Mentorship, measurable impact, and one-way tickets
An Interview with Driptech Founder Peter Frykman
When we spoke with Driptech founder Peter Frykman, he called in from the Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he is currently mentoring local entrepreneurs. Having originally conducted there the research that inspired Driptech, Frykman has returned in search of new impactful ventures. Here’s what he shared with us.
Where does your passion for social entrepreneurship come from?
Growing up, I was very blessed with opportunities to travel. It was foundational to my learning, as I saw what opportunities there were to have an impact — areas in which I could bring my experience, culture, and in many cases privilege in terms of education, background, and resources.
Have you always wanted to do this?
I didn’t understand how I might best attempt to make an impact until I got into college and started studying Mechanical Engineering.
Once I got into the more senior level design courses, I realized that you could basically use product design skills to have a social impact. My first experience in that area was designing for accessibility. In one of my mechanical engineering courses, we designed a glove that would help a partially quadriplegic athlete hold onto a kayak paddle.
It was really a transformative project for me, and it also opened up opportunities elsewhere. I got to spend a summer learning about and working on disability design at a top university in India. It was the first time I got to do something that combined all of my interests — travel, mechanical engineering, design, good — all at once.
That’s how it all started.
What led you to Driptech?
After my experience in India, I continued pursuing medical design and thought I was headed down that path, until I ended up at a graduate course at Stanford on Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability.
It was an interesting course that brought engineers and business people together to solve problems for the world’s poorest customers. In that class, I realized that the majority of impoverished persons in the world were farmers. If I could somehow make an impact on a farmers’ income, it would help to eliminate poverty.
It was then when I got my first chance to go to Ethiopia. I arrived in the middle of the worst drought in years. Farmers had very limited water and needed to be resourceful with what they had. We began looking into which irrigation systems were available, and found that most small-plot farmers were using flood irrigation, an ineffective system that wastes a lot of water.
However, we realized that if we could make irrigation tubes with small emitters affordable and practical, these farmers could use drip irrigation to potentially double their income. That was really compelling for me.
And so Driptech was born from this solution?
Driptech was the idea, yes. We came back to Stanford and set out to make a design that was both more efficient as well as more affordable. It soon became pretty clear that this could positively impact farmers not just in Ethiopia, but around the world. That’s when I quit my PhD and started Driptech.
Through all the ups and downs, I was Driptech’s CEO for 6 years, and I ended up living in India for 4 of those years. Frank (Co-Founder of Bevi) was a Fellow for us in China for about a year. We were in both India and China for a bit, but ultimately decided to focus on India as it was demanding most of our attention.
We had a lot of great people work with us over the years. Over time, we fully developed the technology, set up a factory in India, and created a team to tackle global sales and distribution.
Eventually, we were acquired by the largest drip irrigation company in India, which is the second largest irrigation company in the world.
We had proven that the market was there and really benefited from this large partnership as it helped, and will continue to help, spread our technology and impact around the world. By ourselves, we had gotten our product to about 20,000 farmers, yet this company reaches around 100,000 new customers every year.
It was the right time to sort of step back and let others scale the business.
What was it like building your own company from the ground up?
I think that both the best and worst decisions I made as a first time CEO had to do with building my team.
It was very challenging to get the right people on the team at the right time, as well as make sure each individual role could evolve alongside the company.
After Driptech, I spent a lot of time thinking about team dynamics, understanding the different approaches to being a CEO, and trying to find out which type of team would suit my approach.
That’s what lead me to where I am now: I’ve spent the last two years mentoring other individual entrepreneurs or ones that are apart of incubator programs. Most of my time with them is spent discussing their teams, how to make them better, what or who is missing. It’s an area in which I feel like I can have a magnified impact; I can help others avoid the mistakes that I made while growing Driptech.
Have you seen any impact from Driptech?
Our farmers would get a 3 to 5x return on their investments in the first year. It was unbelievable.
A farmer growing vegetables in the state of Maharashtra would spend $200 on one acre of Driptech drip irrigation and would then make $500-$1000 more dollars in additional top line revenue within a year. The economics were undeniable. Almost too good to be true.
In fact, they wouldn’t believe us. Our biggest issue was often marketing. If someone came up to your right now and said “I’ll double your income,” you wouldn’t believe them either. Ultimately, we focused a lot on convincing farmers. Especially in India, we worked hard to help the farmers overcome the negative connotation of drip irrigation as an expensive and complex solution.
It was very rewarding when we got to meet farmers after they had used the system for one full-cycle. Driptech had doubled their take-home income and therefore had a huge impact on their quality of life. Less water, higher yields, and less labor: it was too good to be true.
Any advice for future entrepreneurs?
It’s important to have mentors.
The best mentors are not necessarily the most high profile, superstar kind of people. Those people can be good mentors, but the most important thing is to find a mentor who cares about you and your success as an entrepreneur.
And this person can be just one or two years ahead of you on your journey as well.
One of my long term mentors started a similar company just two years ahead of me. The company had dealt with all of the same issues I was dealing with. When people found out that he was my mentor, they couldn’t believe it as they saw him as someone who was “still figuring things out.” It didn’t really matter though: he was always a couple steps in front of me so he had already figured it out the things I was trying to do.
What’s in store for you now?
After Driptech was acquired, this first thing I did was travel around Africa, Asia, and the US. It was time to recharge and reflect on my own learnings; part of that meant working with other entrepreneurs through incubators and accelerators like I am still doing now.
I also put a lot of thought into how I personally define impact, and what types of social enterprises I am willing to pursue for years. I’ve come to realize that my motivating factor boils down to poverty alleviation through sustainable business models. And it just so happens that most of the impoverished in this world live in rural areas. All said, two billion people rely on small scale agriculture to make a living, so anything you can do to increase their income — whether through new technology, improving education, or helping them with supply chain linkages — is going to make a huge impact for a lot of people.
As for what he’s doing next, Frykman is keeping an open mind. Ethiopia has about a 100 million people and about 80 million are rural farmers, so it’s a good place for him to start thinking about where to go next.
He hasn’t got a return ticket, so for now you can find him in the capital city of Addis Ababa.
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