This week, I had the pleasure of interviewing April Fenall, founder and CEO of Piikup, delivery services for businesses and other organizations that need their products delivered with the right attitude, quality, and speed. In this interview, April talks about how she started Piikup to support local, small businesses while providing good jobs for working class people. She shares how Piikup positions itself in an industry that is increasingly becoming a race to the bottom in terms of price. And, she talks about the importance of doing the internal, emotional work to move beyond fears and doubts to create a business with meaningful positive impact in the community.
What inspired you to start a delivery services business?
There are two reasons why I started Piikup. First, I have a deep love and respect for small, local businesses around the country. Being raised in Richmond, a smaller town north of here, I have fond memories of growing up with my grandmom. We would go to all her little clothing shops in the neighborhood. And there was the corner store where we didn’t need to have money to pay because we had a running tab. They knew everyone by their first names because they’d been in the neighborhood for decades. They were family stores. It didn’t feel like I was going to shop at a store. It felt more like I was going to somebody’s house. So, I have fond memories of that and respect for local small businesses.
Second, my grandmom was a blue collar worker. She was a janitor for the UC Berkeley system. I would see her get off the bus every day at the same bus stop with her uniform on. I gained a lot of respect for working class people. I know how she made ends meet. I want to help to make things easier for those who are living paycheck to paycheck who are working class folks. I believe they should be afforded the same types of perks that I see within the tech industry. That’s why I do this work.
You started off by making deliveries yourself. What was that like?
Yes, I did. And I still do deliveries myself. There’s a couple of reasons I do deliveries myself. First, I had to because I was starting up. But I also believe that every business owner needs to understand what it’s going to be like for their team members. I wanted to understand what their day to day was going to be like.
Recently, one of my team members said to me, “It’s really good to see you out there doing the work. You’re not too good [to do the work].” She let me know what her experience was—that when the business owners got to a certain point in the business, they felt they were too good to do what she saw as “dirty work.” It’s interesting she said that because I remember the milkman and mailman as respectable delivery jobs, but now the delivery space is crowded and it’s sometimes perceived as “dirty work.” I want to bring the sexy back to delivery work.
What do you think happened that created a perception that delivery services is “dirty work?” And, how are you changing that?
On-demand happened. The gig economy happened. It created a lack of connection. Working with Piikup is not a gig. We’re not a contractor mill. We are looking to connect people to purposeful work that they can be proud of, that they can rely on to support their families, and where they can be part of a community.
To do this, we need to have a deeper understanding of what it means to engage with our community. We know that somebody who has children and is working two jobs to make ends meet can’t just plug into a 9 to 5. Beyond the flexible hours, they need to be earning more than just minimum wage, but a living wage. Also, there are things that working class people still have to do when they get off work, such as cooking dinner, washing clothes, taking care of kids, taking care of the pets. We are baking ways and perks into our culture, to make their lives easier. Not so they can be at work longer. We don’t want people working 10 hours a day. That’s not it. We want to make life easier so it enriches the quality of people’s lives.
Can you talk about any of the perks you are providing your workers?
We have already started sourcing laundromats in the area so that we can partner with them to do laundry for our team members. If a team member wants that service, they can drop off their clothes in one of the bins and we’ll take them to the wash and fold and have them ready for them within the next day or so.
What kinds of small businesses are your ideal clients?
Our ideal client is an organization that either has a one-off need, which is something delivered or picked up from point A to point B, or has a route, which is a recurring type of delivery need. Typical industries we work with are retail, food, and professional services.
What process did you go through to identify your ideal client?
When I came into Uptima’s Launching a Business class a couple years ago, my idea for a delivery services business was very broad. I started to get more specific through lots of trial and error and lots of doing things. When I first started, my very first client was a burger joint, where the delivery was on-demand whenever they received individual customer orders. And it’s not I’m averse to burgers, I love them. But we didn’t get into business to deliver food that way. I knew I wanted to deliver for food businesses, just not on demand like that.
Now, whether it’s a one-off delivery or something that’s a route, everything is scheduled. We don’t support on demand deliveries at this time. The organization that needs a delivery usually gives us two days notice ahead of time.
How do you deal with being in an industry that is becoming a race to the bottom in terms of price?
On more than one occasion I have been told that my prices are high. But, I tell potential clients that I don’t compete on price. I am delivering a quality service. And, I’m serving my community in a way that I can’t serve them if I try to compete by offering the lowest price. I can compete by having the most impact and by delivering the most value and by being dependable and reliable to them.
What kind of responses do you get when you tell them you don’t compete on price?
I get head nods. The say “let me see what I can do.” An example is one of our newest clients, Crumble & Whisk. We met them three months ago and they told us that our prices were too high. They went with another delivery outfit, but had a hiccup with them. As a small business, it became difficult for them to manage. They need to free up time. They need to trust their vendors, and they don’t want to have to manage them. So, they came back to us. And now, our prices a just a little different than they were a few months ago. We are a new company, so of course we’re exploring our pricing model – just trying to get to the right price point so we can still be in business and service our clients.
What are the next steps?
Things are moving rather quickly for Piikup. In the last couple of years, I’ve gone from being this “kid” from the south side of Richmond to being a business owner who has been nominated for a Social Changemaker Award at the Oakland Indie Awards. And, it feels amazing because I had the privilege to work with the population I want to serve.
However, in order for us to do this well, we need to raise money. We’re raising working capital through a Kiva loan that is going to be funded and gearing up for future funding, hopefully in September. And, it’s all about keeping and servicing the clients we already have. We’re not looking to grow too fast, but the potential to grow is there. We have near-term customers that find what we’re doing of value and are interested in working with us as we grow. Right now, it’s about getting everything together so that we can service them in a way that we know we can.
You said you’re raising a Kiva loan right now. What’s that process been like for you?
We’re raising a $10,000 Kiva loan to fund working capital. That working capital is going to help us in paying our team members, with expanding our delivery fleet, and get the necessary insurances that are required for a business like ours.
I’ll be honest about the process. In the beginning, I was nervous. At first, I asked myself “can I raise that much money?” I remember when I was in the Uptima Funding a Business classes, we had to look at how much money our businesses needed to grow. And, I just could not fix my mouth to even utter the amount. Through Uptima, I’ve had the chance to explore my relationship with money. But, I was able to quickly say yeah, I can raise that much money. And then, it became about the tight deadline. There’s so many things happening at one time. The overwhelm of all of that that had me feeling really nervous.
But after the first three days, I had a different feeling. I came back to gratitude. Wow, my social network is stepping up. All of that work of just being authentic, genuine, and connecting with folks, volunteering and other things I’ve done since I moved back to the Bay Area was paying me back. It’s great to see how people are actually showing up when I need them.
You talked about exploring your relationship with money. What was that like for you?
I was looking at my family. They’re working class people. My mom is a cosmetologist. Growing up, I never wanted to be “like her.” But I couldn’t narrow down what the “like her” was – that she’s a business person, that she does her own thing, or that she makes her own hours. I’m not quite sure what that “I don’t want to be like her” was. But, I felt called to go to school, to go to college, to follow a different path, and work for someone. So after I’d worked for quite a few people and then nobody would hire me, I fell back on what was there the whole time – this entrepreneurial spirit.
And at the same time, I didn’t want to have the struggles my mom had as a self-employed person – the ups and downs of that. I didn’t know all the struggles firsthand because I was little, but I do know that money was always an issue. Not like the lights were off or bills weren’t paid. But when it came to school field trips, I knew we probably couldn’t afford it. Or, if I needed a dress for whatever reason, it was going be to be tough to pay for it. Those sorts of things. The idea of disposable income wasn’t happening in my household. This scarcity of always looking at price tags or verbally saying at the store that an item costs a lot. Somehow that scarcity mindset seeped in and transferred over to me and my relationship with money. It’s been about not having enough, instead of thinking about abundance.
This mindset definitely played out in the early stages of my business. If I had been able to embrace and see things from a space of abundance early on, then I would have been more confident earlier to see that I was going to need that money and that I was going to be successful. Instead of staying in that fearful place for longer than I needed to be.
How did you build that confidence?
I am not quite sure. Probably a combination of things. The right time, the right people. I got to that place of confidence because I’m surrounded by people who share my values of family, integrity, and perseverance.
What has been the most fun in your business so far?
There are a lot of fun things. Two things come to mind. The first is every time that lightbulb comes on for one of our team members. Our team members are amazing. I’ll just steal what you said about their being geniuses in our community, because there are absolute geniuses. Part of our mission is to hire directly from shelters, where women and children are living, those who have been formerly incarcerated, people with disabilities and other marginalized groups. Specifically, a lot of the women that have come to be a part of our team have very low self-esteem. Low self-esteem as a teenager versus low self-esteem as an adult looks very different, because now they’re responsible for a whole lot more as an adult. What I recognize in them is the potential. I recognize the perseverance in them. I know they can do a lot more if they were just given the platform or the environment or the space where they can thrive. And there’s a lot of fear in that because nobody has said that to them. Everyone’s told them what they can’t do, what they should do, what they won’t do, and hard bumps in the road of life probably have just confirmed some of those things. So, I just want to be the bridge to give people the first chance or second chance that they need to show up as their best selves. And I love it when I can help them get to that point where they have consistent income coming in, and they’re able to connect to other resources to improve the quality of their lives. Also, every time that one of my partners from a shelter calls me and says they have a participant they think will be a really good fit and I get to talk to them and hear their story – I love those moments.
In addition, with the small businesses, I love when I’m able to free up the time of a business owner so they can actually work on the business and not in the business. That’s huge. As a small business owner, I know what that’s like. You’re working in the business. You just don’t have the time to work on the business. But you grow when you can work on the business.
What has been your proudest moment so far?
The proudest moment was when I made the decision that I’m going to go all in with this. I moved from that place of fear or hesitation of half in, half out to going all in.
What moved you to go from half in, half out to going all in?
I don’t like regrets. I didn’t want any regrets. I knew that if I didn’t give it my all, it would just be incomplete.
What has been your biggest challenge in this business so far?
There are lots of challenges. My biggest challenge is just hard to say because they’re all pretty much happening simultaneously. But the challenge has been building a team. As a startup with no capital and working with the population I want to work with, I can’t rely on the typical sweat equity. The people I work with need to take care of themselves.
I have been able to attract a few drivers now. And the Kiva loan is going to help. It’s allowing me to have the capital to pay my team before my contracts pay me.
Are you recruiting for team members? What do you look for in a team member?
I am recruiting team members right now. Some of the standard things I look for is if they have a California driver’s license. Even though we have our own fleet, we also allow our team members to use their personal vehicles. So, if they are using their personal vehicle, they should have their own insurance. I want to explain that a little bit because that is similar to the gig economy. The only reason that we allow for folks to use their personal vehicle or walk or be on a bike is because it’s about access. We want to meet folks where they’re at and not require them to rent some vehicle as some of the other delivery companies are asking workers to do. Because what’s happening is folks are in this hamster wheel of paying a significant portion of their income to rent vehicles. It’s about access. I want to meet people where they are – if they are on a bike and we have jobs that are compatible with using your bike, then absolutely.
What tips do you have for someone who is getting started?
Be prepared to work on the internal things – your relationship with money, your confidence, your family or dynamic that there’s some support there. Be prepared to become very intimate with those things. Because it just won’t work if you can’t be healthy about that. You can’t just put it in the closet. Separating business from personal – there’s just no separation. You are one person. Be prepared to come into it as one person, as your whole self.
Also, don’t be afraid to dream. When you are part of a group that’s living paycheck to paycheck or part of a marginalized group, you don’t always feel like you have the right to dream. Or you don’t do it in the same way that people with access dream. Allow yourself to dream because wonderful things happen when you have that vision. Even if it’s small, like one day I want to have a nice jacket. Start somewhere. For me, it’s having this greater vision of what the culture would be like for Piikup – a place where you don’t have to pay for childcare because you can bring your child to work, you don’t have to pay for pet care because you can bring your pets to work, you don’t have to worry about having to go do laundry because we’re a community that shares, and we have those resources for you to make the quality of your life better.