I am going to come across as a terrible person in this post. I recently finished a fascinating book, Portfolios of the Poor, which chronicles the lives of desperately poor people around the world living on less than $2 a day. And I am going to review it from a thoroughly selfish angle: the surprising lessons for entrepreneurs from the $2/day world. In my defense, I started reading the book with nobler and more compassionate motives: I truly did want to understand the plight of the poor and learn what I could do to help. I was also just plain curious about povertynomics, if you will pardon a terrible neologism. But the content of the book was so surprising, and so obviously and intimately connected to the world of entrepreneurship, that that angle hijacked both my reading and blogging intentions.
So let’s go doing some greedy mining of wisdom-of-the-poor. If you’re not interested in entrepreneurship, this is not going to be the best review/summary/introduction for you, but should still be acceptable.
To most of us rich people (relative to the $2/day world, if you are reading this post, you are rich) the idea of an entire family living on $2/day seems somewhere between ridiculous and impossible.
And I am not just talking about First Worlders sitting in places like the US, sipping $2 Starbucks drinks as I am right now. The $2/day lifestyle seems impossible even from a middle-class perspective in the developing world. I lived in India for the first 22 years of my life, often next door to the types of people described in the book, and to be honest, they might as well have been on the other side of the world. To calibrate, as a middle-class undergraduate student in the mid-90s in a heavily state-subsidized university in Bombay, the total unsubsidized cost of living for me was probably around $10 – $15 a day (or about 15-20x the per-day cost for a member of a $2/day 3-member household). My standard of living was probably comparable to that of an American undergraduate student in a big city like New York.
Yes, I personally knew many people living these $2/day lives (to call them “lifestyles” seems insulting) personally. I saw the awful standard of living up close. I saw some of the visible details of how they made ends meet.
But for all that proximity, I have to admit I was not very much wiser about the $2/day world than the typical American, and it wasn’t just that I was 15 years younger at the time. The complexity, dynamics and deep structure of poverty is just not visible on the surface. And the surface is just ugly and guilt-inducing enough to the middle class that we hurry by hastily without risking a second glance.
Portfolios of the Poor allows you to peer into the world, guilt-free, and really understand how it works.
Let me hasten to add that it doesn’t do this by romanticizing the world of the poor the way naive forms of the fortune at the bottom of the pyramid idea do. Too many people use the “bottom of the pyramid” model as a way to conveniently excuse themselves from social justice concerns entirely, pretending that just bringing capitalist motives to the engagement of poverty will solve all problems.
The moral posture of the book is what I consider exactly right: yes, the poor are a hell of a lot more resourceful and entrepreneurial than we give them credit for. Yes, there is a thriving capitalist economy in every major slum. True, they don’t need our charity if it comes with a condescending view that we are somehow smarter because we happen to be richer. Yes, the “International Aid” model is beyond broken.
But, the book is careful to point out, this does not mean that they are not miserable or that their lives cannot be improved beyond what free market forces can accomplish.
It all starts with understanding the contours of the financial lives of the poor.
Small, Irregular and Unpredictable
The book frames the financial world of the poor as being driven by three characteristics of their income streams. They are small, irregular and unpredictable.
We rich people are at least aware of “small”: it is the incomprehension with which we grope around the $2/day idea. To me today, that means “cup of coffee.” When I was a student in India, it meant “fun movie+dinner night out with friends.”
But as it turns out, a regular and predictable $2/day income would actually be powerful enough that the poor could potential bootstrap themselves out of poverty with it. What makes their condition so difficult is irregularity and unpredictability.
Irregularity means that the $2/day, which amounts to $730 a year, does not come in a steady trickle. It is distributed messily through the year. For a street hawker, the week-to-week variance might be very high. For a small-holding farmer, the income might be concentrated around a single month. For a construction worker, it might vary with the business cycle.
Unpredictability means the $730 is not a guaranteed number but an average. There can be good and bad months, bad and terrible years.
The second big insight in the book is that despite these extremely severe conditions, the poor do not live hand-to-mouth. They do not spend every night in terror, wondering if they’ll eat the next day. They actually go beyond daily expenses and manage to save, buy insurance, raise capital and plan for retirement. Not very effectively by rich-world standards, but they do it.
Turns out that they manage their small, irregular and unpredictable incomes with extraordinarily sophisticated financial portfolios. Reviewing the details, I was shocked: for many of the research subjects, the financial lives on display were more complicated than mine, not less. They used a wider variety of financial instruments than I do, in more complex ways. Here’s just one example: the financial life of Hamid and Khadeja, a married couple with one child, from a poor coastal village in Bangladesh. Hamid, who was in poor health, earned money as a rickshaw driver and construction worker. His wife, Khadeja, made some money sewing. Income: $0.78/person/day. Here’s their balance sheet for a non-exceptional month, November 2000:
- Microfinance savings account: $16.80
- Savings with a “moneyguard” (like a trusted neighbor): $8.00
- Home savings: $2.00
- Life insurance: $76.00
- Remittances to home village: > $30
- Loans out: $40
- Cash in hand: $2
- Microfinance loan account: $153.34
- Private interest-free loan: $14.00
- Wage advance: $10
- Savings held for others: $20.00
- Shopkeeper credit: $16.00
- Rent arrears: $10.00
Financial net worth: -$48.54
If you know anything at all about finance, this is extremely impressive management. There is highly active cash flow management, multiple horizon savings, risk management, management of different lines of credit and debt, and a diverse collection of social-financial relationships.
To you and me, this level of financial activity is simply not worth managing actively at all. We use our significantly larger cash reserves to just absorb all this variability, so we don’t have to actively deal with financial management decisions below about $200. For us, the fact that the income is not “small” in this sense allows us to simply swamp out the irregularity and unpredictability. Financially, my life for instance, has enough of a cushion that if I were to lose my job tomorrow, I could last for several months with no real lifestyle change. That’s plenty of time to figure out a financial recovery strategy. That means I can be lazy and not think as much about money until events force me to.
And it’s not that the poor have more time than you and me to invest in financial management. The idea that the poor have “more time than money” only applies to the educated kinda-poor with basic needs taken care of. The real poor work the same long hours (while burning way more calories), and at the end of the day are more tired, less informed, and less able to do the thinking and management. But they do it anyway, because they have to. And with a sophistication that would put you and me to shame.
Cash Flow Management vs. Wealth Management
This is where the analogy to startups comes in. Like startups (and unlike paycheck employees or big corporations), poor people manage cash flows, not wealth (at this point, it may be worthwhile for some of you to read/reread my Fools and their Money Metaphors and Ancient Rivers of Money posts).
You could boil down all of finance to two basic problem. The first is to make money supply predictable and stable, and the second is to gain enough control over it that you can match supply to demand.
If you solve those two problems, you can get to the third one: creating wealth with the surplus.
If you live on a paycheck as an individual, or a predictable and mature market as a big company, you get the predictability and stability for free. You only have to solve the second problem of control. You do this in two ways. First you plan for the big anticipated events in life (retirement, college, house purchase) through savings and debt. Second, you plan around the known risks (health, floods, fires, theft) through insurance.
Your personal life may seem very tough to you, relative to your environment, but actually your demand/supply matching problem is very easy. The evidence is that most of us do manage to solve it and move on to wealth management problems (early retirement, how to get that yacht, earning f*** you money, engineering 4-hour work-week lifestyles).
For the poor, the first problem is to actively manage cash flows, which you and I solve by simply making a couple of credit card payments and writing a couple of checks a month, with the rest on autopilot. As the book demonstrates, you get a sense of just how actively the poor manage cash flows by looking at churn.
The story is revealed when we look at cash flows rather than balance sheets. During the year, all of the financial diary households pushed and pulled through financial instruments amounts far greater than their year-end net worth… We use the expression “turnover” to mean the total sum of money being “pushed” and “pulled”… The high level of financial activity is particularly surprising when considered in relation to income. We might call this ratio the “cash flow intensity of income”:… In India, households shifted, on average, between 0.75 and 1.75 times their incomes, with high-velocity money movers like rural small traders shifting more than three times their earnings in an average month…. In South Africa, the poorer half of the households turned over a bigger multiple of their income than the richer half… This attests to our general notion that lower incomes require more rather than less active financial management.
When I read this analysis, the thought that popped into my head was “ants versus elephants.” Ants can lift many times their body weight, while elephants can only lift 4-5% (300-500 kg). Yet we think of elephants as the heavy lifters. The scale difference also causes qualitative differences: ants can walk or water or get trapped in a droplet, due to the effect of surface tension at their scale. The poor, similarly, have to deal with “surface tension” type phenomena that simply don’t affect you and me, given the scale of our financial lives (there’s an interesting “hydrodynamics of money” theory lurking here).
The big insight in the book is the extent to which the cash-flow management solution is a social, rather than individual. You might have the mistaken idea that until microfinance came around, the only financial instrument available to the poor was loans from sharks at predatory interest rates. This is wrong on two levels.
First, the loan “sharks” aren’t the evil oppressors we tend to imagine. The details are tricky (and the book devotes many pages to explaining them, with worked example calculations of true interest rates and meaningful cost-of-capital analyses), but if you actually examine in detail how loan “sharks” operate in poor communities, you realize that a lot of it is very humane, practical and flexible. It is actually the apparently superior low-interest banking models we use that are oppressive for the poor, due to the rigidity of how they can be used.
Second, there are a variety of instruments beyond shark loans.
Most of them are social. Some are as simple as you might expect: keeping money with a moneyguard (a trusted neighbor or older relative) to avoid temptation and protect against dangers like drunk husbands. Others are so complex, I had to do some pen and paper math to understand how the hell they worked. This includes a bewildering variety of loan clubs, revolving credit schemes, all sorts of peer-to-peer arbitrage, and amazing forms of what can only be called “angel investing” within the poor. One instrument that I was aware of is a traditional Indian one called a “chit fund” (a specific variety within a broader class called RoSCA — rotating savings and credit association — that is found throughout the world). Growing up, I saw “chit funds” advertised all over the place, but never knew what the hell they were and how they differed from banks, insurance companies or mutual funds. Now I know. They are RoSCAs with some clever auction and derivative-trading type mechanisms built in.
Grameen Bank of course, is the pioneer here. Most of us regard it as revolutionary in its sophistication in providing financial services to the poor. But the Aha! moment for me was realizing that relative to the sophistication of the natural financial systems within the poor communities, the institutions are clumsy, lumbering elephants. Devices like only lending to (for example) peer groups of women are blunt instruments compared to what the poor manage to do for themselves.
The Grameen story (and the stories of its peers and competitors), of course, features prominently in the book, but it is a story that you probably haven’t heard: how Grameen slowly grew more sophisticated as it learned to refine its offerings by mimicking what the poor were already doing. For me, this was a radical reframing of what I thought I knew about microfinance. Rather than a smart banker figuring out how to profitably service an unsophisticated market with sophisticated instruments, the story is about a humble banker starting with a relatively unsophisticated instrument for a very sophisticated market, and gradually refining it to rise to the level of sophistication the marked needed and expected.
The Social Costs of Financial Sophistication
But the sophistication of organic financial systems among the poor comes at a cost. They put enormous strain on reserves of social capital. To make the mechanisms work, the poor are forced to trust each other far more than we rich people do. And like us, they are ordinary human beings, who’d rather not deal with unpleasant neighbors or annoying relatives more than they must. The social burden is bad enough that the poor often forgo even food, rather than have to deal with the mechanisms available to them.
To get a sense of the social-psychological pressure that the poor face, imagine this: you only get your paycheck if you and your 3 closest coworkers go to a weekly confessional meeting where you bare your financial souls to each other and to your manager. That’s the level of nanny-banking many microfinance institutions originally practiced. And when customers started avoiding microfinance, or sending their loan payment via proxies to the weekly meetings, or even reverting to traditional practices, the institutions gradually loosened up their models to lower the debilitating and unnecessary levels of social pressure that were originally assumed to be necessary.
Or imagine that your financial life revolves around conducting annual financial transactions greater than your total income with your least favorite aunt.
Doesn’t sound like fun, does it?
In fact, one of the evolutions in the practices of Grameen and its peers has been to gradually figure out how to trust individual poor people more (among a variety of other evolutions, which include non-social ones like being more flexible about the timing of microcredit, and the coupling microcredit from microsavings in more sophisticated ways that approach comparable social-organic equivalents).
There is also significant unsecured financial risk in the social-capital based system. Your neighbor might run away with the money he’s holding for you to a slum in the big city, for instance. Or your moneyguard uncle might use your savings to pay for his kid’s medicines, forcing you to choose between being a good family member and a jerky creditor.
Many of the books recommendations for financial institutions that want to do more revolve around helping the poor trade off financial independence and financial interdependence in more flexible ways. This is perhaps the deepest lesson in the book: beyond a point, capitalism can only work if individualism is supported. The social mechanisms that keep the poor afloat also what keep them trapped and unable to bootstrap themselves out of poverty.
Lessons for Entrepreneurs
What lessons can entrepreneurs learn from the book? I’ll just list them here, and encourage you to read the book to get at the “how.” The list by itself won’t teach you how to actually achieve the learning.
- Diversify your cash management practices to a larger variety of instruments, time horizons and partners. It takes a village to keep a $2/day family going. It takes a village to keep a startup going.
- Stop thinking around the “wealth management” milestone of “free cash-flow positive.” Start thinking around gradually stabilizing and controlling cash flows in the presence of the small, irregular and unpredictable triad of forces.Your first meaningful financial milestone is predictable quarterly revenues, not cash-flow-positive.
- Try to simultaneously be an investor and an investee. Even if you are yourself scrambling for angel investments, you should be open to making (smaller of course) angel investments in others. Many angels already do this, but most are already successful. The strategy ought to be adopted even by those who haven’t yet “made it.”
- There is a world of cash beyond investment capital: the world of smartly-managed debt. Most startups think of debt financing later than they should, and in more limited ways than they should (there’s more to short-term debt than a credit line from a bank based on average accounts receivable).
- Diversify your income streams: complement your capital-asset project (say a Web product) with consulting and other short-term, non-capital-based income streams
- Get insights into how to orchestrate angel rounds from the way poor families manage big capital rounds, relative to their income (marriages in India and Bangladesh, and funerals in South Africa, are the running examples of capital raising in the book). I don’t think the lessons will port as well to VC rounds, which appear to be a lot more ritualized.
- Try to cycle more money than you actually earn. Money grows when it moves, and capital must circulate. Keep the money moving.
- Recognize the amount of active cash flow management you will need to do, and take on that complexity. Managing the finances of a startup is an order of magnitude more complex than managing a paycheck lifestyle or the budget of a department within a big company. Abandon those financial mental models before you step into the entrepreneurship world.
Most entrepreneurs recognize the need for this in the abstract. I’ve seen isolated examples of every “$2 a day” behavior in the book among entrepreneurs. But most only practice occasional bits of creative social-financial management. There is no deliberate attempt to manage an entire cash-flow portfolio and loan/credit models over multiple time horizons.
There are also two philosophical analogies between poor people and startups.
Most startups don’t make it. They die young of various curable-with-money diseases. That harsh reality holds in the world of the poor as well. Most of the poor don’t “make it.” They die younger, poorer, and more painfully and miserably than us rich people.
A small minority of startups make it. A small minority of the poor climb out of poverty. Startups exit poverty through acquisitions and (rarely these days) IPOs. The poor exit poverty by getting a child educated enough to enter the lower middle class via steady paycheck employment (“acquisition” by the middle class), or turning a small business into a success (“IPO”).
The Rest of the Book
As I said, I’ve chosen to pluck out and highlight the ideas from the book that are most relevant to entrepreneurs. But there’s a lot more to the book, and the book is well worth reading even if you aren’t interested in entrepreneurial matters.
Just the methodology of the study (financial diaries) is very illuminating, and should teach you a lot about how good social science research is done.
The anthropological details of the lives of the poor are fascinating. I found the study of funerals in South Africa to be particularly engrossing.
And finally, read as just straight-up “reality TV,” the stories of the various subjects are just fascinating. Each would make a fantastic movie. Most, unfortunately would be tragedies rather than redemptive tales of leaving poverty behind.
If you like this post, don’t buy me a coffee. Sponsor a micro-loan on kiva.org instead.