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Breaking the Pattern: Building Products for an Ignored Market

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Targeting the 60 million Americans who are digitally illiterate may not be cool, argues this CEO, but it is a huge business opportunity.

By Christina Gagnier (CEO, TRAIL)

Pattern matching is startup world speak that we hear on a daily basis. These founders are like these founders. This company is like this company for this other market. 

Despite the pattern matching and the seemingly strict adherence to this practice that is pervasive in Silicon Valley, any investment in a startup is going to be an experiment. If investments are largely experiments — and when a company has no revenue, no users and just an idea, investments definitely are — then why not experiment with startups who don’t match patterns? 

Why ignore a product that can serve a market of 60 million people in the United States and over 5 billion people worldwide? That’s the number of people who still don’t know how to use the internet. Why not dig into these markets and help to break another type of pattern, the patterns of socioeconomic status and lack of access to opportunities that keep people across the world unemployed, without access to healthcare and no meaningful way to be financially sustainable?

These social aims aside, why ignore huge market segments that are largely ignored despite their growing “power in numbers” in the marketplace?

Another Kind of Illiteracy

That’s why we started TRAIL in California, helping the millions of people who remain offline and unemployed since they do not know how to use the Internet (they are digitally illiterate), we went from a project with a mission to a mission-driven startup with our first platform, JobScout.

Just because your users do not match a pattern does not mean there is no business model. Hundreds of thousands of government agencies and organizations around the world provide support services for billions of people worldwide. The World Economic Forum recently held a forum in China discussing the worldwide youth unemployment crisis, a crisis that affects over 75 million youth worldwide. The solutions advanced were that young people need to get online and use online learning platforms to get the skills they need to find work.

It’s nice that the panelists at the WEF forum addressed the “skills gap,” but the gateway skill that contributes to this gap is the know how to use the Internet.

The Latino Market and the Boomers

Our team identified two other markets that could be served: the Latino Market and the Boomers. There is a Latino Market whose growth is skyrocketing in the United States, and a Spanish-speaking population in need of platforms like ours throughout Central and South America. Why care? They are spending more and becoming more of a market variable for the private and public sector alike.

Then, there are the Boomers — the target market we get the most questions about. We are continually asked, “So, your product is for my grandma?” Of course, our product is for your grandma!

Boomers currently comprise 29% of the United States population. In the next fifteen years, there will be over 85 million Boomers in need of products and services. While some of these people may use our platforms to learn to Facebook with their grandkids, another large segment has to stay in the workforce or reenter it. Retirement is drastically shifting. People are living longer, and are discovering that their needs at 60, 70 and beyond are much different from those of their parents. To not address the needs of this market would simply be foolish.

We are consistently asked about our business opportunity. To us, the opportunity is apparent. There are Fortune 500 companies that cannot find people to fill vacancies. There are millions of people who once they are online, can finally be offered products and services they never would have had access to before. These are first time Internet users. This is a truly untapped market.

TRAIL might not match a “Silicon Valley pattern.” The CEO and the COO are women. When we were competing in the Startup Battlefield at TechCrunch Disrupt this September, a guy approached one of our team members and exclaimed, “Your CEO and COO are women!” Our team member responded, “Yeah, I’ve noticed.” We also serve an untapped, which means unknown, market.

Those companies who sit outside of the pattern make the biggest impact. One of these things is not the like the other. That’s ok.

Do you agree that Silicon Valley is too obsessed with pattern matching?

CGagnierAbout the guest blogger: Christina Gagnier serves as the CEO at TRAIL, managing strategic direction, product development and business operations for JobScout, HealthScout and other TRAIL platforms. Prior to TRAIL, she served as the principal of REALPOLITECH, the CIO of Mobilize.org and in research for Larry Lessig at Stanford. She is also an attorney.

Photo credit: Suresh Eswaran via Flickr