What I learned in Montenegro, and what has been reinforced to me repeatedly in collaborations with entrepreneurs from many different places, specializing in a range of businesses from technology start-ups to hiking and biking guides, is that usually young entrepreneurial enterprises need only basic tools and strategies to get going. They don't need buzzwords, celebrity endorsement or a course in the macro economics of their operating context. The people building or sourcing the product or service they want to sell require simple tools and instructions for how to handle the basics. Paradoxically, however, sometimes identifying the simple, high value solution can end up being a complex process.
In the case of Montenegro, a country of the Western Balkans, I was working in a region transitioning from the command economy that governed the countries of this region when they were part of Yugoslavia to the market economy that drives these independent nations since Yugoslavia's breakup in the early 1990s.
I joined a small team of adventure travel product developers and marketers working on a USAID-funded economic development project. Significant amounts of foreign aid continue to flow into this region: take for example, the World Bank's portfolio in the Western Balkan region which involves nearly 50 different programs with funding of $3B (World Bank Western Balkan Program Overview). Our team spent months meeting with local businesses, public sector leaders and a collection of aid agencies trying to reconcile the range of visions for what was needed to catalyze economic growth in Northern Montenegro. In this situation in which private sector businesses and public institutions were adapting to new rules and expectations, the simple solutions seemed well hidden.
Close to the soaring peaks of the Dinaric Alps in Durmitor National Park small business owners scattered across the small towns and mountain villages of Northern Montenegro were working to establish tourism businesses: lodges, guiding services, and tours. And yet, the "enabling environment" for these businesses - things like tax policies, zoning and land use policies, regulations surrounding small business registration - were not uniformly established or enforced, leading to confusion and frustration. Further clouding everyone's vision was the lure of aid money, millions of dollars flowing in from multilateral institutions and national aid agencies interested in supporting regional economic stability. Politicians often seemed to insist on solutions that were complex, challenging, and expensive, while individual businesses complained about everything from corruption to web development. It was so easy to get lost in the noise.
While the donor community struggled to wrangle in a multi-phase strategic plan for spending and regional development, some of the most high value 'interventions' were basic approaches originating with the local businesses themselves, who suggested and organized events such as the Montenegro Adventure Race (pioneered by Black Mountain Adventures). This owner-operated company staged ten single day events and one 48 hour Expedition Challenge. The 48 hour Expedition Challenge fostered cooperation and built a community which still works together in business. It cost a total of about 15,000 EUR to stage thanks to the generous technical support of so many businesses, and the feedback Black Mountain received from the mainly international competitors was excellent - "the best organized", "the friendliest and the most spectacular AR in Europe."
Jack Delf of Black Mountain Adventures commented recently when I asked him about this, "Although the participant numbers were never large (the one day events attracted up to 100 competitors and the 48 hour challenge attracted about 40) the idea captured broad media attention and perhaps more importantly provided a test case for an idea that has since spawned four annual events operated by local enthusiasts: The Northern Challenge in Mojkovac, the Vertical Mile race in the Bay of Kotor and two triathlon style events".
The lesson from Montenegro is, the systemic changes we seek at a broad scale in local economies are driven by the collection of individual small scale successes - successes that can often be achieved through simple, low cost actions.