I have just returned from vacation in Alaska. Most majestic landscape I have seen anywhere in the world. As is my custom, I read some books about Alaska and the indigenous population. The indigenous people have been in Alaska for 16,000 years and have survived two ice ages. After 16,000 years in the same place a people develop a comparatively advanced culture very suited to the surroundings. All was bliss and comparative harmony until the Russian explorers arrived in the 1700s.
These early explorers were charged with determining whether a colony should be established. With the abundance of furs, Alaska was a natural location for a colony. In keeping with the "business model" of the time, to establish a successful colony one maximized financial return with complete disregard (exploitation) of the local population. The Russians improved on run of the mill exploitation by kidnapping the natives' wives and children until a ransom was paid in pelts. As the fur trade grew in monetary terms the Russians looked to change the business model from exploitive to sustainable. The Russians were never able to achieve sustainable colonies in Alaska, which prompted them to sell Alaska to the U.S. government for a mere $15 million. The Russians failed because they never engaged the self-interest of the locals and the local market forces to support the colony.
The errors by the Russians are the mistakes I see frequently in social entrepreneurship:
- They committed to a strategy (kidnapping) which made it difficult to execute a second or iterative approach to strategy
- Their arrogance blinded them to understand the self-interest of the local people
- They did not make use of the local market forces, which in the case of Alaska had been developing (albeit primitive) for thousands of years