The Evolution of Rupu

The one thing Sospeter likes more than anything else is a good deal.

Sospeter is a jolly man. He has a hearty laugh and a friendly mien, but he can also be a bit too loud and animated. He is the kind of guy who photobombs as an instinct and walks right in front of the camera without a care in the world. If you catch him on a Monday afternoon, he will most likely be wearing a green hat, a green shirt, and beige khaki pants. His long-sleeved shirt will be hanging around his tummy, making it look like he’s heaving when he laughs. And he laughs a lot.

No one knows for sure what Sospeter does for a living. All they know is that he makes deals. If you know someone who “has a guy” for everything, then you know Sospeter. Sospeter is Rupu’s mascot.

Rupu-character

***

The first time Anthony Wanaswa walked into Rupu was also the day he made his first deal. The room he walked into was so big and empty that for a moment, he thought he was in the wrong place. It was September 2011 and the online deals startup was barely a year old. Everyone in the startup was cramped up in the corner farthest from the door.

For a new employee walking into his first day on the job, having the entire company stare at him as he tried to walk noiselessly towards them was not Anthony’s plan. In fact, his plan was to learn the job and within a few days, start working. But that wasn’t how Rupu worked.

The moment he sat down at his new desk, Anthony had a laptop before him and a single goal. Make a deal. Convince at least one merchant to offer a deal before the end of the day. It wasn’t an organizational culture as much as it was a startup ambition.

Anthony went back to his contacts, calling his friends to tell them that, first, he had a new job, and that he had a deal that would change their businesses forever. It sounded boisterous, but he kept at it, adapting his pitch to each person he called. The first person to agree to test this new company was a friend who ran a barbershop on the side.

He had little to lose, he figured. What Anthony was proposing was that he offer a deal on each haircut, half price, and then watch his foot traffic grow. So he agreed. Anthony was now no longer a newbie. But now he needed to sell it.

As a young e-commerce startup, every deal Rupu put up on the site had to make sense. It had to tip, meaning a minimum number of people had to buy into it before it was actualized. For Anthony’s first deal, that number was five. And now, five years later, Anthony Wanaswa is the Head of Online Marketing and Hub Coordinator.

***

The first deal that ever went up on Rupu was the “80 percent off automated ‘American Style’ at Geco Car Wash.” It was a chance for car owners to experience the automated carwash service in Lavington for a steal. It was also a loud announcement that there was a new kid on the block, and his name was discounts and deals.

The car wash deal went up on December 6th, five days after Rupu’s founders, Munyutu Waigi and Ben Maina, held a small launch event at the iHub. Rupu, the name they chose for their new venture, comes from the Swahili word “marupurupu” which loosely translates to discounts or commissions. Its primary brand color was green, and its dream was to become a titan in the Kenyan digital ecosystem.

rupu-logo

The Rupu logo.

Just two years before, a small e-commerce company had gone through the roof in Chicago. It had what seemed at first to be so simple a model that it was a surprise no one had thought about it before. The company, Groupon, introduced a coupon model where it connected merchants and customers, offering the former a new way to access customers, and the latter incredible discounts. In 2010, Google made the first of its two unsuccessful attempts to buy Groupon. That attempt not only raised Groupon’s value but it also attracted global attention to this new, bizarre e-commerce model. For Rupu’s founders, the time for the discount model of e-commerce in Kenya was nigh. And there was no one else in the Kenyan market doing it.

Rupu quickly attracted the attention of the biggest Swiss media company, Ringier AG. Ringier had been on the hunt for an African unit and pioneers in the digital space, especially in e-commerce. There was no better place to start than Nairobi. With MPESA and a famously voracious appetite for new technology, Kenya as a market for an e-commerce business more than made simple sense. If a Groupon-equivalent was going to thrive, not just in Kenya but in Africa, it would most likely be born in Nairobi. So when the first deal went up that cold December morning five years ago, it was not as simple as an automated car wash deal. It was the beginning of a spectacular story of a Kenyan startup.

***

At 10 am on a Monday morning, there’s a quiet hum in Rupu’s headquarters located on the ground floor of Top Plaza, Kindaruma Road. The bulk of the company sits at the heart of the warehouse-like space, several rows of young men and women quietly typing away on their laptops. Everyone has their earphones on, and it seems almost too quiet to be a marketplace. But it’s a Monday morning, and Mondays are busy days. The noise is happening online, as different deals go up and deliveries are handled.

In a few hours, the physical marketplace will also come to life. Five employees will huddle around one computer, discussing how to solve a problem that a customer has reported. The front desk will be a hive of activities, with some clients coming in to pick their deliveries, and others to confirm that Rupu has an actual office. It will be an endless information loop, with multiple conversations turning the initial hum into the vivacity of a proper market.

Rupu’s model is pretty simple. A company representative contacts a merchant and offers to connect his or her business to a new clientele. If the merchant agrees to a certain percent discount, the deal goes up on the site. The online marketing team then takes over, pushing the deal across all digital platforms. Another team handles customer enquiries. If the item being purchased is physical and the merchant doesn’t have a delivery system, Rupu takes the products into storage and then uses its own infrastructure to deliver. If it’s a service, the customer gets a coupon they can redeem when they go to the merchant. The merchant gets a list of all the customers who have bought in.

That information loop is everything because customer feedback determines if a deal stays or goes. It also helps the company know what works and what doesn’t. In 2014, for example, customers complained that the site had slowed down as the number of deals had increased.

For a digital market, any such downtime is a killer. Some clients get frustrated and never come back. Downtime notifications would send the entire company into a panic. But even more pressing is the fact that customers would get really frustrated. A slow site meant infinite scrolling, a nifty feature that loads pages automatically as you scroll down was too slow or not working at all. Rupu immediately went into developing a new site, the second upgrade in its history, to handle growing traffic. That project took five months, eventually unveiling a site that did away with infinite scrolling and instead had more categories and sub-categories. It also gave more prominence to the busiest category, Home & Living.

rupu home page

Outside of its primary model, Rupu also experimented with an eBay Model. The new division, Rupu Shops, was an online store that worked with physical retail stores to sell the merchandise online. Unlike the primary Rupu brand, Rupu Shops would not offer discounts. It would allow merchants to sell through the site instead. The experiment lasted barely six months, eventually being integrated into the primary brand in April 2014. By that time, Rupu itself had gone through a few changes. Ringier had bought out the founders, Munyutu and Maina, and expanded the model and the company.

***

Sospeter is selling a blade of grass on Rupu for 250 bob. He swears he got it from the manicured lawns of State House. That its “the finest grass in the world, but the only endorsement you need is to know that your fearless leader approves of this grass.” It is, he says, the grass your grass should smell like.

While you are at it, he adds, there’s a small rock that was once a piece of Mt. Kenya going for 100 bob. It “can be used as a door-stopper, paper weight, and conversation starter or conversation ender (if you throw it at the person talking).” There’s a jab at the land-grabbing epidemic in the country somewhere in the copy, and a proper pitch for this rock. You want to buy this rock.

While you are thinking of these, he offers a solution. It’s not just a bulb you are looking at, he says while looking you straight in the eye; it’s an “Idea Notification Service.” For just 200 bob, this fine work of art will “notify you and the world of your brilliant epiphanies“. You can even buy it “to monitor the performance of students and staff members. The bright ones will be bright and the dimmer ones will be dim“. It is the solution you have been seeking, for home and work. It’s genius.

It’s April Fools’ Day. Of course, it’s April Fools’ Day.

From the start, Rupu built an organizational culture fit for service delivery to its clients. The company’s primary clientele is 24-35 years old, middle class, and predominantly female. Working behind the scenes to deliver to that clientele, initially, were two people with a dream. From the car-wash deal to the thousands of deals that have gone up on the site since 2010, the employee base has grown to almost 70 employees. The company Anthony startled that cold, quiet morning in September 2011 had just 15 people.

Rupu’s workforce today is young, savvy, and innovative. The average age is 27, and the organisational culture open, laid-back, and obsessively team-oriented. The camaraderie, even on a quiet Monday morning, is palpable. As the hum grows and the physical market becomes itself, the energy of this workspace becomes clear.

The company’s YouTube channel suggests I’ve chosen the wrong day to visit.

If you can ignore Sospeter selling everything there is to sell in almost every video, there’s more than a hint of the e-commerce firm’s organizational culture. Some videos are spoofs of the popular dating reality show Tujuane. The storyline combines typical interviews with the solutions Rupu can provide. If the man says the lady should have worn a better dress, for example, a blurb appears on one end, showing a discount offer currently up on Rupu. At some point in the videos, Sospeter runs around pulling notices and offering deals. Sospeter is a deal riot.


There’s another, of employees doing a Harlem Shake and a few music renditions for Valentine’s Day. Sospeter is not in these ones. But you know he’s there, somewhere, looking for something to sell on the cheap.

The character of Sospeter was inspired, almost accidentally, by former General Manager of Rupu, James Gathere. A bored animator came up with him as a random proposal. It was meant to be an internal joke, but everyone loved it. Sospeter now runs all over the Rupu marketplace, tagging his mother and friends into deals.

A while back, he sold an ugali matumbo discount deal without flinching. It was a random suggestion, like Sospeter himself, but it sold beyond what anyone had envisioned. That’s the power of the discount e-commerce model, that what can sell cannot be determined by just primary research and simulations.

***

At 5, Rupu is the oldest surviving e-commerce platform on the Kenyan digital space. It still has a unique model, and a bright future. When MPESA turns ten in 2017, riding with it will be the histories and successes of numerous startups such as Rupu. To date, 80 percent of payments to Rupu are paid through mobile money. The e-commerce platform has used that and other technologies to quietly build a pioneering brand.

But to get there, Rupu has had to prove that it’s a legitimate brand. While the allure of an online shop is enough to bring most people onto the site, the deals and discounts model requires an even deeper sense of trust. So a good number of customers and merchants make the physical visit. But that, the current CEO Alex Scholz tells me, is okay. It enhances the information loop and makes it easier to understand customer and merchant needs. The Kenyan e-commerce market is, despite being small, ruthlessly competitive. There are e-commerce platforms, and individual merchants using Facebook and other social media sites to sell products and services. But not every Kenyan online who can buy has bought. That potential only grows as internet penetration improves and people seek more online shopping experiences.

The Groupon-model is perfect for such learning, and Rupu has been using it to understand its customers’ habits and preferences. It works the same way with merchants, as finding new and innovative ways to sell is at the heart of the model. Rupu knows, for example, that restaurant and spa deals sell the most in the middle of the week, as people are getting ready for the weekend. And nothing is too random to sell. When the site added duvets and pillows to Home & Living as an experiment, nobody expected high sales. Customers could, after all, walk into a supermarket and get them. The uptake was spectacular, with a single person buying 35 duvets in a single purchase within the first week.

Rupu‘s fifth birthday marked a momentous time in its history, but also a crucial chance to plan for the future. The company’s delivery infrastructure is one of its primary goals, as it will allow them to scale up. The company is also expanding its target merchants, hoping to bring as many and as diverse a pool of merchants as possible. Most of them, even today, are small businesses seeking new ways to access customers. Large companies are also seeing the efficacy of Rupu’s platform. More customers are referring friends and family to the site, and the market is quietly growing.

At 5, Rupu is now Kenya’s oldest e-commerce site, and one of its most successful. Today, its name is synonymous with discounts and deals. And Sospeter of course.

Owaahh, 2016.

One story is good,

till Another is told.

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