In January, we had 1,000 customers registered for NextDrop, which informs residents in India via cell phone about the availability of piped water. This month — just four months later — more than 25,000 people were subscribed to it.

Ramping up in such a short period of time is challenging to say the least, but it’s an exciting time — and a great opportunity for us to learn a ton.

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Here are some of our most recent stats:

  • We’ve signed up more than 25,000 customers for our service.
  • We have started service for approximately 12,000 of those customers (i.e., they’ve started to receive the NextDrop SMS updates).
  • We billed 2,700 of those customers in April (1,200 of those paid an advance payment of three months for the service). In the middle of April, we decided to experiment by making it mandatory to pay three months’ advance payment to receive the service (to reduce billing costs), and everyone we billed paid the advance.
  • We have a customer retention rate of 98 percent. (50 customers deactivated the service of the 2,700 billed.)

challenges that come with scalability

Here are the main challenges we are currently facing:

  • There’s a lag between when we recruit the customers and when we start their service. This is because we’re down to our last few valvemen in Hubli to train, and it’s been difficult. They need to make two consecutive calls to “graduate” (i.e., they show us they know how to use the NextDrop system), but the problem is they say they forgot, or they misplaced their mobile, or they forgot the list with their valve ID numbers. At the end of the day, the result is that we can’t start providing service to these customers until they get it right.
  • After launching the service, it was time-consuming to go around and find all the people that signed up for the service (because addresses don’t mean much in some parts of India).
  • Making sure people are getting the right messages (i.e., they’re placed in the correct valve area). We’re still trying to figure out if people don’t get the right messages because a) they’re in the wrong valve area, or b) they have a cellular network issue (which is definitely a problem sometimes).

What we’ve learned

  • In the next city, I think we want to get the water board more heavily involved in the training process, and have them organize sessions where we train 40 to 50 people at once, instead of the more ad hoc way we are doing it now. That way, we also have immediate authority and they know this is something important that they have to do as part of their job.
  • We realized that in order for this to be at all sustainable, we need to collect for at least three months at a time — otherwise our billing costs will be too high. We’ve proved that people are willing to pay the 3-month advance, so now we’re scaling up. We’ve hired five professional billers to go door to door and bill our customers. We need to see if we can bill at least 10,000 customers a month. If we can do that, then we’re in the game. We’ll know in the next month if this will work.
  • We’re trying to implement a system where we call each customer two weeks after he or she starts the service to see if the messages are on time. Customers have also started reporting that the messages are off, so that’s a good sign (i.e., we’re getting more customer feedback). We just started implementing these processes, so we’ll have better updates on if this catches issues in the next few months. We’re going to have to do a good job of bundling things together (billing plus feedback plus other things) so as not to bother customers, but we’ll figure out the best way to utilize our customer touch points.

So if you don’t hear anything from us for the next couple of months, this is what we’re working on!

Also, we are hiring for various positions. (Check out a few of the positions posted here on our new and improved website.) If you’re interested, get in touch with us.

Finally, feel free to drop us a line with any thoughts, questions, comments, concerns, or if you just want to say hi. Even if we don’t get a chance to write updates all the time, we still always love hearing from you, or answering any questions we can!

A version of this post also appeared on the NextDrop blog.