Zubale, founded in Mexico City last year by two HBS grads, just raised $4.4 million to put locals to work over their smart phones

A year ago, at a demo day south of San Francisco, we watched a number of recently formed startups pitch investors on their companies. One that stood out to us at the time was Zubale, a Mexico City-based outfit whose founders were looking to connect big corporations with Latin Americans eager to address tasks on their behalf. A person could conduct on-the-ground market research for a brand, for example, then earn mobile phone credits or other redeemable digital rewards.

Fast forward and Zubale, which had 10 employees at the time, now has 40 full time employees, and it has completed 170,000 tasks on behalf of the consumer brands on which it is squarely focused — and for two reasons. First, according to Zubale cofounder Allison Campbell, the retail industry across Latin America is a generating $2 trillion per year, but companies are also shelling out $40 billion on “super painful and high spend” that includes employees who complete in-store tasks like stocking shelves, checking prices, and building displays. Campbell says Zubale can save — even make — these companies money by crowdsourcing the same tasks to independent contractors who can choose from an inventory of similar and jobs near to them. Campell and her cofounder, Sebastian Monroy, also know a few things about retail in emerging markets. Before heading to HBS, Campbell spent nearly eight years with Walmart, as a merchandise manager, then as a  director of international strategic initiatives, roles that placed her in Gurgaon India, then Shanghai and Shenzhen, China. Monroy’s path has been a similar one; he spent more than seven years working in a variety of sales roles for Proctor & Gamble in Mexico before heading to Harvard, where he met Campbell on their first day of business school. (“We realized we were wearing the same exactly glasses and took a picture together,” she says with a laugh. They decided to team up on Zubale a a year later.) Indeed, though one could see Zubale using its platform to crowdsource any number of tasks, a la TaskRabbit, the opportunity is so massive in catering to retailers that the startup plans to stay in its lane for the foreseeable future. If anything, says Campell, Zubale — which plans to eventually expand from Mexico into other countries, including Brazil, Chile, and Peru — may end up offering the contractors more in the way of financial services products, given that there remains a dearth of these and that these individuals are constantly checking the app anyway. It makes sense. While 85 percent of Mexico’s population of 125 million now has a smart phone — giving rise to more app-driven startups like Zubale — only 10 percent have a credit card, and only 35 percent have a checking account. It’s for that reason that many of the people who work for Zubale still choose to earn mobile phone credit and other digital rewards that they can redeem through making online purchases. They “love us,” too, says Campbell, because they can “increase their income by 40 percent” by performing work for Zubale. In fact, she suggests Zubale hasn’t had to do much in the way of marketing, thanks to Facebook Groups where the company is discussed, as well as through other word of mouth, including workers’ friends who want more jobs and find it easier to find and complete jobs in 30-minute increments at the same store location rather than run from store to store or job to job. (On average, she adds, they complete 20 jobs for the company per week.) Certainly, investors like the company. Campell and Monroy say they had a lot of inbound interest when they began seeking seed funding more recently. They chose the venture firm NFX to lead the $4.4 million round, given its expertise in marketplaces and network-effects driven businesses. Other participants in the round include Industry Ventures, Joe Montana’s Liquid 2 Ventures, and XFactor Fund, along with individual investors Jonathan Swanson (who is the chairman of Thumbtack), Sergio Romo (the CEO of Grow Mobility), and Bob White (the founder and a former managing director of Bain Capital). Meanwhile, the company’s very first check came from the seed-stage firm Pear, which had hosted that demo day.

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