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From VARs to Fishing Schools

There’s an ancient phenomenon from the world of software called VARs – for Value-Added Resellers. These were companies that sold, customized, installed and supported software from vendors such as Oracle, Microsoft and SAP. They did the part that didn’t scale; that required bodies to customize the software, train the users, and get the actual corporate buy-in – which is quite a different problem from getting the contract in the first place.

We have watched consumer tools – iPhones and apps and the like – gain adoption so easily that VARs and the whole process of helping users to use a product seems old-fashioned – or perhaps necessary only when the product is somehow deficient.

But as sages such as Sharon Drew Morgen ( remind us, you can’t just sell. You have to understand why the customer might want to buy. And in our case, at Way to Wellville, you have to remove the obstacles.

In the world of the software giants, there were large VARs and also smaller local consultants.  They would sell to companies, help install and customize the software, and often train the employee users.

In our Wellville world of behavior change, so far, the VARs are mostly local outfits. They are the community health centers, the churches and YMCAs, the schools and other groups that deliver health in complement to the healthcare system that delivers mostly remedial care.

But there’s an extra wrinkle. In Wellville, the users are not employees, but community members. They can’t simply be told to use the software.

So, for example, it’s not enough just to make the YMCA’s diabetes prevention program available.  You have to offer enough sessions with enough variety of time and location that anyone interested can find a one to suit. You need to provide child care (not just “child storage”) and perhaps free vegetables as an incentive. And you need to expand your target market by testing people for pre-diabetes.  All that requires more than just a course manual and some trained employees. It requires a host organization with partners in the community and trust from its members.

Once the classes have started, you need to keep people coming. And once users have completed the courses, you need to provide support to maintain the behaviors (mental and physical) learned and the relationships formed.

So the host organization needs not just money  – though that helps! – and curricula and training for local community members. They also need organizational capacity and ambition – and conviction that they are not “piloting” projects but rather rolling out sustainable services that will have continuing impact. To use another metaphor, they’re not handing out fish; they’re building their own fishing schools.

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