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Q&A with Firefly co-founder and CEO Kaan Gunay

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Kaan Gunay, M.B.A. ’18, founded Firefly with Onur Kardeşler in December 2018. Firefly is a startup that allows rideshare drivers to make money through digital advertising — Gunay describes the company as being for-profit, but also a force for social good. The company’s product is a smart display that they mount atop taxis and rideshare vehicles to help drivers earn additional profit through advertisements. The displays will also collect data on air quality and temperature, which Firefly plans to share with their city partners.

Gunay moved from Turkey to the United States at age 18 to attend Brown University, where he studied mechanical engineering.

The Stanford Daily (TSD): Could you talk a little bit about what Firefly does?

Kaan Gunay (KG): At Firefly, we place smart displays on top of taxis and rideshare vehicles and serve location and time-based targeted content through advertising. At the same time, our screens go throughout a city and generate a lot of smart city data, which we share back with municipalities so that they can take action on all of the data that we provide to them.

So we really have three constituents. The first one is the driver. One of the core reasons why we started Firefly was [because] we were looking at the ridesharing and taxi ecosystem, [and] we saw an opportunity… We saw a platform where we could add tangible and meaningful value and have an impact on these drivers’ lives by figuring out a way in which we could add 10 to 15 percent of additional income in their pocket. If you look at the driver partners we have, a lot of them are new to the country. They’re first-generation immigrants. They [are] single parents and disadvantaged people. Being able to add such a meaningful income for them was extremely rewarding for us. And we were ideating on how we could do that, and advertising seemed like the natural progression.

The second constituent that we have is the cities. Now, because our displays go throughout the city and they have sensors built in, they generate a lot of data, so we’re prototyping pollution sensors. So whenever a car goes throughout the city, we will be able to read on the street-by-street level what the pollution levels are looking like. Another example of what we’re prototyping is [collecting] accelerometer data. Whenever a car hits a pothole, the accelerometer will get triggered, and because we have GPS in the displays, we’ll be able to know the exact location of the pothole and give the information back to the cities. We are also working with the California Highway Patrol to serve amber alerts. Again, completely subsidized to our cities by advertising.

The third, of course, is the advertiser itself, because we want to add value to them. At the end of the day, they are the ones that pay money to subsidize a lot of the benefits that we provide both to drivers and our cities and the people that live in our cities. So we want to make sure they are getting as much benefit as possible.

TSD: So, you’ve described Firefly as a force for social good. Has there ever been a tension between being a for-profit company and doing that social good?

KG: Not really, and the reason for that is before we started the company, we decided that a couple of things were very important to us. One was making sure we had as much profit as possible in our drivers’ pockets, while ensuring it was an economically viable business for us. And two was dedicating 10 percent of our inventory to nonprofits and city partnerships. We made those commitments on day one, and we built them into all of our models. So there has never been any tension because we made that commitment and were totally dedicated to it.

If you are a company that has a public good in mind where you want to add as much value as possible, you make it very clear to both your employees and your investors that you have a specific mandate and you’re not willing to compromise on it. We have been lucky enough that we have been attracting like-minded people to work with us and like-minded investors to invest money with us.

TSD: And what was that process like? From the inception of Firefly to receiving the support you’re talking about?

KG: So, I started ideating on Firefly in my dorm room from day one when I started at the [Graduate School of Business] (GSB), because I was so passionate and I knew that I wanted to start a business. Over time, we had a couple ideas, but…when we landed on our current idea, [Kardeşler] got so excited that… he resigned from his [full-time] job.

We were living in our dorm room together for about a year and a half, ideating on Firefly and working on it. We were lucky enough that a couple of alumni provided the backup in our early days and struggles, and since then, we have been able to prove additional milestones. And as you know, we have raised [$21.5 million in seed funding]. So we are moving relatively quickly, and we have been receiving a lot of support from a lot of different people.

TSD: What are some of the ways that you see Firefly expanding and changing over time? Is there anything coming up that you’re excited about?

KG: The beta partnerships with the city where we offer them pollution information and help locate potholes so that they can go and fix them. That’s something I’m extremely excited about. And we’re hoping to be able to power smart city applications so that we can add a lot of value to our municipalities and the people that live in those cities. So I’m super excited to start actually rolling those out. They have been in beta for quite some time; actually having real active partnerships on that front with the city is so exciting. I feel so rewarded.

TSD: Was there one moment when you knew that community-oriented work was what you wanted to do, or was getting there a more holistic process over the course of your Stanford career?

KG: I always thought I wanted to start a community-focused organization, especially when I was working in finance. I was trying to figure out what my true passion was, and I realized it was something more community-focused, where I could actually add value and see the value that I added in a tangible fashion. But the GSB really helped focus my thoughts, and I was able to realize that I could run a for-profit company and have incredible social impact at the same time. And that just opened my eyes, and I was able to really understand what I wanted to do in life. A lot of this is thanks to the curriculum, the faculty at the GSB and the many speakers that we had. Just hearing all of those people accomplishing incredible things was really wild.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Contact Kaylee Beam at kbeam97 ‘at’ stanford.edu.