Waterfalls, cows, and farms. Are there lessons in design from the other side of the world?

Even before we bought the waterfall, I knew we were on to something.

Over the summer we visited the homestay we built in West Sumatra for the first time since its two-storied wood-framed house was completed. The house is perched over a fishpond and overlooks a patchwork of rice paddies and grassy terraces that slope downward to a clear, meandering river.

We bought the land and my husband’s brother built the house partly for our infrequent visits to see our family nearby but, mostly, as an income stream for him and later, hopefully, us. We call it extreme diversification. And the homestay was the third investment and third business model that we’ve tried.

The craftsmanship of the house is outstanding and the view is stunning. But even more impressive is the community of people contributing to the success of the enterprise. Led by my brother-in-law, three generations of men do the backbreaking labor of clearing rocks from the land and digging new irrigation ditches. Women clean the house and cook the meals for guests, serving rice and spicy fish curry on banana leaves spread on a flat patch of grass under a banyan tree. In town, news of the homestay spreads through word of mouth by a network of guides and friends, resulting in it being booked nearly every day since before the house was finished.

We bought the land and my husband’s brother built the house partly for our infrequent visits to see our family nearby but, mostly, as an income stream for him and later, hopefully, us. We call it extreme diversification. And the homestay was the third investment and third business model that we’ve tried.

The waterfall is a recent addition to the homestay. We bought it since coming home to Connecticut, so I’ve only seen photos. It’s not adjoining, but a short hike away. Just beyond up the hill are “The 1000 Caves” that the canyon valley is know for, and cliffs for a range of rock climbing abilities. Down the road is the small town that has a café owned by the family of the women who do the cleaning and cooking for us. You can also hire them to teach you how to cook their local dishes, including fried coffee leaves, which are delicious by the way. Their brother also teaches traditional music, the “saluang”, a bamboo flute, and “gamelan”, a small orchestra of gongs. Our homestay is literally at the center of this network of personalized, authentic, semi-adventurous, local experiences.

It recently struck me – our homestay is a success because it strives to provide customer-first service design.

Our extreme diversification started with cows.

In West Sumatra buying cows is a traditional form of retirement investment. When you have some extra cash, you buy a female cow and board it with a local farmer to care for and breed. When a calf is born, you split the ownership of the calf with the farmer fifty-fifty. If the calf is female, the farmer raises her to adulthood, breeds her, and then owns this third generation and beyond. If the first generation calf is male, it is usually sold to the local butcher for cash for profit or to buy a female cow.

Cows are a relatively predictable and stable investment. But it’s definitely a long game.

A partnership between owner and farmer, cow breeding takes singular focus and commitment and the ability to adapt and recover after unforeseen surprises, like infertility or illness. The farmer provides labor and resources like food, water and shelter. The owner provides capital investment, bulls for breeding, and access to the marketplace for selling the offspring.

Unlike the homestay, the cow business requires a product design mindset that relies on a roadmap for development and versioning, but also is responsive to fluctuating market dynamics.

Our third investment is a small family farm.

The land stood mostly fallow until my sister-in-law and her husband, who we call “Uncle”, retired. Then they came to us with an idea. They would plant fruit trees and vegetables and raise chickens and ducks. Several years later it is a beautiful, shady, fragrant oasis that rivals any botanical garden I’ve seen. The land is teeming with avocados, dragon fruit, water apples, mangoes, sweet potatoes, green beans, chili peppers, and about a dozen other plants that I don’t know the English names for.

Unlike the homestay, the cow business is a product business that follows a roadmap for development and versioning, but also is responsive to fluctuating market dynamics.

Uncle is the true genius behind the farm’s success. All along I assumed he must have grown up on a farm. But, during this past visit, I learned that his horticultural expertise is recently acquired from the Internet! In the evenings he reads about plants and their cultivation and during the day he puts his learning into practice. He tests and learns, iterates and refines. One of his early innovations was to weigh down fruit tree branches with boulders tied to long ropes. The boulders sit on the ground and gently pull the branches downward so the tree grows wide and full, making the fruit easier to reach.

Uncle is the designer of a living platform that houses a constantly evolving range of sweet, delicious content.

Indonesia is a booming, modern economy with innovative digital experiences that reach both large, sophisticated urban centers as well as smaller rural villages. For good or ill, you can see the glow of smart phones emanating from the windows of even the most modest house. But up until now I thought there was deep divide between our more traditional businesses and my work at agencies and technology companies.

Homestay, cows, and farm. Service design, product design, and a content platform. The parallels are surprising, and intriguing.

Perhaps I no longer have to be a New York creative director by day and a West Sumatran businesswoman by night. Now these two parts of myself can both beat within one heart and start to cross-fertilize in my rational mind. Maybe they have more in common than I thought.

I suspect, and kind of hope, there is still much that does not translate, and can’t be transferred, across those nearly 10,000 miles. Crispy fried coffee leaves, the warm, curly-haired head of a new calf, and the sweet, fuchsia juice of a fresh dragon fruit are just beautiful and perfect in what and where they are.

But someday it might be nice to tap on the screen to feel the spray from our cold, crystal-clear waterfall on my face.

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