Driving the Smart Cities of Tomorrow

A Conversation with Kaan Gunay, Co-Founder and CEO of Firefly

Tell us about Firefly. What is it? What are you offering?

In short, Firefly is a smart city media network. We connect people, governments and businesses to help build intelligent, safe and sustainable cities.


To do this, we leverage existing networks of rideshare vehicles and install our proprietary media displays atop their cars. These screens  deliver geo-targeted advertising based on driver routes and location, delivering the right message at the right time for highly effective campaign-engagement. By partnering directly with drivers we’ve been able to boost their income on average 20 percent.

In addition to the technology, what sets us apart is our community-first commitment. This manifests itself in different ways.  At least 10 percent of our entire advertising inventory at any given time is dedicated to local not-for-profit organizations, public sector PSAs and other non-commercial entities such as charities, advocacy groups, and community organizations.


Outside of advertising, we knew that our proprietary technology could help reveal other pressing concerns about city life. That’s why we work hand in hand with local governments and share traffic and air quality data to help paint a better picture of what’s really happening in a city.


So, how does your background fit into that? What inspired you to found a company like Firefly?

I’m lucky to have earned both an education of both the head and the heart and Firefly is the fruit of these studies.


My technical and business acumen comes from a deep familiarity with the space. I have a mechanical engineering degree from Brown and later on I became a researcher at its school of engineering. While I enjoyed pure research, I knew in my heart that I wanted to have a more immediate impact on the world. That’s why I earned an MBA from Stanford and began working in the world of venture capital – to learn how best to build and scale businesses.


Alongside this, I began working with refugees of the Syrian Civil War and Habitat for Humanity. As much as anything else, this was crucial to forming my belief in the absolute need for purpose-driven companies that sustainably uplift the people and communities they touch.


Bringing more ads to cities isn’t often met with positive response, but it seems like that’s exactly what Firefly’s launch got. Why do you think that is?

I think it’s due in large part to our community-first approach. We’ve taken growing this company slowly and were actually in stealth for a period of time. This allowed us to enter in conversations with all relevant stakeholders and to iterate our approach until we were certain in benefitted all parties involved.


We started Firefly with those community values baked into our DNA, built directly into our model. Often you see that tacked on as an afterthought, but our whole mission with Firefly is to elevate every pillar of a community. Not only do we dedicate free media inventory to city PSAs and local nonprofit groups, but we also reserve space for local small businesses, so we’re adding value for those on the ground, living every day in the city — not just catering to the interests of major corporations.


Plus, with the rideshare gig economy making up such a major part of any urban area, the direct value-add for that community definitely differentiates our offering.


Overall, we built Firefly to provide actual value to a communities, and I think that’s felt.


Your goal is to increase wages of America’s rideshare workforce. Can you share some stories on the impact Firefly is making for drivers?

Absolutely. To set the stage, it’s no secret that the rideshare market has grown increasingly saturated. And as that’s happened, driver wages have stagnated, meaning drivers are forced to work longer hours in order to earn a healthy return. Firefly’s model is set up to offset that challenge.


One of our drivers, Jackeline Arana, has been with Firefly from when we first started — when we were still beta testing in stealth mode. She saw one of our screens out on the road, and she followed the driver, ultimately flagging him down to ask him about it. As a full-time driver and a single mom of two, she was looking for an entrepreneurial way to add additional income to her drive time, and she ultimately found Firefly. As a Firefly driver, she now makes an additional $400 a month, and credits Firefly as one way she’s been able to pay for her daughter’s university tuition. It’s stories like Jackeline’s that are the reason why we started Firefly, and the reason why I wake up every day excited to come to work, to grow this company, and impact even more lives.


You refer to Firefly as a ‘smart city media network.’ How is Firefly helping to power smart cities?

First, we’re improving the ability of businesses of all kinds – including those traditionally locked out from powerful advertising campaigns like nonprofits and small local businesses – to super effectively reach the people who matter to them. In this way, we’re connecting consumers and businesses and promoting economic growth. For instance, the Coalition of Clean Air ran a campaign with us that ultimately received 2.9 million impressions and over 1,000 hours of exposure. This sort of thing wasn’t possible for them before with static billboards and screens.


We also work hand-in-hand with municipal governments to provide valuable data. In partnership with the Clean Air Coalition and PurpleAir, we ran an integrated pilot program measure air quality, testing demo vehicle installed with PurpleAir sensors to monitor air quality via its vehicles. This was especially significant during p the devastating wildfires and resulting hazardous air quality in the Bay Area late last year, and that data was leveraged by the Coalition for Clean Air in its efforts to provide relief to citizens and help to make significant planning decisions for the city during the fires.


Wow, that’s impressive. As a pioneer in the smart city movement, what trends do you see? How far are we from a ‘smart’ future?

Flying cars may not yet be here, but in many ways we’re already seeing elements of smart cities take hold and transform the way we live in them. Having seen the rapid evolution of booming urban areas across the country, I see a future powered by platforms like Firefly — in the cities of tomorrow, I believe transportation will be subsidized by media platforms like ours, that are able to simultaneously generate revenue while also providing a valuable service to municipalities.