It’s Zipline’s 5 year anniversary, and this Good Unicorn has been busy! Over the last 5 years, Zipline’s autonomous aircraft (drones) have delivered 4.5 million doses of critical medical supplies (like blood and COVID vaccines) to those who most need it (Zipline currently delivers 75% of Rwanda’s blood supply outside of its capital, Kigali). Zipline’s on-demand delivery infrastructure eliminates wastage for healthcare systems and provides critical healthcare in five countries, serving 25 million people to date.
In this interview, Keenan Wyrobek, founder and CTO of Zipline shares how he built this Good Unicorn, why it’s a moral imperative to build a profitable business, and why having fun when things get really hard is at the core of what makes Zipline successful.
Let’s dive into the deep end!
Diana Tsai: Happy 5 year anniversary! If this is Zipline at five years old, what kind of impact will you be able to achieve when the company reaches its fullest expression of itself in the future?
Keenan Wyrobek: Yeah, it’s fun to be at this scale, but it’s kind of insignificant in the grand scheme of things. And that’s what gets me excited, right? We’re far enough along that this is no longer a question of, “Is this even a good solution to the problem?” Now it’s a question of how on earth do we actually create the company, culture, and technology that enables us to solve this problem at global scale?
Because ultimately, Zipline’s mission is to design and build a logistics system capable of serving all people equally. Billions of people worldwide lack access to basic medical supplies, and we’re building technology to tackle that ultimate challenge.
Tsai: What do you think is the single most important area of focus for the company to achieve that future?
Wyrobek: Get out of our imaginations and go talk to customers! That’s always been the priority for us. It’s critical to spend a lot of time with customers really trying to understand their world firsthand.
Sometimes we’ll say to ourselves, “Oh, hey, you know we’re getting academic here. Let’s go take a trip and understand this better. Because, you know, we’re using our imagination to imagine the problem too much.” And that’s how we got where we are today. And that’s very much how we’re continuing forward. Healthcare is complicated. Logistics is complicated. Put those things together, it’s an extraordinarily complicated world; it’s very easy to make the wrong assumptions and go develop something that’s useless.
Tsai: Okay, so zooming back to the beginning, there are really so many potential problems to tackle in this world. What was the process by which you chose this one? Why did this problem speak to you, this healthcare logistics problem?
Wyrobek: I followed some really, really basic advice that I don’t know why I never followed it earlier. The advice was: before you start building tech, go out in the world and find a problem that you’re passionate about and understand it really well. And I’ve never really done that in my life, and never met many technology companies that have done that either. You always have an inkling of an idea first, and go out to look for validation. This is, you know nothing, go find the problem first. So it’s very simple advice.
I spent two full years looking for the right problem to solve. I knew I wanted to do something that would be impactful. I knew I wanted it to be something that we could solve at scale. Over those years, I looked at a lot of things. Once I met Keller, my cofounder and CEO, we looked at half a dozen things in pretty serious depth. I mean, depth to the point where we’re getting checks on the table from potential customers for $10 million in pre-orders of a product we had sketched on a piece of paper, and still that wasn’t enough to make us decide to build that idea.
Healthcare was something Keller and I were both passionate about. My wife’s an epidemiologist, she told me these stories about vaccine campaigns that would just get stuck on logistics. Keller has family in public health as well. And so we started digging into healthcare logistics, spending a bunch of time in Central America, Africa. And over about six months we just explored the space. It was about really trying to understand people’s worlds well enough to, to have that conviction about whether we could actually make an impact. And in the end, the idea that stuck, that we couldn’t stop thinking about, was Zipline.
Tsai: It certainly takes something to walk away from a $10M check from a potential customer. Was there a moment when you knew the rest of the ideas were dead and Zipline had to be it?
Wyrobek: Yes, I still remember visiting a warehouse in Tanzania where they had football fields of boxes outside. And we’re thinking, what’s the deal? Why do you have all these medical supplies? And they told us, “Oh, yeah, that’s expired medicine.” And that’s when it really hit home, if we can just provide a really good solution for delivery, we can really have an impact. The rest is history.
Tsai: I love it. So now I want to talk a little bit about product-market fit. How long did it take for you to find product-market fit? Were there major pivots, how many pivots?
Wyrobek: We started with five countries we were working with, and quickly realized we could not keep five conversations going, because we had to be meaningfully in the countries we were serving. So we narrowed it down to three, and that was still pretty painful to maintain, but we needed to not put all our regulatory eggs in one basket.
We had a lot to learn: about government purchasing, local healthcare systems, and those were different in every country. One country wanted us to delivery filled prescription to local health clinics in remote areas. Rwanda wanted us to start with blood to hospitals.
That’s where we learned how much we didn’t know. And many sort of really fundamental things about what we ended up building completely changed. I think that the most striking one is how far we needed to fly our drones. We thought we’d need a 20 km service radius, and by the time we were done understanding the countries, we realized it’s actually an 80 km service radius. And that’s a totally different drone.
Another example was blood handling, which by itself is a whole world of complexity. We did this study through Emory University where they got grad students to donate all this blood and drop it off buildings in our package and monitor that blood over time to make sure the blood wasn’t getting damaged. Because blood literally can get damaged, it goes into something called hemolysis, where the blood, if it gets physically damaged, the blood cells will kill themselves. If you try to transfuse that damaged blood it can be lethal to the patient. So these were some of the lessons we had to learn along the way.
Tsai: So how did you fund all these learnings in the beginning? When did you raise venture? Was it easy or hard?
Wyrobek: I’d say the very beginning was very hard. Because we seemed a bit bonkers to everybody we talked to. Towards the end of 2015, we had been talking to customers and were laser focused, and that’s what got us funding. I still remember when we had this test site on the coast of California, really crazy weather, salt, fog, rain, super windy. We were flying there all the time. I remember when an investor came and visited. It happened to be raining that day. And like while these investors are driving up the driveway, they’re looking out the window and like, “Holy smokes, there’s a whole bunch of drones up in the air.” This was back when there was a lot of drone companies, when drones were hot. And by the time that investor got to the top of the driveway, they’re like, “How fast can I sign?” Because everywhere else they’d ever visited, founders would say, “Oh, let me do a staged demo for you. And it’s windy, I can’t fly.” We were at a point where we knew from working with our customers that we had to fly in the rain, we had to fly with hard winds. Our focus on the customer cut out everything that didn’t matter.
Tsai: I’m curious about what has been critical to your success that’s been in contradiction of Silicon Valley’s conventional wisdom, if anything?
Wyrobek: We’re very different! Our team members describe us as the anti-Silicon Valley company. A lot of it comes down to culture. Some examples: we have incredible age diversity. Everyone is not in their 20s and 30s. The first engineer we hired had two kids.
Another one – our headquarters up until recently was on a cattle ranch. It’s a mobile office trailer with a tank out back for number two, bathrooms, you know. It’s very scrappy.
Here’s something unusual – we work in the countries we serve, and hire local talent. Our team was based out in Rwanda, and we hired incredible local talent. Our first hire in Rwanda has gone on to do amazing things at Stanford and now Harvard Business School. All our operations in Rwanda are run and staffed by Rwandans. A lot of people are surprised by it. There’s talent in Rwanda that you wouldn’t believe. And a lot of people carry these assumptions about where you should have your company headquarters, who you should be hiring, that I think are just 20 years out of date.
Tsai: Can you talk more about hiring talent in Rwanda? That is so unusual, love that you’re hiring from the community you serve.
Wyrobek: Yes sure! Africa is a very exciting place right now. A lot of people’s mental images of Africa are from the early 90s. For example, when you say Rwanda, most people are like, “Oh, they just had a genocide.” It’s true, they had a genocide 25 years ago. But the distance the country has come on 8% growth year-on-year for 25 years, that kind of compound interest growth is unfathomable. In the 5 years I’ve been in Rwanda, the country has completely changed on that growth rate. The talent is just phenomenal.
In Africa, the talent makes the productivity standards of the United States, I mean it makes us look lazy. The energy, the level of commitment, level of hustle like there is remarkable. It’s mind-blowing.
Tsai: It’s really incredible. I love hearing that. What about some of the near death moments in the company where everything almost falls apart?
Wyrobek: There was one fundraising round, I forget which one it was where we got a little optimistic about how fast we can raise a round. And that was dumb. We don’t do that anymore. The joke is that the main job of founders is to never run out of money.
Making mistakes and things falling apart, that’s what’s fun about all this. We’re an awesome, scrappy problem-solving company. Our success today looks awesome. But if you walk someone new through what it took to get there, they’re like, wow. So you made 999 mistakes and you learn from every single one efficiently. That’s how you can say, we’re really smart now.
Tsai: You have so much joy and energy around what you do that I really can’t imagine anything getting you down. I don’t know how many people I talk to that would laugh about almost running out of funds. I’m just wondering if that’s the culture you built at Zipline, that makes the company particularly resilient to mistakes?
Wyrobek: It’s truly the culture we’ve built. So we have this values interview, which is literally trying to get at how does this person behave in difficult situations? It’s like this: we’ve all done trips with friends, right? And with some friends, stuff goes off the rails on your trip plan. And it’s really fun! You just have a fun time figuring out what to do about whatever crazy thing just happened. And other friends, things go wrong, it’s stressful, you kind of want to take a break from each other.
So we want to hire people in that first category. People who find the fun in situations where things get really hard.
On the subject of mistakes, we see mistakes as learning. And the question is really, what’s the fastest way to learn here? Often it is trying something where you know it’s going to be a mistake, but you’re going to learn quickly from it.
For example, that initial sketch deck of Zipline that I told you about from the earliest days? I was pretty sure it was all wrong. But I knew I wasn’t going to know how wrong it was until we made it and showed it to customers. That’s how you learn.
Tsai: Where does it come from for you? Have you always been this way since you were a small child, just breaking things and learning?
Wyrobek: 100% yes. I got married almost 10 years ago, and my best friend from childhood surprised me with this toast. He said, “I’ve been thinking a lot about what Keenan’s catchphrase is, and it’s: We’ll Figure It Out.”
Tsai: Amazing. So 2 questions on Good Unicorns. First, do you think it’s harder or easier to build a Good Unicorn versus an ordinary one?
Wyrobek: I think the advantages of building a Good Unicorn are like this. Each day you have thousands of decisions to be made. If those decisions can be made by everybody at the company, grounded in a mission you all share, that’s when magic happens. Not like a traditional company where you have to flow decisions up to a product manager, a voice of a customer person is trying to wrangle all these decisions. Because we’re all out in the world meeting the customer, we’re all the “voice of the customer”, we all share the same passion and obsession with our mission. The magic is when I walk into a design review, someone blows me away with an idea I hadn’t even thought about in a really elegant, innovative way, because they’re so connected to the mission and focus on it.
Tsai: That’s such a unique perspective. Totally distributed decision-making because of total ownership of the mission. That’s powerful. What about, has there ever been a time where you had to choose between purpose and profit?
Wyrobek: We’ve actually never had to go off mission. What I mean by that is, we’ve always had the luxury of saying no. For example, we’ve said no to military contracts to adapt our drones in ways that deviate from the product roadmap.
The reason we can say no and stay true to our mission is because we deliberately maintain our strategic position, make sure we always have customer backlog, that the business is strong. It’s if a business is weak, that’s when you might get put in a position to choose between purpose and profit, because you’re running out of money and have to compromise. So we see it as our jobs as founders to not ever get into that situation, because of the companies we’ve studied that have gone off mission, it’s because the business wasn’t strong enough.
Tsai: That’s beautiful, so you’re safeguarding the mission of the company by making sure it’s very financially secure, always. That way you’re never in a position to compromise between purpose and profit. That’s really beautiful. I actually haven’t heard it articulated that way before, it’s very powerful.
Wyrobek: A lot of people are weirded out by that. They can’t process the notion of building a profitable business in a high-impact space. They say, why are you pushing so hard on profitability? And the way we think about it is if we go out of business, the people who count on us, the doctors who tell us point blank, “You can never stop delivering blood. That simply can’t happen,” – our ability to keep people alive and healthy depends on our profitability. So it becomes a moral imperative to build a profitable business in a space like this.
Tsai: “Moral imperative to build a profitable business.” Keenan, you just blew my mind right there. Ok final question – imagine there’s a roomful of young aspiring entrepreneurs in here with us, thinking – I want to build the next Good Unicorn. What’s your advice to them?
Wyrobek: I had this old professor who gave me the 10 call rule. 10 phone calls. It’s a get out of a rut exercise, go and find 10 actual phone numbers online, and call them. Learn about the industry. Ask a ton of questions. If they won’t talk to you, who do you know that might talk to me? Can I visit your company? Can I see your supply chain? Can we get some feedback about something we’re thinking about?
That’s how you get out into the world and learn. That’s one of the things love about humanity, right? As an individual, we’ve got 1 out of 8 billionth of the world in our head of the human experience. Go out and talk to people. Lots will say no, but that’s the fun of it. The people who let you in and show you around and teach you things – you’ll see opportunities to make an impact that you just could not imagine.
Also I have to add, that makes fundraising easy. Investors love customers. Go find customers and talk to them.
Want more on Good Unicorns? Go here.