An Interview with Beam
Imagine it’s your mother’s birthday in Ghana and you want to send her a cake. Where do you start when you don’t know the best vendor, let alone that vendor’s location or phone number? Or imagine you’re a Ghanaian college student in London craving some plantain chips from Judi Foods, and the nearest Ghanaian shop is miles away – what do you do? That’s where Beam comes in. Beam helps Ghanaians in the diaspora get things done back home in Ghana. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng met up with the Beam Crew in Accra to learn more about the Beam model.
Akinyi: It’s Valentine’s Day weekend, so I can imagine you’re getting a lot of orders this time of year. What kind of orders have you gotten?
Falk: It’s definitely a working weekend. People have mostly been ordering flowers, chocolate, and tailored gift baskets.
Akinyi: Do people give you very generic requests or do they tend to be specific?
Kingston: Sometimes people will ask for something from a specific shop. But usually when people give us an idea of what they’d like, we’ll discuss a budget and then make a recommendation based on vendors we’ve worked with.
Akinyi: What’s the directionality of the service?
Falk: Most orders come from the US or UK to Ghana. We also provide service to people living in Accra, but we find that Ghanaians abroad find the most value from Beam. This is because Beam deals with all the many inconveniences that come with doing any task in Ghana, including following up with the vendor multiple times, going to places physically to make inquiries, having a rich network of suppliers, and actually delivering the final product to someone’s door.
Akinyi: I know that you provide most of your services by WhatsApp. Why did you decide to go that route rather than building a native platform?
Gerald: When talking to Ghanaians abroad, we learnt that people stay in touch with loved ones back home via WhatsApp, for example many have a family WhatsApp Group. WhatsApp is natural for most people. There’s no need to add an extra barrier by making people download an app. Through using WhatsApp, we’re meeting people where they already are.
Kingston: Before WhatsApp, we worked with people via a web platform, but it created a lot of problems because we would start talking to people online and eventually we’d often end up deferring to WhatsApp down the line.
Falk: With WhatsApp, you can send photos, drop pins, send links, and more. It creates a rich, interactive conversation, and allows us to chat about products on the go by asking customers what they would like in real time.
Akinyi: I’ve noticed that a lot of businesses in Ghana use WhatsApp for their business transactions. How do you think WhatsApp is changing the way that businesses communicate?
Falk: From a business perspective, you want to maximize interactions. People ignore emails, but they’re still engaging on WhatsApp because that’s where friends and family are. We see a lot of people subscribing to WhatsApp newsletters from local businesses. There isn’t fatigue yet in the same way that people are fatigued from email or Facebook. The challenge, of course, is to scale it because there are no platforms integrated into it that assists in managing conversations for a business-oriented user. If we have 100 inbound messages a day, it can be a challenge to manage, but we’re trying to build our own solutions around that to allow us to store data more easily, transfer requests, etc.
Akinyi: Do you feel that you’ve gotten to know Ghana better in the process of working on Beam?
Kingston: Absolutely! I now see a lot more of Ghana while fulfilling Beam requests. For example, I’ve been to the Eastern Region for various construction projects, and I have an upcoming trip to Volta Region, so it’s a chance to explore parts of Ghana I wouldn’t regularly go to.
Akinyi: Does price increase with degree of difficulty?
Kingston: Our service charges vary depending on the specific service provided. We always inform clients about all the costs upfront, which they have a chance to accept or reject before we send the invoice, so there are never any unpleasant surprises when they receive the bill.
Akinyi: Have you had any particularly challenging orders?
Falk: The most difficult orders are the ones where we are relying significantly on one specific third-party vendor and the outcome heavily depends on whether they do a good job. In those scenarios we have relatively little influence over the outcome. We try to avoid that at all costs, and give our customer a head’s up about the risk involved. If we can’t fulfill an order, we’ll often give you a free recommendation.
Kingston: There was also a gentleman who wanted Auntie Muuni’s waakye—a very popular spot—to be vacuum-packed and shipped to New York. People are really passionate about this waakye. In fact, if you go there right now, it’s probably finished. We tried, but we quickly found out that the shipping services couldn’t deliver the order because it was prepared food and it was prohibited by customs. We’re still learning the rules about what we can and can’t ship because some companies are more liberal than others. We felt sad though because he was truly passionate about that waakye.
Akinyi: I understand that passion. I feel the same way about my mother’s jollof rice (which we call benachin in The Gambia). It’s the most delicious thing in the world. I have done crazy things before to get that rice. No one else’s is the same.
Falk: We’re thinking now of working with Ghanaian-owned shops in the US to facilitate domestic shipping, so that will help people who are struggling to find products or really need to satisfy a craving. We want to partner with people on the ground in Ghanaian communities abroad who can become the extended arm of Beam.
Akinyi: Which groups are you currently targeting for your services?
Falk: The major groups where diaspora tend to congregate – universities, business associations, Ghanaian-owned shops, and churches. We’re exploring different ways to engage with all of them.
Akinyi: Being a start-up, I know you have limited funds for marketing. I’m curious about how the stories you’ve written on Ghanaian entrepreneurs on Medium play into your marketing strategy.
Falk: We have a limited marketing budget, so we have to be smart about our strategy. We found content marketing to be a cost-effective way to engage with potential customers. In our interview series “Ghana Entrepreneurs” we highlight Ghanaian excellence abroad and in Ghana. This is content our target customers find interesting and share with each other. We just released a story about AeroShutter (Ghana’s first drone company) and now we’re about to publish one on Miss Taxi Ghana – a taxi firm run by one of the few female taxi drivers in Ghana. It’s really fun to have these interviews, but more importantly, when these articles get shared, people become aware of us. Additionally, when you produce high quality content, then people associate your brand with quality.
Gerald:Another benefit of content marketing is that you can educate prospective clients about the value you can provide. Our product is still fairly new and covers a wide range of activities—from directly paying for your niece’s school fees, to checking on a construction project, to delivering a cake, and more—so we also have to educate our customers about how they can use Beam.
Falk: If you tell someone that a customer used Beam to go to the market and purchase something, then they immediately realize that they can do the same. It is about educating people about your product: what you do, how it works, and how successful it has been for others. Through these stories and testimonials, they can understand the potential of the service and how it can help them.
Akinyi: The people that you interview are also tastemakers – Essie Bartels of Essiespice for example. When they share that interview on their own platform, you get greater visibility, right?
Falk: Exactly. It’s co-branding. We’re associated with all of these interesting, really cool people, and plugged into the Ghanaian community at home and in the diaspora.
Gerald: It also helps us reach our target diaspora market because the followers of these leading brands are often based abroad. Essie, to use your example, is based in New Jersey.
Akinyi: If you could start all over again, is there anything you would change?
Kingston: I think I could answer this question better a year from now. We learn something new every single day. Doing something two or three times teaches us lessons for the next time. We get to know Ghana better and get to know vendors better.
Gerald: I wish we had realized a lot sooner just how critical trust is for a business like ours. This is why we want to go to the U.S. and U.K. as soon as possible to meet our customers in person and build even greater trust in the brand through face-to-face discussions.
Kingston: Once you get over that trust barrier, people will come back to you as repeat customers. In a country like Ghana, where most things are still offline and very manual, it helps to have something like Beam where you know you’ll get efficient and reliable customer service.
Falk: Trust is big. People have had bad experiences with other middlemen before and so they don’t trust as easily. One of our first transactions came from a lady who wanted an errand done in Makola, but she had had previous bad experiences with services that were inconsistent and would overcharge. So before we could start working with her, we had to convince her, that the same won’t happen with us.
People take mini-sabbaticals to be in Ghana to be here for the critical stages of their construction projects to make sure that everything is on track. A friend of mine told me a funny story of two houses built by the same contractor. They started construction at the same time. For one, the owner came to survey the work every day. For the other, the owner was abroad. You can tell the difference. We want to help that owner abroad, so that they feel they have eyes and ears on the ground.
Akinyi: You guys are really raising the level of service in Ghana, which is not necessarily known for its customer service.
Falk: That’s true. We’ve had some bad experiences with some vendors, but there are also a lot of top-notch service providers. It’s our job to find them, and then develop those relationships to make our lives easier and help them build their business as well. When you’re on the ground, you know that information better.
Kingston: We’re strict with our vendor vetting process. We don’t use your service unless we know someone who has used your service more than two times and can vouch for you. We also rate vendors internally on things like customer service and communication.
Falk: Now I think people are beginning to see customer service as a unique selling proposition. We want Beam to be at the forefront of that.