Founder Focus is a “Humans of New York” style spotlight on the human stories behind diverse startup founders, their life experiences and perspectives, the origin stories of their startups, and the path they took to where they are today.
Hello everyone, welcome to another episode of Founder Focus where we interview founders from all over the world on their backstories and the stories behind their startups.
Today our guest is Samson Larsson from Arizona. Welcome to the show. Thank you, I'm very happy to be here and it's actually very exciting to be able to share a story about our journey as a startup, especially in Kenya.
Thank you for joining us and for our viewers, if you have questions for Samson, there is an email address right down below and you can email in the questions.
So first, very briefly, can you tell us what your startup does and also what the word Arizona means?
That's actually, the last question is always very exciting because sometimes we sit back and say okay, what does actually the word Arizona mean?
Because when we were starting up, we never really had a specific meaning from the word Arizona.
So you look at the market system of the Kenya ecosystem, basically you find like access to food items is still very expensive and it's not necessarily easily accessible to majority of the consumers and that is for especially for those who are below the, you'd say like the below mid-income groups.
So our mission basically is trying to reduce the cost that actually goes in in terms of ordering food, processing that food and delivering it to customers.
So we are on a simple, a very simple mission of trying to make access to food more affordable for almost everyone and so then we don't have to say like okay this type of food or this type of service is only for this categorized groups of customers and that goes back to the meaning of the word Arizona.
So it comes from the word Ayaz, which is a Turkish word, basically actually the name for the male child and what it means is like cool breeze or easy.
So for us it's more of the easy living in terms of accessing food items.
So that's actually how the two connects.
Do people order just from restaurants or do they order also groceries or what kind of food items do people order?
That's a good question.
So when we first started, especially last year when we were on our beta program, we first started doing the practice with the restaurants but then as we went ahead we realized that actually the restaurants to some extent were appearing to be costly, especially looking at the target market that we were approaching.
So we found that by the end of the day we needed to give them a way to actually make this food from home.
It would be cheaper and also it would give them at least, you know, the ability to make enough food for everyone in the households.
So at the beginning we started with the restaurants and then growing up, even right now as we are continuing, we are trying to bring in the element of grocery shopping and also be able to access any food items or even grocery items that you can imagine.
Can you tell us a little bit about your growth trajectory since you've launched and how many users and how many orders you get?
So at the moment, actually that's a very exciting question as well, when we first started last year we had a total group of around 280 signups and these are users who signed up through the beta program whom we are actually reaching out to personally and telling them that okay we are running this product and we want you to come in and test it and see if it actually improves your life.
But then the beginning of January, especially with the COVID, we've also seen like a very steady growth upwards.
It's not been a crazily high as you'd expect, especially for the industry as well, but at least we've seen a steady growth upwards.
And at the moment we actually have active users on our platform of up to 500 active users and you find like this 500 we are yet to even reach a thousand in total.
So the total number of users who actually place orders and come back using the platform is constantly at a hundred percent and that's one very interesting thing that we find about our product.
And in every aspect you find that the reason why they keep coming back is how the platform is accessible and also given the fact that they know that if you purchase any food item on Ayazana, even if you could afford it, a percentage of the profit that you get goes back to actually feeding those who don't have the full pricing that they couldn't afford the full pricing of the food.
Speaking of that, can you tell me, can you tell our audience and me more about your giving back program?
Giving back to the community program?
Ayazana Ignite and so basically the way we actually trying to make food more accessible and affordable.
You find like of course yes so food there has to be a price on it.
So the question is how are we innovating to make food more affordable for everyone.
So one way we are doing this is actually partnering with the most affordable restaurants in towns and also being the most affordable you find like at times when they're processing this food they don't reprocess.
Like a good example is if you look at KFC, when KFC is processing their meal they actually process it upon order.
But then you find some other restaurants they actually just process the food in bulk because and actually that leaves the element of affordability in general.
So when they do process this food in bulk there's always this surplus that remains that is not sold.
So when they can already project before the close of the day that they have this portion of food that won't be sold, then they make it available at half the price through the platform.
And actually this was mostly inspired by Kama, a Swedish startup that also does the food rescue program.
So that's one way that we do it.
Another way is we channel a percentage of the profit to actually top up on this half pricing of the food.
So you find like at some point when we actually have enough orders with the regular orders, we take 50% we get to pay for the 50% on this other side of these guys who can't actually afford the full pricing of the food.
And the whole goal is to make sure that everyone is able to get some food on their table and feed their family.
But on the other hand there's no extra food that is thrown away especially that is easily you know that food is that is still consumable.
Yeah. That's a it's a very good way to give back to the community and it always bothers me when when food goes to waste.
So I'm really glad that you're doing that.
Can you tell me a little bit about how how you met your team, your co-founders, and how you hired your team to start the company?
So there's actually a very rich history on how we met.
Currently we are three co-founders and the most interesting part was when I first met the first co -founder.
So at the time I was in Nairobi and I had a MacBook laptop and one day the charger just refused to work.
So as I was waiting to get a new one to at least continue working on everything that I was working on, I decided to go to one of the workspaces within the city.
It's called iHub.
So the reason why I went there was actually just to find a charger to a MacBook because it was really hard to find someone with a MacBook charger.
So when I went there I realized that there was the Nairobi Tech Week program going on and so I found it so interesting.
So I basically just sat there doing the programming but then there was these teams were working with these small projects to contribute to the Nairobi Tech Week and that's when I I found one of the projects quite exciting and I joined one of those projects just partly to help them fix some issues with their landing page.
And that's how I met the first co-founder. He's called Malik Ibrahim and since then we've just been doing projects on and off.
Oh nice. But the second co-founder, him, I met him when we were one time working to join Andela.
So when Andela joined Kenya it was an interesting ecosystem and given that we were like very techy and also interested in the tech ecosystem, we found like, OK, we have to work closely with this because actually that was the area that they were focusing on and that's the first place that I met him.
And given the history, he was a really a good programmer and actually that's what drawn me closer to him to actually even get to learn more about the programming ecosystem.
And that's actually how we ended up, you know, being, forming as one as a whole as it is right now.
It's great to hear that the that the tech ecosystem in Nairobi has been able to bring all of you together.
Yeah, true. I love the story in your blog that you wrote about downloading apps that you couldn't actually use in your location, but because of what they represented and the potential that they had.
Can you tell us that story? Yeah, that's also a very interesting story. So the first experience that I had with an app that I couldn't actually have access to was Spotify.
So when I first learned of Spotify through TechCrunch newsletters, I was curious to see like, OK, this really sounds exciting because at the time there was no music streaming app in place that was like unless you owned an iPod or something of that sort.
So when I first discovered Spotify, I realized that it was not on the Play Store when I used my Android phone to search for it.
So my goal was I'm going to find it no matter what it takes.
And that was the first time that I actually started using Spotify.
But then the one that had the most impact and actually even contributed to what we are currently doing at Arizona was actually Instacart.
So you find with Instacart, there's that element of actually making grocery available.
But I think what drew me most to Instacart was the fact that it was beautifully designed and also the fact that I could actually see tomato, apple or even banana on it and you're just clicking on it and then you're able to place an order and have the food delivered at your door.
So at the time, there was no other company doing the same within Nairobi.
And I found it so interesting that I went deeper to actually do deeper research on actually how that whole system works.
And the first app that I actually played around with as a project was basically I redesigned the whole of Instacart as it is.
And it was quite an interesting adventure.
It's really cool that you were inspired by Instacart's user experience. And I also find it really interesting that your relationship with your delivery runners is quite different from the way that a lot of the gig economy in the U.S.
You wrote on your site that the fleet members, your delivery runners, also have career mobility and you teach them.
They get benefits like health insurance and online banking and job training.
For additional roles, can you talk about your thought process and decision process around what made you decide to be so much more generous than your Western counterparts?
Thank you. That's a very good question.
And actually, one way that we look at it internally or even personally is the fact that we don't try to compare the Western side and also the Kenyan side because these are totally two different markets that have two different needs.
So what actually drove us towards that is because you find that most of these fleet members, when they go out there and do the delivery, they are more of like the money that they make is very, very little.
Actually, it's more of like from hand to mouth.
So you receive it, you consume it, tomorrow you have to go out and get it.
So we asked ourselves like, okay, so how can we improve their lives and even get them to the next level?
And one thing that also inspired the team towards that direction was given that when we first started in June last year on our better program, most of the fleet members that we had were actually students.
And these students were just, you find like some of them actually were graduates already who didn't have job opportunities.
So we told them, okay, we can start from actually you guys getting something to move around, at least make some few cash here and there.
But by the end of the day, if you studied computer engineering, we actually have this platform, you come in and actually we can help coach you to become better.
And even maybe in the future, you'll actually be part of our co -engineering team.
So you find like we were trying to make them not stick to that job, but they feel the element of growth and moving to the next level.
When it comes to medical insurance, so one way it's still been, it's been a challenge, I have to say, it's been a challenge actually trying to connect all this.
But our goal is actually to be able to give them access to good medical or even rather the insurance for their vehicles as well.
But then you find that at our stage right now, it might be difficult to get to that level.
So the least that we can do is after they have actually joined us and we actually have a tracking record of how you're performing as a fleet member.
So based on your performance, you find like actually we can connect you with the National Health Insurance Services.
So then at least we keep paying for you.
We know how you're handling your earnings and how we can actually divert to your insurance cover.
And one way to help in terms of finances and the banking system, at the moment, even though we are yet to release it to the public, it's more of like on the better stages, is the fact that we have built within their fleet a way for them to manage their finances.
So if they get this money, they can actually say like, okay, so this week I went and delivered this number of orders and this is how much I actually, this is how much I earned.
So by the time you're withdrawing it or cashing it out, you know, like, okay, I can actually leave this on my savings.
So then I can actually use it for a project or maybe even attend classes if necessary.
Yeah. Wow. It's really cool that you're filling in all the gaps for what they're, for what your fleet members needs are.
And I imagine that someone who is, you know, a student in computer science who happens to be earning some money as a fleet member would end up having a lot of insight into delivery pathing and being able to work on that in the future.
Yeah, because even internally as we are starting right now, we see this as a very, a starting point.
And as much as we are doing this right now, we are doing it actually to get to the next level.
So one question that some, we've actually, one time we were asked, okay, so you say you want to offer jobs to almost everyone, especially those who don't have, well, okay, let's say like those who have not graduated yet.
So then you find like their experiences are still limited in terms of that.
So one way we look at it is that, okay, so in the future we might actually have, to then help protect the environment and all, we might have like automated delivery systems.
And one way that we look at this, say if a student who did computer engineering comes in and helps us do the delivery and is part of that training services that they actually get to extend on their career as they started, they might end up being the guys who are helping us design the motherboards for this delivery, automated delivery fleet systems.
So we look at it as a way to upgrade our economy, because that's one key thing that has driven us to where we are, because most people still are not financially, financially capable to actually even access the most basic of needs.
So digging a little bit more into the point you made about upgrading Kenya's economy, I have to confess that most of what I know about Kenya, I actually learned from reading dreams from my father.
And the Kenya that was described in the book was from more than 30 years ago.
So could you tell me a little bit about Kenya's economy today versus 30 years ago and what it might look like 30 years into the future, based on the context that you have and where you're at?
Yeah, one thing is for sure, the economy has actually grown and actually keeps growing every day, and especially right now.
And I must say that we are lucky actually to be part of it as of now, because it's growing very fast, and it's just about seeking the opportunities and actually making something out of it.
But one thing about Kenyans right now, I'll tell you, they actually like good things.
Actually, we do like good things. And if you can actually deliver a product that has some good attributes, and it's one of the main reasons you find like these Western companies that come in actually get to excel mostly of even the local versions, because you find the local versions are still, they still offer like what you'd call sketchy sort of experiences in terms of products.
So the market is mature, and actually the users themselves know what they want, and they understand the element of experience and design and all that.
So I would say we are just starting up as an economy, and it's about to even get better.
But compared to the history, that's maybe like really, really grown so far.
So 2020 has been quite an interesting year for a lot of folks all over the world.
Can you tell us a little bit about how it has impacted your company, both positively and negatively, and how working from home has been?
For you and your team. Okay, so when you talk about the negative impacts, of course, we've had those.
One example is in December last year, when we were about to launch to the public, our goal was to actually go to the areas that still are not accessible, especially the smaller towns in Nairobi, or rather in Kenya in general.
So we wanted to expand to a town like Nakuru, Kisumu, and also bits of Mombasa, and also like we have Eldoret and Kitale.
So when the COVID came by, we had to stop all these plans because first we were not able to go there physically, but then now it hindered our expansion as we had planned.
But that also led to a more positive impact. We decided to come down to Nairobi and start focusing and even digging deep onto Nairobi and planting just basically our presence in every part of Nairobi.
But being a positive effect as well, I must say growth has not been like really, as you'd expect, especially with the industry, as I'd mentioned earlier.
But in general, you find like at least the users that we acquired, it's actually a bit easier to acquire users as of now, because most of them are locked away from going to the restaurants physically.
So if you can offer them that best experience at a very affordable price, they actually get to come and actually stick with you as a customer.
But when it comes to the work experience, it's been a bit challenging, even though at the moment we actually still have partially access to the office spaces.
But even though sometimes you might be a bit cautious because you're like, OK, so I have access to the office space, but do I really have to go?
Because it's higher risk of even spreading it out there.
So working from home, it's been quite OK, I would say, because at least we've set up the workspaces in a way that it doesn't feel like you're at home.
And whenever you feel exhausted, you can basically switch.
And sometimes you find like, OK, if you're working from the balcony, then you can easily switch and work from another room.
So there's always that change of environment, even though one of the biggest challenges being when you're working from home and you're always constantly at home, you tend to miss count of time.
So you find like we actually barely fall asleep at some point, which is good for the setup here, but maybe not really good for our health.
Yeah, I know what you mean. When I was running my startup, we worked from our home as our office and there's no separation.
You remember Airbnb's serial story as being very relatable.
Could you tell us the relatable aspect, the relatable story from your end?
Yeah, so when we first started, I have to confess, we never really had a good grasp of actually what it takes to run a startup and that might be funding and support.
So when we land that way on the road, when we're actually building the platform, one way we had to figure out is, OK, how are we going to support ourselves?
Because by the end of the day, this running costs, you have to at least process these orders in a way you have to support your fleet members.
Sometimes some of the orders are paid through card, so it takes some time to resolve the money.
So relating to Airbnb's serial story, for us, we have to actually go out there and do some extra contractual works in terms of engineering where you find that, OK, so we are currently focusing on building Arizona, but by the end of the day, we actually still go out there and do some contractual jobs to actually come back and use the same funds to support the company or even ourselves for our personal upkeep as well.
So it's a bit relatable in that sense.
And looking at the picture of things right now, you find that actually that's something that we might want to do further.
So then at least by the time we are doing our first raise, we are not in debt as much, but again, we can actually sustain ourselves as a company moving forward.
So instead of raising from venture capitalists, you have completely bootstrapped by doing contract engineering work for clients.
Yeah, that sounds like a very smart move. We were actually very lucky that at the start, we at least had some savings moving into the startup.
So that was a good starting point. But then it ran out at some point. So we had to figure out, OK, so now what next?
So that's why we have to go out there and do some contractual jobs and use the same money to come back and continue building the company upwards.
Yeah. I imagine it must also just take a lot of time and effort because you're dividing yourself between working on this project and that project at the same time.
Remind me, you're also a participant in the Digital Oceans Hatch Program, right?
And that's how we got introduced? Yeah. So actually, we first went into Digital Oceans Hatch Program through YC Startup School.
So we went to YC Startup School because, as I mentioned as well, we were yet to actually grasp it.
It was our first time running a company. So we had to figure out, OK, how do we do it?
And that's how we came across YC Startup School.
So through that program, we actually got access to some resources. And that's what linked us to Digital Ocean and Digital Ocean actually connecting us now to Cloudflare.
It's been actually a very interesting way of connecting and meeting or even receiving resources to help bootstrap us.
I'm glad you were able to unlock many resources that way.
The resources you've got actually in real funding cash, it would make maybe a huge difference because you find most of the resources are time limited.
So you have to make the most of them and think about, OK, so what happens after the resources expire?
You still want to continue doing business.
So how are you going to break through that? Mm-hmm. Makes sense. Now, let's, for the remaining seven or eight minutes on the show, let's shine the spotlight on you personally and your personal journey up to this point.
So you speak four languages, four languages for humans and three for computers.
Can you tell us a little bit about some of the stories there?
How did you, when did you first start learning to code?
So just a bit of a correction. I actually speak five languages.
Oh, five. My profile is because normally when you're adding the languages that you speak, it's not even included there, but it's more of my mother tongue language.
It's called Lua from the Nilotic group in Kenya. When it comes to programming languages, the first time that I wrote the first line of code, I was 14 years old because I was in first year in high school.
And basically what you were doing, I attended a computer class and we were, it was interesting.
The main goal of being in that class was actually playing games, if I remember very clearly.
But then later on, we started like finding out, okay, so how can we actually build our own programs?
What I find interesting is the fact that normally at that age, you'd find like we'd be struggling to build games as well.
But then at the time we were actually trying to build sort of solutions, like maybe a voting system for the class.
But again, it comes down to the languages that you are using. Because when I first started at 14 years old, we were actually, I was personally introduced to BASIC that was from Visual Studio, a Microsoft program.
So there's just so much you could do with that.
And what you would do was basically just do a voting system for the class or maybe a voting system for the school.
And at some point, we actually built a voting system targeted for the national voting system of Kenya, even though it never really materialized as far.
That's really cool. So you started coding in high school and then were you able, did you pursue it as a hobby along the way or did you start taking clients as a kid?
Quite interesting story around that, because after high school, because during high school, I was all crazy about computers.
But after high school, for some reason, I fell in love with the element of music.
And actually, when I first joined the university, my first course was music because I was so driven.
I wanted to learn how to play violin. So that's the first thing that I actually went into, which I find interesting because, OK, so I love computers.
It was funny that after four years playing around with computers, I never really focused on it as much.
I wanted just to play violin because violin, everyone, whenever I see anyone playing a violin, it was always just, it blows my mind to some extent.
So I was like, OK, I have to learn that instrument. But after first year of learning violin, I ended up knowing how to play violin and also the piano.
But then I just lost the interest again. And that's how I actually switched back to computer science again, just programming.
But at the time, I was actually doing, you find like I would be doing projects for say a relative needs a website.
If they're running any sort of program or a restaurant or a cuisine thing, then I would come in and build their website.
It's the same element here. If you're in the house and they know you studied IT to some extent, any problem relating to IT, they're the one who come and fix it.
Yeah, that was the first experience.
And one interesting thing that I have to say that I actually also personally learned from is the fact that as much as they were my family, for me, I was very willing to do these projects actually for free.
But then they would be like, no way.
We are paying you for recent. That's how I actually started learning that actually could actually make something out of this experience.
It's really great that they were able that your family was able to hire you in that in that capacity.
So so your languages that you speak law and English and Swahili and Finnish and Swedish.
Could you tell us a little bit about how you came to learn so many languages?
So for the law, it was mostly growing up. So we had like very OK, the parents are like very, very strict.
So, you know, at least you needed to know your own language to begin with English.
That was like how we were brought up generally going to school.
That was like the language. So it just came in naturally.
But for Finnish, when I first moved to Finland, it was more of like not a mandatory.
But for us, for you to survive as a student in Finland, you at least needed to know the language because by the end of the day, you're going to go out there and do some quick jobs to help you.
How old were you when you went to Finland?
When I first went to Finland, I was on my second year because I did my first year in my senior university in Kenya.
But then starting second year, that's when I moved to Finland.
And that was around, I was around 19, 20 years old, 19, 20 years old.
So at the time, the only language that I could speak was actually just English, Swahili and, of course, my mother tongue.
So when I went, the first year actually in Finland, I never bothered to learn Finnish.
But then the second year, I realized that, OK, the first the culture and the language was quite interesting.
And I was so amazed and I wanted just to dig deep down into the culture and also learn the language itself.
But then what also drove me towards that was the fact that I needed to be able to work.
And most of the work space is required.
Like at least you should have their first language, which was the Finnish or either after that Swedish or then the third language, which is now Finnish, English.
And that's basically how I got to learn Finnish. But the goal was not basically to learn it to dig deeper, but just to help you get around and do things and even, you know, get to in conversations with people naturally.
Now, when it comes to Finland, Sweden, I moved to Sweden. Mostly I've been in Uppsala.
So this is like a small, you'd call it a small town, but it's not really a small town because it's really huge.
But it's like 40 minutes away from Stockholm.
Now, with that... Is that very close to Malmö? Yeah, it is very close. It's more of like actually centralized in a way.
So with that, you find like the most experience that led to me learning Swedish was the fact that I actually needed to connect with my friends deeper.
Because if somebody is speaking in Swedish and you're speaking in English, there's actually a bit of a disconnect.
So if you actually want to immerse yourself into the culture, it just made sense that I learned the language.
And it looks like we're out of time. So thank you for coming on the show.
Thanks, too. I was so happy. It was good to learn from also, you know, sharing just a bit of my experience to be here.
Thank you for hosting me. Thank you.