Andrew Simpson is one of the cofounders of mmMule, a recently launched social travel startup that turns voyagers into personal shipping vectors. Craving a Flake bar from your study abroad days in England? Post your wish on mmMule, and a traveler might just toss one in his carry-on and meet up with you on his upcoming vacation. One thing mmMule is not about though: drugs. New safety features to be implemented in the next few weeks will make sure these happy cultural exchanges don’t suddenly turn into Brokedown Palace.
FAST COMPANY: Sorry. How do you pronounce your startup’s name?
ANDREW SIMPSON: We just call it “mule.”
The first two m’s are silent?
Yes. Originally we got the name because it gives the idea of “mmmmm,” like yummy, since 80% of our requests are for food items around the world.
So why turn travelers into mules? If you want Vegemite in New York, why not just get your mom to send a care package?
It gets annoying to have to ask family and friends constantly for items. We also like mixing in the social aspect. Lots of travelers go to other countries and get just a very touristic experience. With mmMule, travelers arrive in a new city, bring something to a local, and get rewarded with a very local cultural exchange.
Have a success story?
There’s an Australian girl here that really loves coconut M&M’s. She offered to buy a guy breakfast at her favorite local café in exchange for them. He came out, and she said she had an amazing couple-hour chat with this guy who actually runs another startup, and she works in life coaching. They ended up becoming quite good friends, through the delivery of one packet of coconut M&M’s.
There’s a do-good part of your site called AngelMule. What’s that?
AngelMule has the same content, but allows you to use part of your vacation to deliver urgently needed supplies to not-for-profits in need. They in turn reward you with cultural experiences, stays with families, and so on.
How do you make money?
We don’t at the moment–we’re focused on building a strong community. We’re looking at some partners for AngelMule. For regular mule, we have a quite a number of monetization options, but we’re not sharing those yet.
Coming back to the name: Are you punning off of the idea of the drug mule?
We came up with the name while in Ethiopia. One of my cofounders and I were traveling through the desert, and we saw massive trains of mules and camels headed to the major cities of Ethiopia for trade.
Is it strictly speaking legal to ask people to bring you goods from another country? Might you run afoul of airline or customs regulations?
When people request stuff, we ask them to check applicable customs regulations. We also tell travelers that they should buy all products themselves, and always know what they’re carrying. In the next week or two we’re implementing something that 100% stops people from carrying stuff that they don’t know what’s in it. So you can’t say, “I left my suitcase in Mexico. Can you bring it to New York for me?”
Have you had any brash illegal requests on the site? “Please bring me this kilo of heroin…”
There’s been nothing suspicious at all. We just want to make sure going forward that we have all our bases covered.
For you guys, the equivalent of the Airbnb disaster would be someone being tricked into becoming a drug mule.
It’d be much worse, and we’re committed to not allowing anything like that to happen.
So, just to clarify: You’re not trying to get people to smuggle drugs.
mmMule is about trying to facilitate happy and fun relationships between travelers and locals that want stuff.
This interview has been condensed and edited.