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Customer discovery should be your north star

Panza Startup from Costa Rica is a mobile app that connects local families to travelers

Please introduce yourself and your startup Panza to our readers!

My name is Ruby Gleber and I am the founder of Panza. My team members are David Moreno and Carlos Salazar and they are both web and mobile developers. Panza is a mobile app that connects local families to travelers by offering them authentic, home cooked meals. Our mission is to promote financial opportunities for families in Costa Rica and all generated profit goes directly back to those families. I was raised in the United States and graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 2018. I have spent the last two years living and working in Costa Rica as a Peace Corps Volunteer (community development with the U.S. Embassy). I am 23 years old and live in Atlanta, Ga.

How did you get the idea of Panza?

I have been a Couchsurfer for years – backpacking around Europe, forming friendships, and tapping into the local scene. I loved the concept and principles of Couchsurfing and I always wondered why there wasn’t something similar for food. That thought had been running around in my brain for a couple of years when I set off for Costa Rica. After working with local communities in Costa Rica as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I fell in love with the culture and was so overwhelmed by the warmth and kindness of the people I met.

Anytime I walked down the street, people would call me in for coffee or hand me freshly harvested fruit. I was well-fed for two years. And I also worked on a few tourism projects and I began to understand some of the problems that the country faced with tourism. The local people shared their perspectives with me and I understood the problem they faced: too little of the revenue generated by tourism (in a country where tourism accounts for 12% of GDP) went directly to the communities. And then there’s the tourists. They are blown away by the nature, the people, the fun, but not by the food. They can’t seem to find any real, authentic options. Especially in the more popular destinations, it’s just big restaurants where you overpay and there’s nothing special about it, no connection.

Why did you decide to start with Panza?

I decided to start Panza because I felt it was time. I had had so many conversations with both locals and tourists in Costa Rica that validated the idea, that told me something like Panza was necessary and could be useful for people. Tourists – for all of time, but especially now – are craving a genuine connection with the place that they visit. They want to fully experience their destination, its culture and history, and they want to feel good about the way they’re interacting with the place they visit. It’s my belief that if you ask any traveler if they’d rather their 5$ go towards a local family or the McDonald’s by the beach, they would choose the former. We also know that Costa Rica is not a cheap country to travel to, it’s rather expensive.

These families are offering a more economical alternative for the budget traveler as well as the best quality food you can find. Trust me, my host mother cooked better than any chain restaurant I went to during my time in Costa Rica! 

What is the vision behind Panza?

The vision behind Panza is to truly help support local families in Costa Rica, to provide them a way to make a little extra money doing what they already enjoy: cooking as a way to express their friendship and community. We will never force this platform on anyone. Panza was never a way for us to make money or find success – it grew out of a desire to do something good, to fill a need. There are so many lovely Costa Rican families that I personally know that are already doing exactly this, already opening up their homes, eager and happy to meet the foreigners that come to their country. If Panza brings value to one person, I will be happy. We wanted to create something that people will enjoy and if people reject it, then that’s fine too.

How difficult was the start and which challenges you had to overcome?

Honestly, we haven’t been daunted by too many challenges, but we’ve had our fair share. We started getting serious about this idea in March and due to the global pandemic, I was evacuated from Costa Rica two weeks later. So I and my two developers have been working remotely this entire time – which is not ideal, but we have been adapting. It’s also difficult trying to speak with and recruit potential host families when I am not able to physically be in the country, but thanks to the interconnectivity of our modern world, it’s not impossible. Another challenge is our overall lack of experience. I have been taking as many online classes on entrepreneurship and product development as possible and we were fortunate enough to be accepted into the CREATE-X Accelerator, but this is our first venture.

What pushes us forward is the belief that people will benefit from our product and that we have the chance to help people. Lastly, there’s the lack of budget. I am pretty much investing my own money because I think it’s worth it, but we are keeping costs down. We haven’t spent a dime on marketing or advertising and all expenses are directly related to the costs of launching the app. My two developers are doing this completely without pay and I am indebted to them.

Who is your target audience?

We have a couple customer segments. The most obvious is the backpacker demographic: younger, in love with travel, socially conscious. This is the adventure-minded person who probably has less money to spend, but wants to engage in unique experiences and get to the heart of the local community. Those are our early adopters, the innovators. The next segment is the wider travel market: couples, families, anyone who is already familiar with using apps when they travel and who is interested in going deeper into the local culture. We also anticipate that there could be some domestic use as well: Costa Ricans traveling from the city to the beach for the weekend and using the platform as an alternative to traditional restaurants. 

What is the USP of your startup?

Our USP is that nothing like this exists. Yes there’s Couchsurfing, yes there’s Airbnb Experiences, but neither of those do exactly what we are proposing. We offer a lower cost and higher quality experience, and most of all, you get to feel good about it.

Can you describe your typical workday?

I have a regular full-time job at a software development company, so I spend the majority of my morning and afternoon working on those responsibilities. And Idedicate the evenings and weekends to Panza and it varies week to week, but my day always includes a check in with my team, a look at our internet presence: google analytics, user database, emails, social media, etc. I spend a couple of hours on phone calls, engaging in relationship and partner building. My big emphasis right now is raising awareness and communicating with host families in Costa Rica. The majority of my time is spent in customer discovery, speaking with host families, and working on the product development. I do all of the UX/UI and graphics of our app, so that can keep me pretty busy. A part from that, it’s a lot of resarch!

Where do you see yourself and your startup Panza in five years?

We know there’s no guarantee that our platform will be popular or that people will be attracted to it, but we believe it will be. We will do everything we can to design a product that’s user-friendly, functional, and most of all: safe. Based on our progress so far and the 500+ customer discovery interviews we’ve had, people like this concept. In the beginning it will be slow, software development takes time. If you remember the early days of Uber, the app itself was simple and not as nice to look at as it is now. So we launch with an MVP and improve on it continuously.

We think that the people who support the idea will stick with us as we develop. We are prepared for 1-3 years before the app really picks up some traction and popularity. Until then, we will be in communication with users and families and be clear with them about expectations.

What 3 tips would you give to founders?

Do you have an idea? Do it. There’s a surprising amount that you can do with no money involved. All you need is your time and your passion.

Networking = success. Figure out what will make people care and use that to reach out to people. Cold calls and emails become a lot less cold when you can make someone interested in what you’re offering.

Customer discovery should be your north star. I cannot emphasize this enough. Your idea doesn’t really matter at all, until you talk to people and discover their habits and pain-points. Customer discovery will tell you everything you need to know, including potential pivots, design of the product, how to advertise it, and everything in between.

More information you will find here

Thank you Ruby Gleber for the Interview

Statements of the author and the interviewee do not necessarily represent the editors and the publisher opinion again.

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