Why #ImpactWomen will show you their “duct tape and nastiness”


By Naomi Pyburn for Ogunte

In a talk at the Saïd Business School on how to fail at venturing, Charlie Curtis referred to the ‘duct tape and nastiness’ principle. This is the idea that product development only truly starts after the launch, and that everything before that point is just a hypothesis. The initial stages of planning and strategising are important, yes, but this principle stresses the need to assemble something to test the demand and then workshop how to improve the service or product after it is already in use.

Throw together an inelegant first draft and get it out there as quickly as possible. Duct tape and nastiness.

This really stuck with me, if you’ll pardon the pun. We can fall into the trap of believing our venture has to be polished and perfect before we let anyone else see it: we want the best design we can make, the most future-proof code, the most impressive high-tech solution.

But there is value in hacking something that is not your best work and getting it out into the real world. You can test the market, spot usability kinks early on, and (this is key) see if people actually want it. Does it improve lives?

One example Charlie cited of ignoring this principle was the now-infamous PlayPumps that were rolled out in their thousands across ten sub-Saharan countries. Millions and millions of dollars were raised; presidential and celebrity endorsements flooded in to support the charity that wanted to harness the energy of playing children to pump water, using brightly-coloured roundabouts/merry-go-rounds.

However, they failed to test the idea and had already installed thousands before they realised some fundamental flaws. Their calculations were a little off. To meet the goal of bringing ‘clean drinking water for up to 10 million people’ with the planned 4,000 pumps, children would have to play non-stop on the pumps for 27 hours a day.

Setting that aside, the pumps didn’t work practically. They were hard to push, so children tired quickly and largely abandoned them in favour of more fun activities. Elderly women ended up having to suffer the indignity of pushing these gaudy pumps around. The repairs were a nightmare and unreliable, and the whole thing pretty much collapsed.

The moral of the story is: trial the viability of your idea in a low-cost way. Preferably sooner rather than later to minimize efforts wasted.

Duct tape entrepreneurship in action

Impact Women in our network spoke of the need to take a leap of initial action, and refine the concept from there.

Karen Mattison co-founded Timewise to open up the flexible job market. Here’s what she and co-founder Emma did to gauge the level of interest for their idea:

‘My business partner Emma Stewart and I started our first venture, Women Like Us, in the days before digital. We built a database of thousands of parents by putting leaflets in book bags with a simple message: Are you struggling to find a part time or flexible job?

We were sure we knew what the problem was, but we tested it in a low-cost way: the response we got back gave us the confidence and customer base we needed to launch the business.’

Hyansintha Ntuyeko, founder of Kasole Secrets, researched the demand for a menstrual hygiene initiative while selling sanitary products, and discovered her entrepreneurial spirit along the way:

‘My aunt told me to get out there and sell to everyone you meet, both women and men. After two days of planning, I went out and managed to sell half of my products - I couldn’t believe it!

Hearing women’s experiences with sanitary pads over their lives, I saw the chance to bring change.

Today, I still rely heavily on feedback from customers, and learn what the demand is like from them. This guides and fuels my great inspiration to dream big.’

Essma ben Hamida knew she wanted to help empower women economically, but wasn’t sure exactly how. She opened a community centre with a tiny budget in the poorest neighbourhood in Tunis, and put on events, skills workshops, and parties for the unemployed women and youth in the community.

This allowed her to spend time talking to the women and finding out what their barriers to employment were:

We asked them why they weren’t working. Most said it was because they had no money, some said they didn’t know what to do, they had no skills.

At that moment, I remembered Grameen Bank and thought: Why don’t we try microcredit?

We said to the women: ‘If we give you a loan, will you do something?’ They said: ‘Of course we will!’ So we started, and gave them the first loans, and then by the second loan, they started believing in us and began to do business.’ 

The solution came to Essma when she connected the dots from a place of relationship with the women and the community. Their feedback prompted Essma to pursue microfinance and build enda, a hugely successful NGO.

Experiment boldly

Jenny Costa and Megan Miller both founded start-ups in the food industry.

After a flash of inspiration on how to tackle a problem, they each took to their own kitchens to try out their ideas and test the viability of their products.

Megan founded Bitty Foods, which makes cricket flour products. She put her idea out there at a very early stage, and shaped her business around the response:

‘Honestly, what happened was so crazy. Early on, when we were still conceptualising the business and planning our products, I pitched a talk to TEDx Manhattan about edible insects as a food source and as a potential food system stabilizer. After I was accepted, I was picked up by all this media. I went from just having a crazy idea to being in Vogue magazine and The New York Times! Suddenly, I didn’t feel so crazy.

So, I gave the talk, and brought some cookies that I’d made with me. They were not for sale, but people really liked them, and the press picked up on these ‘cricket cookies’. There was a rush of inbound interest from people who wanted to buy the cookies – we thought ‘Oh my God, they don’t exist yet!’ We had to throw together everything really fast, from our health department certifications to our baking staff, so we could start actually producing and shipping these cookies! So, we sort of stumbled into cookies as our first product just because of the demand for them after that event.’

Megan and Leslie had to react quickly to pull everything (logistics and funds) together, but the cookies were a proof of concept that injected energy and urgency into the process.

Jenny founded Rubies in the Rubble to rescue produce that is rejected and thrown away due to aesthetic imperfections, and give them new life as chutneys and relishes. She had an idea, and immediately set about testing it out:

‘I started reading about the problem of food waste after seeing the amount of discarded produce at fruit and veg markets across London. Beautiful mangoes, cranberries and tomatoes all headed for landfill, often because they simply didn’t look right.

Armed with some family recipes and a car boot full of rescued fruit & veg from the New Covent Garden market, the experimentation in the kitchen began!’

Jenny tested the concept for herself in an inexpensive way to prove these rescued ingredients were worth building a business around.

Take away

The first draft is just a first draft. Expect to have to workshop and adapt initial concepts, even discard ideas that don’t pass the viability test.

Perfectionism is not useful at first – focus on getting a ‘duct tape’ version of your idea out of your head and into the world, and take it from there!


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