article / 14 October 2021

Technical Difficulties: The Path to Success

In his contribution to the Technical Difficulties Editorial Series, Internet of Elephants founder Gautam Shah shares the lessons learned from challenges throughout his unique career path as an entrepreneur working and engaging the public in conservation tech stories. Download this case study here.

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For most of my life, I was anything but an entrepreneur. I spent 15 of my first 20 professional years working at Accenture, a huge IT consulting firm which doesn’t breed (nor does it need to) entrepreneurial thinking. In between 2 stints at Accenture, I was independent for 5 years but couldn’t handle the uncertainty of where the next project would come from. So when I made the decision to quit Accenture and get into wildlife conservation, being an entrepreneur was the last thing on my mind. I just figured I’d get a job at a large conservation NGO or something like that, following a standard career path into this field.

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The moment my parents understood my career choice: when National Geographic published a short piece on me.

But there are many career paths into conservation, and many ways to contribute your own strengths and skills to conservation efforts, something the conservation technology community knows well. As I started to network and better understand what role I could play in the conservation sector, it became clear to me that my best bet was relying on my experience in IT and applying that expertise to wildlife conservation. But I could no longer code or build anything myself, and I definitely didn’t want to be the CIO of a large organization like, for example, WWF. Instead, I thought of the different ways I felt technology could make a difference, and married those with career paths I thought I’d be happy following.

When the idea of applying the Internet of Things to relationships between people and individual animals came about, it struck me that the only way that I was going to get that plan off the ground was doing it myself. And so it was that my life in wildlife conservation and entrepreneurship started at the same time.

Entrepreneurship is not often a career path lacking its fair share of challenges. The difficulties, setbacks, and risk of failure are also not unlike those found in the conservation field. By combining the two, it’s no surprise that I’ve encountered struggles along the way, and hopefully these experiences can connect with those in the conservation technology community, regardless of what career path has led you here.

One of my biggest personal challenges has been overcoming the wider perception that IT is just considered a cost and not an opportunity. This perception was particularly difficult to cope with at the beginning of my career, when funders didn’t see the value in investing in technology as opposed to the other programs they were funding. It was merely thought of as an administrative cost. I think that perception is changing, and while that change itself will inevitably lead to new challenges, they don’t necessarily impact me as much at this stage of my career path.

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Internet of Elephants officially started with a Hackathon we ran in Chicago in 2015.

In building Internet of Elephants, I encountered the difficulties that come with launching an ambitious effort, be it a business venture or a conservation project. IoE’s beginnings were full of excitement - we had built up a team of developers in Kenya, and I remember the happiness of having a little office, a team, and the freedom to experiment and make things without relying on 3rd party agencies. 

But after 6 months or so, it was clear that our skill and experience levels weren’t enough to do what we needed to do. Worse, we weren’t in a position to train and upskill. But I couldn’t let them go, and we suffered as a team for a year. A bit of advice helped me come to terms with the choices in front of me when one of our advisors told me, “If something is inevitable, better to deal with it right away.” I made the tough decision to let them go, and when I did, my immediate feeling was that the experiment was over and that IoE had failed.

But what actually happened was that my stress levels reduced, my freedom to make the right decisions increased, our small team became more nimble, and we started to get stuff done faster and better. Through this experience of what I at first believed to be a failure, I realized that our operational model might be better off this way, without having a bigger team as part of the payroll, allowing our small team to use our resources to the best of their ability to produce results. And just as importantly, I also realized that the value proposition of IoE is not necessarily about actually building the experiences; it’s more about conceptualizing them, designing them, and then working with other organizations better suited to building them.

"So as much as innovation is touted as critical to conservation success, we haven’t found that the risk appetite matches the desire to innovate."

IoE has continued to make progress since then, exploring innovative ways to connect people to conservation with technology. Through Internet of Elephant’s current efforts to engage the public with conservation through immersive game-based storytelling, we’ve encountered a new layer of challenges relating to people rather than the technology itself. Now, many of my personal challenges relate to changing the way people see public engagement, as well as the traditional approaches that have been used to achieve it. 

First of all, engagement and behavior change aren’t easy to quantify, and so it is difficult to articulate the value proposition and importance. Rarely do you find an impact investor or foundation’s charter specifying it as a priority.

And secondly, there is a lot of discomfort with change. Despite the fact that half the world plays videos games as a form of entertainment, people aren’t yet sold on games being used for conservation purposes. Or perhaps the public simply doesn’t get it. Adapting conservation engagement and messaging to a relatively new medium (and a time-consuming one to create, at that)  is scary. On the other hand, if I were pitching wildlife films to share these stories, someone may like or dislike the story itself, but no one would question the familiar method. 

So as much as innovation is touted as critical to conservation success, we haven’t found that the risk appetite matches the desire to innovate.

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When AR technology was first introduced, AR elephants were an easy way to draw a crowd.

When faced with such a large task of changing public perceptions and engagement methods, honestly, it’s tough to keep going at times. It wears you down to keep trying to convince people of your ideas, your intentions, your “theory of change.” It’s tough to put 18 months of effort into a project, release it, and then watch as very few people engage with that project because you don’t have the marketing muscle to get it out there.

Not every challenge is something that can be immediately overcome through hard work or lessons learned. I don’t think I’ve actually met these challenges yet or moved beyond them. What I have done is continue believing in the importance of what we are trying to do, even if I don’t always believe in myself as the one to do it. And I’ve been lucky enough that our first and lead investor has always been there with us, as convinced as I am about how successful we could be in the future, even if we haven’t experienced it yet. 

And I do believe that those successes are coming, and that they will be built from what I’ve learned along the way throughout challenging times. To reach the point where success could become possible, I needed to learn the realities about marketing. I needed to learn the realities about raising investment. I needed to learn the realities of my own strengths and weaknesses as a leader. My previous career didn’t prepare me for the challenges of being an entrepreneur and I simply needed to experience it to know. I’m less naive now, have a better vision for what we should be doing and how we should be spending our energy, have a strong network of people that I have built up over the years, and feel much better about what the next few years could look like. 

For those embarking on their own career paths in business, conservation, or some combination of the two, my advice comes back to understanding yourself and the work you are ultimately trying to do. One important factor to avoiding failure, in my opinion, is to understand your own risk appetite. What are you willing to risk personally to achieve your goals? There is no right answer to this, but it is important in understanding what type of entrepreneur or leader you will be, who you need to surround yourself with, and how you will lead. At the same time, if your answer doesn’t match what you need it to be, explore where you can find the support you need, be it through courses and schools, acquiring new skills and techniques, or meeting people who can push you and help you along the way.

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The peak size of the IoE team, all together in Kenya in 2019.

The second is that ideas are easy to come by and easy to generate. More difficult is figuring out the business model and distribution. This is even more relevant for social businesses, as you now have to worry about achieving social impact in addition to financial sustainability - there are a lot of metrics to consider. In fact, I’m kind of jealous of those who can simply think about a single bottom line. You don’t have to get these things right immediately, but you should build enough time into your work to be able to invest in experimentation with them so that you have time to improve or pivot if needed.

Third is to understand your support system. How can you avoid carrying the entire burden of your endeavor on your shoulders? Who is there to help you make decisions, take responsibility for some hard things alongside you, and give emotional support when you’re down? There are of course all sorts of pitfalls to partnerships, especially amongst friends, but I often feel that I wish I had waited to start IoE until I had someone to do it with, rather than carry the entire thing on my own. Thank goodness for my wife and our lead investor (and not necessarily just for the money), or else we would have shut down years ago.

Entrepreneurship is a very personal experience. Those in conservation will also understand the pressure that comes with being passionate about your work, and how failure in something you’re passionate about can feel deeply personal. It is impossible to decouple yourself from the ups and downs of your business. That notion comes with its own set of good and bad factors. I personally love knowing that I’m working on something I fully believe in, and that I have the luxury of having that choice. But at the same time, when things don’t go well, it is normal to take that as a reflection on yourself.  Some people are better than others at just letting that slide off of them instead of weighing them down.

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The CEO of National Geographic Society at the time, making special mention of our work at their largest gathering.

No matter where you are in your career path, or what challenges you’ve faced along the way so far, simply reframing your own experiences with failure (or perceived failures) can help you cope with difficulties and make progress. Even if you have not yet seen the successes that may yet come from the lessons you’ve learned, simply believing in the value of those lessons will make you stronger and help you continue following your passions down an impactful career path.

Download the Case Study

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This case study is part of our Technical Difficulties Editorial Series. The full series will be available as a downloadable issue in December 2021. This case study is now available for download here

About the Author

Gautam Shah, a National Geographic Fellow, is the founder of Internet of Elephants, a social enterprise that develops groundbreaking digital tools to engage people with wildlife. Through unique mobile games, augmented reality and data visualizations that use GPS and other data gathered about animals, Internet of Elephants tells the stories of individual animals studied by conversation organizations and researchers all over the world. In doing so, Internet of Elephants hopes to catalyze whole new approaches to engaging the public with wildlife.


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