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Big Ideas: “Use sensors on ride-share vehicles to better address pressing urban issues, like pollution levels, pavement condition, and street lighting.” With Kaan Gunay, CEO of Firefly

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kaan Gunay. Kaan is co-founder and CEO of Firefly, an emerging new media network leveraging the booming rideshare economy to power the cities of tomorrow. Kaan has worked alongside some […]

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kaan Gunay. Kaan is co-founder and CEO of Firefly, an emerging new media network leveraging the booming rideshare economy to power the cities of tomorrow. Kaan has worked alongside some of Silicon Valley’s most notable names, including Sequoia Capital and NfX, as well as an array of early genius startups that have now flourished into household names, like Lime. Well-versed in the world of philanthropy, Kaan has worked with Habitat for Humanity to help families affected by the Syrian Civil War. He received an MBA from Stanford University’s School of Business and completed a BS in Mechanical Engineering from Brown University.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Early on, I realized the importance of social good. I grew up watching my parents run a successful, profitable business in Turkey, while also doing their part to contribute to the local community and its people. At a young age, I wondered how I could do the same, giving back to those around me in a way that was functional, creative and productive.

When I moved to the US, I took that dream with me. I pursued a mechanical engineering degree at Brown University and later became a researcher at the School of Engineering. While I enjoyed doing research, I longed for a way to create a more immediate impact in the world. So, I went to Stanford to earn my MBA and worked in Venture Capital, where I had a front row seat to see some of the most innovative technologies in the world.

At the same time, I began working with refugees of the Syrian Civil War and Habitat for Humanity, a crucial part of my personal history that formed my belief in the need for purpose-driven companies that create a sustainable, positive impact for the people and communities with whom they intersect.

Through these experiences, I learned how to build and scale successful businesses, while growing my knowledge of best practices and pain points from the nonprofit world. I married these ideas in the creation of Firefly, forming the head and the heart of the company today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The most interesting thing that has happened is the diversity of people I have met along the way. I have had mentors invest in our idea and my career — which was so vital to our success. It is never just one idea and one person, it takes a community of supporters to lift ideas up and execute.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Firefly is a smart city media network. We connect people, governments and businesses to help build intelligent, safe and sustainable cities.

Our business is simple: we install our proprietary advertising displays atop rideshare vehicles, which uses our geolocation technology to deliver the right message at the right time, cutting through the noise of a booming space and leading to highly-effective campaign management. At the same time, we pay the rideshare drivers directly, adding 20 percent to their bottom line. We’ve also outfitted our screens with sensors that allow us to collect and provide useful information to municipalities for smart city planning.

It’s a simple model, but has broader implications for all stakeholders: as an advertising medium, Firefly’s proprietary screens are customized to and enabled for geo-local advertising based on driver routes and location. With a community-first approach, we allocate a minimum of 10 percent of all inventory to promote and advertise local non-profit organizations, public sector PSAs and other non-commercial entities such as charities, advocacy groups, and community organizations.

We are also currently working with local municipalities to provide information on city mobility and environmental conditions. The digital screen’s GPS sensors provide granular insight into traffic patterns, so transportation agencies can make informed decisions and policies. Soon, we aim to use our sensors to better address pressing urban issues, like pollution levels, pavement condition, and street lighting.

This has a major impact on the future of transportation. Personally, I believe that public transit will one day be free, subsidized by advertising, by platforms like ours — that is, those models that generate revenue while serving as valuable resources for their community.

How do you think this will change the world?

The advertising industry is actually an essential part of economic growth, but until now it has operated to benefit advertisers and brands only, incurring a negative bias from society. Firefly is not only bringing innovation to a space that hasn’t seen very much change in the last decade, we’ve also figured out a way to use advertising as a force for good, with important implications beyond the advertising industry.

The current out-of-home marketing industry consists mainly of traditional billboards that are static and therefore, extremely limited in audience reach. The noisy arena of digital advertising is oftentimes ineffective, with decreasing consumer patience to interact with online marketing. Firefly combines a dynamic digital out-of-home approach with our unique ‘situationally-aware’ smart screens deliver the right brand message at the right time, effectively connecting companies with target audiences and helping consumers find products and services that are relevant to them.

Beyond our adtech capabilities, we’ve baked a community-first mindset right into Firefly’s DNA. The idea of adding to the income of gig economy rideshare drivers came to my co-founder and me when we heard a friend discussing how little drivers were making. We saw that even as the rideshare market reached peak profit, driver wages have stagnated, so they have to drive longer hours in order to see the same return. While other companies negotiate contracts with agents/companies to prioritize corporate interest, we’ve built Firefly to profit the drivers first. Our business model increases monthly revenue for Firefly drivers by 20 percent, with zero additional work for the driver or higher prices for the rider.

We’ve also been at the forefront of the smart city movement. In the future, we plan to explore the addition of smart city sensors into our screen models. The sensors could range from air quality, to inform greener city planning decisions, to temperature gauges and accelerometers, to provide smart insights pavement conditions, street lighting and so much more. With a blend of public and private partnerships, between nonprofit organizations and municipal planning groups, we can then leverage that data to power smart city planning and growth.

A win-win-win solution sounds too good to be true, but we’re proud to have found a way through our unique business model to make this a reality for drivers, local businesses and municipalities.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

One of the most common mistakes made by advertisers is off-target marketing, meaning the wrong message is delivered to the wrong audience at the wrong time. For example, if an adult ad is served in an area near a local school, the chances of exposure by children to an age-inappropriate message are high and likely. Firefly mitigates the unintended effects of modern marketing through our geo-targeted technology so that we are able to safeguard communities from occurrences like these. What’s more, we don’t run ads related to adult content, so any risk is avoided entirely.

Additionally, large rideshare companies are moving toward profitability by keeping their costs low — and often, this means reducing the share of money going into drivers’ pockets. The ironic thing is, they’re alienating the people on whose backs they’re building their business! Firefly’s business model is focused on mitigating this situation by giving drivers an opportunity to earn a livelihood in this environment and ultimately thrive in their entrepreneurial work.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

We conceived Firefly at Stanford with one of my closest friends in the world (cofounder Onur Kardesler). He was actually not a student at the time; he was working at another company based in Palo Alto. So we worked on brainstorming ideas every day after my classes, and when we landed on the idea of Firefly, he immediately quit his job and moved into my dorm room.

We started pitching investors, and being at Stanford is amazing because you get exposed to lots of venture capital investors, which you don’t necessarily get at Brown.

Initially, we had a lot of rejection because we didn’t have a prototype, and so we ended up investing a little bit of our own money in building our initial prototype. Once we had it, we spoke to a bunch of rideshare drivers, and we finally landed on a driver who was willing to put one of our initial prototypes on their car. We ended up partnering with them and collecting statistics. We started working with venture capital firm NFX and, with participation from other venture firms, we’ve raised a total of $21.5 million. That’s where we are today.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

Firefly can grow when more drivers sign on to host our screens atop their vehicles, and when brands and non-profits sign on to advertise through our platform.

We’re a relatively young company: Firefly operated in stealth mode for about a year before officially launching in December of 2018. Still, we’ve already found great success in our work with like-minded for-profit and non-profit organizations that share the same vision we do — giving to the community for the true benefit of the community.

We have already driven a total of more than 110,000 hours, having executed more than 50 advertising campaigns for name brands like HotelTonight and Brex, and Sam’s Club, providing hyper-local reach and allowing the retail warehouse chain to deepen its visibility in suburban neighborhoods.

Additionally, our air quality campaign with the Coalition for Clean Air ultimately receiving 2.9M impressions with over 1,000 hours of screen exposure.

As our business expands nationally, we hope to get more and more people on board with our community-centric values that will help us all adapt to the way mobility will function in the future.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. Be open. Stay willing to meet new people and identify how you can build your network. 
2. Choose the right co-founder. Onur and I grew up together, but solidifying that working relationship took time and patience. Find someone who aligns with you and hit the ground running.

3. This is hard work. I knew starting my own company was going to be difficult, but I wish I had known just how challenging it was going to be. To navigate that, I recommend preparing some anchor points to guide you during the toughest times.

4. Find a meaningful internship. I firmly believe the three years in which I was working in finance were a very inefficient use of my time, and I wish I could get that back. I think internships are perfect ways in which you can be exposed to entrepreneurship and to do things that you wouldn’t have a chance to do otherwise.

5. Quality over quantity. Choose experience, work and personal that help you develop your skill-set. It is okay not to have a linear path. Learn how to tell your story and do not be afraid to keep sharing it with others.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

Be adaptive and be curious. The future is not made up of just one path, but many paths.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
I’d invest in creating new solutions for mobility in the urban environment. More people than ever are moving to urban centers across the world, and we need to invest in the infrastructure to improve our quality of life. I am interested in these mobile solutions, connecting our cities, learning about how cities are growing and developing to handle the influx of growth. We have some major challenges ahead, but we have to face them head on to create better futures for everyone.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Relentlessness is key. No matter what your objective is — you must be relentless in pursuit. No combination of academic accolades, corporate savvy or networking can beat hard work and persistence. Your passion and determination to succeed is more powerful than you think it is.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

We launched Firefly out of stealth. Before we were ready to hit the road, I kept my head down and worked night and day to make sure our product was ready for market before anyone knew it was coming. The silence and focus of being in stealth-mode gave our team the opportunity we needed to scale and improve our technology without any distractions or outside noise. We were also able to network with investors and industry leaders that worked for our company’s benefit.

If I could recommend one mindset for readers in anything you do — personally or professionally — it would be to prepare and cultivate ideas in absolute silence; let success speak for itself.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

Firefly connects people, governments and businesses to build smarter, safer and more sustainable cities. Having launched out of stealth this past December with $21.5 million in seed funding, we work directly with rideshare drivers to install its proprietary advertising displays atop their vehicles that adds 20% more profit to their drive time.

As a digital advertising medium, our technology uses specialized geo-targeted technology to deliver the right message at the right time, cutting through the noise of a booming space and leading to highly effective campaign-engagement.

With a community-first approach, we allocate a minimum of 10% of all inventory to promote and advertise local non-profit organizations, public sector PSAs and other non-commercial entities such as charities, advocacy groups, and community organizations.

Firefly is also currently working with local municipalities to provide information on city mobility and environmental conditions, exploring the use of smart city sensors to provide granular insight to address pressing urban issues, like pollution levels, pavement condition, and street lighting.

Located in Silicon Valley, we have been backed by notable investors including NFX, Pelion Venture Partners, Decent Capital (Tencent founders), Stanford’s StartX Fund, Chesterfield Investments, Industry Ventures, Muse Capital, Cross Culture Ventures, and individuals including Lime founders Toby Sun and Brad Bao, Jeffrey Housenbold (SOFTBANK Vision Fund), and Patrick Schwarzenegger.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can reach me via LinkedIn here: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kaangunay/ or follow me on Twitter @KaanGunay_.

If readers want to learn more about Firefly, check our company Twitter page out here @Firefly_Cities.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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