First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Shannon Kenny: We are doing well and staying home where we live in Santa Barbara, California. My oldest daughter is studying abroad in the UK, and she came home last March when the virus first hit. She recently went back to school, and she’s very happy to be back in Europe. We feel really fortunate to be safe and healthy and want to do whatever we can to help those affected by COVID.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Prontopia.
Shannon Kenny: I founded Prontopia in 2018 as a solution to the increasing gap in the availability of in-trip help while traveling. For years, I divided my time within California and Italy as a founder of the family travel website Italiakids.com, Arte al Sole educational travel programs, and boutique trip planning concierge Elaia Travel. I frequently had the need for a service like Prontopia as a mom traveling alone with 2 young children. I also saw the need among my friends, my aging parents, and clients in city centers around the world who often needed on-demand, in-person help. I felt that creating an affordable and easy way to get just a little bit of help exactly when and where it is needed would support a better quality of life and create more resilient cities.
How does Prontopia innovate?
Shannon Kenny: Interestingly, because we have customers of all ages, many of whom are elderly, a big part of our innovation is focused on radically simplifying the technology experience. For example, when we found that many customers were struggling with downloading and managing yet another app, we created a “progressive web app” (PWA) instead so that customers could just book directly on our site either from their computer or smartphone. With this technology, the “app” is saved automatically on their phone like a bookmark, and the client doesn’t have to download anything. We’ve also gone as far as to allow customers to book via SMS or telephone, again, trying to keep the tech aspect as seamless as possible to make it easy for people of all ages. It’s a different kind of innovative thinking- trying to eliminate “tech for tech’s sake” and focus on the easiest way to meet our customer’s needs.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Shannon Kenny: Because our initial customer base was mostly Americans traveling to Italy, COVID had a MASSIVE impact on our business! But within challenge lies opportunity- we already had created a community of “helpers” that were eager to continue working, and we suddenly had entire populations quarantined inside with little ability to get groceries and run errands. We immediately mobilized the Prontopia local assistants that were previously helping travelers to help residents. We worked with local governments to ensure they were adhering to the highest safety standards with masks and gloves, and we helped more people stay at home because one of our assistants could shop for 2 or 3 customers at a time. We even offered free service to those over 65 or with serious health conditions during the quarantine period. As difficult as it’s been, it felt good to help while also keeping people working when many lost their jobs in tourism.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Shannon Kenny: Definitely, one of our biggest challenges was figuring out whether or not to expand into the US. It had always been part of the plan, but the idea of expanding during such a difficult financial and emotional period seemed a bit crazy. Yet sitting around doing nothing when I could see that California’s “shelter in place” program was creating the same need for help as the quarantines in Italy and Spain didn’t seem right either. We chose to start small by opening up first in my own community of Santa Barbara, California, so I could make connections with customers and understand their needs first-hand. We’ve since expanded south into San Diego and are looking at other markets too.
The need is everywhere, and the continuing challenge is figuring out where we can make the biggest impact quickly. I think one of the biggest lessons for me was realizing that it’s actually easier to create a community and develop meaningful connections quickly in smaller and mid-sized cities like Santa Barbara. Our goal is to be everywhere we’re needed, but we need to go deep vs. wide in the beginning to do it right.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Prontopia in the future?
Shannon Kenny: Startup founder life is admittedly one of the highest stress pursuits imaginable. The work we are doing at Prontopia is so meaningful that the gratification I get every day in knowing we are helping people and communities experience a better, more connected quality of life is the key to managing my stress. I also have an excellent global team. In good times and in bad, I always enjoy working with them. Their trust, strength, and belief in me as founder and the mission of Prontopia make even the hardest days rewarding.
I envision Prontopia will be a pioneer in demonstrating that the path to growth in global economies today lies in creating profitable businesses with a measurable social impact. Prontopia will be the leader in solving the supply and distribution challenges for necessary human services that sustain balance and well-being for all in our cities.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Shannon Kenny: We have competitors that focus on different parts of our business- for example, grocery delivery services or senior care services, but there isn’t anyone else that has the breadth of services that we offer right now. We plan to stay in the game by continuing to focus on our broader mission of creating a community within all of the cities where we are available and creating meaningful relationships between our customers and our Prontopians. At the end of the day, my goal is to drive empathy and human connection vs. offering single-use, faceless/nameless task do-ers.
Your final thoughts?
Shannon Kenny: Thanks so much for the time! I believe we are in a crucial time right now. Whereas difficult as everything has been this year, we really do have the opportunity to reset our priorities. That runs across several areas:
- The tourism industry where we’d like to see a focus on slow travel and giving back to the local communities.
- Sustainability, where we have all had the opportunity to see how much cleaner the air can be with less cars on the road, and not overconsuming.
- Empathy and human connection- because we all need a little help sometimes!