Know your product inside and out — this might seem obvious, but a great example is being able to communicate its complexities down to a friend or family member. If people outside of your tech bubble aren’t able to understand, then you might not know your product very well.
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Black Men In Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ayo Oshinaike.
Ayo Oshinaike is the co-founder and CEO of Foodspace Technology, a machine learning technology company that develops solutions for the CPG and Grocery Industry. Ayo spent his early career in corporate finance in the pharmaceutical industry but soon felt a call to begin his entrepreneurship journey with his biggest passion: food. His goal is to bring people closer to food through transparency, convenience, and equity. He is a graduate of Northeastern University in Boston’s D’Amore McKim School of Business where he studied Business and Economics.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I love food, and have always noticed that friends and family have a complex relationship with food. I’ve witnessed friends say they could never cook home meals because it was either too much work or they didn’t know how to start. And growing up my dad had diabetes which had a huge impact on the way we ate and our relationship with food. Overall, I noticed there was a large misunderstanding with food and my goal with starting my entrepreneurial journey was to help people understand food’s full nutritional picture and how it could fit into their own unique diet.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
I would say the evolution of our current journey is a pretty great story. We started out building a recipe app that could be integrated onto a blog’s recipe page. Our goal was to pitch this idea to big box retailers as a tool they could use to make their own recipes shoppable or build a new online shopping experience. However, we received so many no’s we almost gave up. It wasn’t until one retailer actually took the time to explain to us the “why” behind the no, that I realized that we were not only entirely capable of solving the problem behind the no but it made complete sense to pivot our business.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Probably getting overly excited about all the possibilities for our recipe app. In the beginning, it can be very easy to want to do everything. You’re super green, think you can tackle all the problems, but then you’ll quickly realize that the most important thing to focus on is delivering an MVP, which is a minimum viable product. I learned it’s best to think in terms of MVP and get serious about building a product roadmap that’s flexible to change. This way you can organize all the great ideas, make time for them in the future, but also get something out into the world that sets you up to solve the first problem you need to tackle for your customers.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I would definitely say that building a consumer facing application is hard. People are driven by experiences and expect to be delighted at all points. I think we were lucky to have established great relationships with food influencers and bloggers that would give us very detailed feedback on our application and would even promote us while we were still figuring things out. However, hearing the no’s from retailers was definitely a big momentary blow. I definitely felt defeated but only used this to come back stronger and smarter.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve been lucky to have had great support from my Alma Mater, Northeastern University in Boston. The school is focused on providing students with an experiential education and the entrepreneurial ecosystem is pretty strong.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Definitely, this quote is pretty long but it’s a part of a set of books I am reading for International Women’s Month.
“Feminism as a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression is alive and well. While we do not have a mass-based movement, the renewal of such a movement is our primary goal. To ensure the continued relevance of feminist movement in our lives visionary feminist theory must be constantly made and re-made so that it addresses us where we live, in our present. Women and men have made great strides in the direction of gender equality. And those strides towards freedom must give us strength to go further.
We must courageously learn from the past and work for a future where feminist principles will undergird every aspect of our public and private lives. Feminist politics aims to end domination to free us to be who we are — to live lives where we love justice, where we can live in peace. Feminism is for everybody” — Excerpt from bell hooks, feminism is for everybody — passionate politics, 1952.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
I think we need to acknowledge that our nation’s outrage is not just a response to George Floyd’s murder. The continued loss of Black life is incomprehensible, and there is no justification for the deaths. The first thing to address is systemic racism which attests that racism is not always individualized or intentional. Last year, I actually wrote about how this hits close to home in the investment community on Medium.
This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Diversity in the tech industry is so incredibly important that it should almost be an imperative. The goal of most technology companies is to bring simplicity to both people and businesses, but this often comes at the expense of those that are marginalized, supports systems that are racist, and those who “win” create an outcome that is simply inequitable. While DEI practices are important, I do believe that diversity must start with the leadership team as they are often the ones to steer product visions and roadmaps.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. It’s hard to be satisfied with the status quo regarding Black Men in Tech leadership. What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
Specific to the investment community, I believe they simply need to make investments in black-owned companies. I just recently finished participating in the Salesforce Accelerate Build Program. The program is not new, but this year the cohort was exclusive to Black founders. Last year, Salesforce committed to investing 100 million dollars through Salesforce Ventures to empower companies led by Black and underrepresented minority founders. So I believe this is an example of a first step companies can take to change the status quo.
We’d now love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
Last year online grocery sales grew 133% compared to 2019. However, 50% of food and beverage products listed online contain at least one error which can pose a health and safety risk to online shoppers. The reality is that the process of getting product data online is extremely cumbersome and eCommerce was not a huge priority to brands until everyone felt unsafe going into stores. In short, our company helps eCommerce teams save time getting product data online, or to what the industry calls the digital shelf, by digitizing their package label information in seconds. eCommerce teams often have to manually fill out spreadsheets with product information for each retailer and therefore mistakes or incomplete records are inevitable. Our goal is to get them product data fast and at scale.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We’re basically a founding team of 4 friends who started out building a recipe app because we love food and wanted to share that with people, and now have successfully pivoted to be able to do this for a much wider audience.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
As of right now our focus is on building more awareness about what Foodspace can do to help brands, retailers and consumers.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Keep up a positive attitude and continued focus to push through the standstill and don’t let yourself give up. Surround yourself with positive people who can uplift you.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Make sure you have a great sales leader who can lead the efforts. If you are a founder, don’t try to take this on yourself if it’s not in your wheelhouse, but find someone who can really push your sales to the next level.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
For us, we’ve found networking to be incredibly helpful to our brand. I think every company has their own methods and of course social media, word of mouth, and marketing all play into this.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Reply within a few hours — people appreciate that their concerns are getting addressed in a timely fashion and often anticipate hearing back from you the next day.
Understand what feelings are associated with their job — are they frustrated by a specific process? Are they afraid of looking silly? Diving into the unique frustrations, feelings, and emotions behind someone’s job will allow you to better communicate with them.
Whiteboard instead of sales decks — at a certain point, slide decks can often cause people to shut off their attention. Whiteboard your solution allows you to architect how the client’s problems will fit in and make them feel like you really get it.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Churn really depends on your product and terms of service, but I think this goes back to the customer service answer above. When you have great customer service, that limits the churn output. Keep your customers happy, create loyalty and reduce churn.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Find the right advisors — You shouldn’t limit your “team” to those that are entrenched into the day to day. Building an advisory team can serve as a great resource to your core team as they carry specific expertise into the field you are trying to work in.
2. Think of your team as friends — Working on a startup takes a lot of time, there is no set roadmap, and the journey can be difficult. If you don’t like the people you are working with, everything else becomes way harder.
3. Learn as much as you can — I make a point to spend an hour each morning just reading. I could learn about how to be a better leader or dive into the latest industry news. You can never know enough.
4. Understand what is expected within your industry — Know the right language to communicate with people in the industry and understand the specific technologies and processes that are standard to help your yourself and your team best prepare and organize themselves to build a product that can fit into any customer’s current tech stack.
5. Know your product inside and out — this might seem obvious, but a great example is being able to communicate its complexities down to a friend or family member. If people outside of your tech bubble aren’t able to understand, then you might not know your product very well.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Yes, we should really stop assigning morality to food. A good example of this is calling a food “healthy” or “unhealthy”. The reality is that these definitions are relative and everyone’s needs are unique. Our goal with Foodspace is to not only provide the people that work in eCommerce with product data, but to provide data that is backed by scientific reasoning so that consumers can make their own informed decisions.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Her ability to break down the complexities of our government and drive to build a more fair and equitable US government is so necessary. As an early stage startup founder and CEO, I continuously challenge my team to think about how we might be unintentionally supporting systems that are inequitable and would love a chance to speak with AOC on how as a tech leader I should look for ways to build a better future for all.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!