee the best answer to Yemen’s woes?
As a development economist with interests that are a little outside the norm, I spend a lot of my day thinking about how to measure unmeasurable things. How prevalent is a certain belief? And how does it affect people’s behavior? Can one violent event, or experience, be objectively seen as worse or more violent than another? And if so, what determines that violence—scope, tenor, frequency? How do we fix it?
So, when Anda told me he wanted to start thinking more about impact and measurement at Al Mokha, I jumped up and down with glee. From the moment he and I first talked development and coffee in Cambridge almost a year ago, I’d been questioning, "cool, but how do you measure that?"
In Part I, Anda wrote about the perils of trying to be a salesperson / academic, and how that duality plays out in the business: investors want to see sales growth whereas economists (me!) want to see real, measureable change in things like poverty levels, in coffee production, in anything we can quantify with data.
So we're working towards that. In this post, Part 2, I introduce myself and in parts III- V we tackle some tough questions.
Well, who am I? If you're here frequently you know Anda and you've heard mention of some of his advisors (as he spins tales of sinking all his time into a startup). I'm the nerdy PhD obsessed with data and development. I have a doctoral degree in economics. I spend most of my time reading and writing papers on violence against women and children and female labor force participation. In the headline photo that's me doing research for the IRC in Nyarugusu, Tanzania. Basically, I spend a lot of time thinking about very economist-y things like incentives.
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