When you think of smart lockers, Amazon may come to mind. You order your Prime products, and once delivered, you can pick up your goods at a designated locker location.
However, what if the same convenient service was applied to your to-go food orders? Rea Huntley, CEO and founder of Lavii Lockers, had the same idea. After a frustrating experience with a pick-up order she placed in 2019, Huntley discovered the lack of efficient processes and smart lockers in the food industry.
“I started to do more research on how to implement it,” the Maryland-based entrepreneur said. “I learned a little bit of Python programming language, purchased the Raspberry Pi QR code reader, and went to Lowe’s for the supplies to build the first prototype.”
Later, she brought in COO and software developer James Bagley, and CTO and computer scientist Marcus Gunn, who helped grow the initial innovative idea into the food dispensary smart locker system they operate today.
Since its launch this past August, Lavii Lockers has allowed customers to experience a contactless grab-and-go food experience while also providing restaurants solutions to maintaining sales for their business.
AfroTech spoke to the three tech engineers to discuss the lockers’ cutting-edge technology, funding from investors, and advice they have for fellow entrepreneurs.
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AfroTech: Lavii isn’t the first smart locker of its kind. How are your lockers different from the others that are on the market out there already?
James Bagley: Our lockers utilize QR codes. You don’t have to interact with the screen if you have your own QR code. Right now, you do have to close the door. But we’re working on future iterations of the product that will automate the door and make the entire process completely contactless. Also, some locker companies are split up into six compartments, but ours actually start at 10.
AfroTech: How does your smart locker system work?
Marcus Gunn: Our technical solution is primarily run through a web application. It’s utilizing like a lot of the latest technology, so everything we’re doing is pretty cutting edge in the sense that it’s cloud-based. We’re also running app-less, so the companies that utilize our system are not required to download any applications or have those annoying updates come through all the time. Once you have our system running in your establishment, it pretty much runs itself and all the updates and everything like that are handled remotely by us.
AfroTech: Walk me through how someone would order then pick up using your lockers.
Rea Huntley: Let’s say we were to integrate our system into Chick-fil-A. You could essentially place an order on your Chick-fil-A mobile app, be notified through the Chick-fil-A mobile app with a QR code that you can use to go pick up at our physical lockers. You would essentially take that QR code, scan it at the lockers and then get your food and leave out. We’ve also built in a third-party integration, which allows third-party drivers to pick up the food so the restaurant no longer has to worry about interacting with third-party drivers as our lockers can accommodate them when picking up orders.
AfroTech: Similar to UberEats.
Rea: Correct. We haven’t partnered with them, but we have integrated it into our system to where we allow them to pick up orders from our locker system.
AfroTech: As you know, ideas need funding. Did you all decide to self-fund your idea, or have you found investors?
Rea: Currently, we are still bootstrapping. We have bootstrapped from day one until now and we still are. So everything that we pretty much had in the business that we built up until this point has come out of our personal savings.
AfroTech: Do you have any intentions of pitching to investors?
Rea: We are thinking about pitching to investors and seeking outside funding if we have to, but we’re trying to build the company to a certain point before we do that to prove our business’ potential. We’re also looking into doing crowdfunding at the beginning of next year as well.
AfroTech: Tell me how you all developed the software and the design. Did you bring in third parties for help?
James: We’re all engineers and the main developers of mobile software, so we didn’t bring any outside help for software. However, we had a lot of help from family and friends as well on things like marketing and sales, which brings a certain element to the table. Our partners have also been very helpful, so I want to shout them out.
AfroTech: The pandemic affected a lot of Black businesses this year. How did it delay your launch process?
Rea: It more than slowed us down. It kind of put a complete hold on our operation for a while. We used to meet up every week in-person to have these face-to-face meetings and continue to work on building out the solutions and then the pandemic hit. We had to figure out a different way to move forward to build and develop our product. Plus, we were still trying to figure out how we’re going to launch a new product while restaurants were so heavily impacted. There were a lot of mixed emotions with the pandemic, but on the bright side, the pandemic kind of solidified our idea. If restaurants can afford our solution, which is very affordable, it can help them during times like this where people are leery about going out into public and dining in. Customers can still want to place orders because the Lavii Smart Locker creates a more efficient, safe process for the customers and the restaurants.
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AfroTech: To that point, dow do you hope your solution helps small businesses?
Marcus: We understand the impact that COVID-19 has had on the restaurant industry as a whole, and we know that these smaller restaurants are suffering. Some are even being affected to the point where they have to close their doors. And so, as a company, we are trying to make our product as affordable as possible so that we can help these companies kind of make this shift from dine-in to takeout if they haven’t done that before. Because a lot of this shift is brand new to a lot of these restaurants, especially the smaller, local ones. They don’t necessarily have the technology teams or the budgets to make these switches, so we try to price our product so that it’s affordable for them to be able to make this shift quite easily. Now, if they chose to partner with us, they can be just as technologically advanced as everybody else.
AfroTech: Absolutely. It’s incredible how pandemic-proof this idea is, even though it was not initially designed with COVID-19 in mind. These lockers can also help revive the food industry after such a massive hit. Lastly, what advice do you have for other Black entrepreneurs who are launching their startups?
Marcus: Continue to pursue [your idea]. While working with Rea, I’ve noticed that you have to have persistence and consistency with entrepreneurship. I watched her come up with different ideas that we would try to implement, and some things worked, some things wouldn’t work. But we just kept pressing on. It’s a never-ending pursuit and there’s a lot of hard work involved. But that drive to see it all the way through is what really got us here. So I would say, the key advice is to continue to pursue and always be prepared for the opportunity.