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50 Million New Customers Every Year: Are You Ready for Them?

I heard some good news the other day from an interesting source: Herb Meyer, the man most often credited with being the first person to correctly predict the collapse of the Soviet Union. Meyer's a controversial character, but no one would call him dull or uninformed.

His good news was this: today more human beings are emerging from poverty faster than ever before. Meyer estimated the numbers at 50 to 100 million every year and, with characteristic bravura, he calls this "the biggest change in life on earth that's ever happened."

If he's right, this has profound consequences for every one of us.

Purely from a business perspective, it means a vast new market -- but not necessarily the markets or customers we know very well. This new market will want goods that are cheap, simple to make in large numbers, and green. Think of the Tata Nano (pictured), the cheapest car in the world. Or the Nano Home: 1,300 small apartments outside Mumbai, with prices starting at about $8,600.

Products like this require a very different kind of thinking, design and mindset -- a far cry from the love of complexity that distinguishes many businesses in the developed world. What would a Nano operating system look like? Not like Windows, that's for sure. How might you re-conceive a washing machine? Or an oven? Or a school?

In the developed world, we pride -- and comfort -- ourselves with the thought that, while we might not have cheap labor, we have brilliant minds. Let's hope we do, because making things simple is hard. So here's the challenge: Do you have the mental dexterity to think this way? Or are you still stuck -- mentally in Detroit -- drowning in complexity? Are you content to walk away from "the biggest change in life on earth that's ever happened"? And what happens to your business plan if you decide it has to answer those three criteria: simple, cheap and green?

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