Founder Spotlight of Kiwibot: Felipe Chávez Cortés

Adapting and Expanding: Kiwibot's Vision in a Changing World

Founder Spotlight of Kiwibot: Felipe Chávez Cortés

Delivery robots may soon become a familiar sight on college campuses and in city streets, thanks to startups like Kiwibot. This California-based company, founded in 2016, is leading the charge in revolutionizing last-mile delivery through autonomous robots, with a mission to make delivery cheaper, faster, and more eco-friendly (check out our article on how Kiwibot is fighting pollution, carbon emissions, and traffic congestion).

But what is Kiwibot, and how did it get started? In our interview with Felipe, we talked about the story of Kiwibot, how he manages different teams all over the world, and what it's like to be an entrepreneur who is making a change in the last-mile delivery space.

Can you tell us about your life before Kiwibot? 

I have always had a keen interest in robotics and technology. My first exposure to technology was during my high school years, when I was a hardcore gamer, specifically playing World of Warcraft online. At that time, playing online was expensive for my parents, so I decided to create an unofficial server for the game. After setting up the server, tens of thousands of people were playing on it within a month. This experience opened my eyes to the power of the internet and how few resources are required to create something that can benefit a lot of people. 

In 2013, Sergio Pachón (Kiwibot's President and Co-Founder) and I founded a food and grocery delivery company together, Lulu, which was my country's first app to accept credit card payments. We have this knack for naming our companies after fruits, with Lulu being named after a Colombian fruit that is my favorite and Kiwi, our current company, being named after my second favorite fruit. Lulu was a bootstrapped company, so I had to manage sales and costs, which taught me the basics of business and technology. We eventually sold the company for a good amount, which was more than I expected as a college student. After that, I returned to college and eventually got accepted into the Global Founders program at UC Berkeley in 2017.

What was your inspiration for starting Kiwibot, and how has your vision changed over the years? 

When we started, I noticed that in Colombia, delivery was very cheap. I was shocked at how expensive it was to order delivery when I came to UC Berkeley for the Global Founders Program. This boosted my idea of building a robot to offer a more affordable delivery option for students who were in a similar economic position as me. The initial vision was to serve students on college campuses at an affordable cost, sometimes even at zero cost. However, now our vision has expanded to include automating the physical world with robots. We want to promote the idea that robots are good, that they can live with humans and pedestrians, and that they can help us. We aim to deploy or integrate different kinds of robots in various verticals, so we're starting with last-mile deliveries on college campuses.

Kiwibot on college campus

Kiwibot on college campus

Could you tell us more about your views on robot delivery and food technology?

There are several companies helping us shape our vision. From a practical standpoint, scooter companies like Lime have been helpful. They were the first to put hardware on the streets and started essential conversations with governments and customers about things like manufacturing and supply chains. We learned a lot from them and have a couple of founding team members from Lime in our cap table (capitalization table).

From a robot perspective, we don't have interactive robots in cities yet, but we're closely following the work Disney is doing with robots. They're building robots that have more interaction with people, and I think they'll eventually launch something commercially very cool. 

Another company that inspired us was Anki, which created small toy robots and deployed a lot of them. Companies like Waymo, Cruz, and Tesla are deploying robots that people can use in their everyday lives. For example, here in California, you can easily sign up for an autonomous car and use it like an Uber in San Francisco. These companies are starting to show people that the future is here, with robots helping us in our everyday lives. So Lime, Anki, Disney Robotics, Waymo, Cruz, Tesla, and Kiwibot are shaping the robot delivery space.

Kiwibot in the streets

Kiwibot in the streets

We know you have multiple teams and functions across different parts of the world, how are you managing that and what is your philosophy in management? 

To start with, I'd like to clarify that it is still a work in progress. I'm constantly learning, speaking to people, and reading as many books as I can on management and when we need to change our management style. Of course, managing a company with 20 people is very different from managing a large company with hundreds of people like ours, where communication is slower and more complex.

However, over the past year, I believe that my efforts have helped me understand that when a company grows, it's important to set processes and rules. A great analogy for this is a board game. Board games are fun because everyone knows the rules, how to win, and what the next steps are. Similarly, I believe that people perform better when they know the rules and what is expected of them.

Thus, over the past year and a half, my focus has been on setting rules and processes. We've been working on how to measure and compensate our employees, how to hire new staff, how to expand to new campuses, and so on. I understand that this is a work in progress, but once these rules are set, I believe that people will find the experience of working at Kiwibot more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Initially, when we were a smaller team, these processes were not as crucial since communication was faster. But now, as we scale, setting up these processes and rules is fundamental to our success.



When it comes to being an entrepreneur, what are the most rewarding and motivating aspects?

Being an entrepreneur is like riding a rollercoaster of emotions; one day you're on top of the world, and the next day you feel like you suck at everything. What motivates me is being able to push a vision and create a team that believes in it. I also enjoy the learning curve, as I'm constantly learning about AI, manufacturing, supply chain, finance, sales, and markets that I otherwise would not have time to learn. But perhaps the most rewarding aspect of being an entrepreneur is meeting new people. Especially at Kiwibot, because my teammates and I share the same vision and values for the company, we have been able to form deep friendships. 

I remember my trip to Tokyo four/five years ago, where I had the chance to meet Akio, Joe, and Headline Asia partners, as well as other successful entrepreneurs from all over the world that have different perspectives, which has been a unique and enriching experience that I wouldn't have otherwise had. Overall, being an entrepreneur is challenging, but the rewards are worth it.

What is the DNA of your team and culture? 

I believe that leading as an example and living by the company values rather than just talking is the key to implementing them. There are also different phases of culture, and they vary depending on the company's circumstances. For example, during challenging times like a pandemic or a fundraising round, the set of cultural values may differ from those in good conditions. I believe in the framework of "war CEO vs. peace CEO." Ideally, my goal is to create a peaceful company that adopts the attitude of a company at war. However, building and maintaining a strong company culture is a process that is ongoing.


Can you share how you met Headline and what are your experiences working with us so far? 

I first met Headline in Berkeley around 2019. Headline has aided us in numerous ways, and I value Headline's comments and thoughts on our company. They have shown support through closing our biggest deals so far, helping us set the price terms, getting on with customer calls, etc. In terms of manufacturing and expanding in the U.S., strategy ideas have helped us in many ways. 

Headline is definitely, if not the most active ambassador in our cap table right now in terms of help. I appreciate the fact that I feel like a member of the team; they play as team members. That is important because there are no limits to what opportunities you may be missing or what you may be able to improve on.

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*This article was edited for clarity.