Kai Hussein and the Boba Bot

By Sana Agarwal

Anyone who has been on campus lately has probably seen or heard about the new bubble tea machine — The BobaBot in CBG. It stands out almost immediately; a robot making you your favourite beverage definitely sparks curiosity in the minds of many. So for this issue, I knew just who to interview: the entrepreneurial genius behind the project. Indeed, he is one of us — an LSE second-year BA Geography undergraduate student, Kai Hussein. 

I sat down with Kai on the SU terrace, on a Wednesday afternoon, ready to uncover everything about his journey. When introducing himself, Kai mentioned his affinity for technology and innovation right away. “I grew up in London, very interested in the future. I think that’s something that drives me and I think technology works closely with that.” This perhaps, has been the key driving force behind his project the BobaBot. 

He added, “I wanted to get bubble tea closer to campus, I wanted to fill that gap. But I didn’t want to just make something very conventional because it’d be difficult to compete and I didn’t have the money. The vending machine idea of a robotic arm is something that I stumbled across … and thought about for a while.”

Kai was met with many silent rejections until he received interest from Aoife Nolan, the Secretary to the Head of estates at LSE. “That was all I needed to go crazy and send a pitch deck. [It took] a lot of presentations, a lot of hard work.” When recalling his first meeting with Julian Robinson, Head of Estates at LSE, Kai exclaimed, “I had a big briefcase. I walked in with it, and [it had] every single thing, in A to Z order, I thought I could ever be asked.” His preparedness resulted in the approval of the project. 

The project is funded by Kai himself, “I took out a Maintenance Loan last year, the maximum I could get. I’m very kind of conservative, and I saved a lot of money throughout my life. I worked a lot of summers, [and] I did some investing very early when I was maybe 16- 17. I didn’t want to get anyone else’s money involved because it was a lot of risk.”

However, Kai’s journey has not been short of struggles, “The hardest part was perseverance.” For Kai, every step brought its own set of challenges, ranging from logistical problems with the machine to opposition from LSE. “The library did not want to house the machine, catering pushed back saying they want to set up a bubble tea cafe next year themselves. So even in the months after the legal contract was signed, there were still entities at LSE that were opposed. A lot of people did not want to be associated with it in case it failed.”  

“I think the US is a lot more favourable for entrepreneurship, but I in the UK, you need to be prepared to push that heavy rock as far as you can, and it will come back down the hill. But you need to just keep going, because you will have to do 99% of the legwork. Here, entrepreneurship is almost frowned upon; I guess it is part and parcel of the banking culture. So you really to bring something to the table,” Kai remarked, explaining how the environment motivated his own strategic choice of pursuing this project. His project would boost student satisfaction by making campus more vibrant and progressive while keeping a low cost for LSE. Some of the profit from the initiative also goes to scholarships and bursaries at LSE — another huge contribution gained by the university.

Despite basing the machine off a model housed in Australia, he “knew there was going to be a lot of back end work, like coding the menu. A lot of it was in Chinese, so I had to translate a lot. It was really a very slow and painful process of learning,” Kai sighed. He also faced issues with shipment from China to the UK, and lost money in the process. “It was the distresses of things like this that can be so difficult. I don’t want to put people off if people were thinking about doing something [similar]. But it’s real,” Kai retrospected. 

We proceeded to talk about the selection process of the teas and tapioca, a fairly less stressful and more fun part of the process. “I didn’t have enough money to buy it, so I ordered a little bit of each kind of [tea] by saying to these manufacturers: ‘Look, I’m a big company  looking to test your things. Can you send out samples?’” Kai’s enthusiasm made me break into a giggle. To Kai’s luck and the Bot’s victory, he managed to get some samples. The next test entailed testing to tea to choose a winner. “At my accommodation (Urbanest) last year, I put out a stall, I just said to everybody to please try my tea. It’s free. I’d make sure I’ve noted down any feedback they gave — if it was too sweet or too milky. There was a clear winner and we went with it!” 

“You must have been on cloud nine when the machine first started working!,” I exclaimed. To this, he opposed, “I think I was at my unhappiest at that point, to be honest, in the first week, even though it was like the machine was doing well.” He explained, “the first week of the machine. My name was CEO, I was the cook, the delivery guy, the social media marketer, the machine manager, I was customer service. I was everything, because I didn’t have the money to get anyone else on board right then. I would wake up every morning at 4:30 am, drive my car to my grandfather’s restaurant where each morning, I would brew the tea, package it all up in the boxes, drive to here, get a parking ticket pretty much every day and put the tea inside the machine to get it started.” A clear indication to the one man army nature of his entrepreneurship journey.

“I was also quite fragile to any bad advice.” However, Kai rebuttled the criticism with a mix of relentless hardwork and determination. “I always kept in my mind that this is something that will get better. It’s such a new idea. I think the first person that makes something is not always the best, or the person that is remembered as the one that was the highest quality. But it starts a conversation about robots making things like your coffee properly, or your drinks at the bar. And that conversation is whats important,” expressed Kai, indicating to the rapidly growing technology around us, and insisting we venture into the future of the beverage and food industry. 

“It’s still improving every day. Now I’ve got a cook and a driver. At first, it was difficult to balance. We’ve got a live chat support now. So you can message my phone straightaway.” Kai admitted there were some glitches, or other failures that have occurred so far. “We have a long way to go, but for me, it is worth the hardwork,” Kai added, giving us a glimpse into his undying determination and resilience. 

“[The project] might be every single pound I ever had in the world. But to the average person, it makes them smile. They don’t think about the stresses of what happened to get this. Every time somebody tries the tea and films it and smiles, I gain a lot of satisfaction, and it’s I think it’s warming. There’s so many serious things going on right now in the news or in the world, that something small like this that makes people happy and makes people laugh.”

“I’d like to be the neighbouring universities in London like UCL Imperial, and in five years, [I’d like to start] attacking like public spaces, like shopping centres, really expanding throughout. And maybe one day, [there are] enough that you could see all of the machines in London on an app.”

After hearing the ups and downs of Kai’s journey, I could not help but wonder how he did it without a formal business or tech background, or even a mentor. “My mentality is that there is nothing that could come up that I couldn’t solve. I’m not sort of trying to say that I get everything naturally, because I definitely don’t. But I just think that if you put enough hard work into something, you will get there. And with enough work, you [can] overcome [any] problem. I think this project also gave me a little bit of purpose and motivation.” Kai perfectly encapsulated the entrepreneurial zeel behind the project.

He also gives credit to his grandfather, who he has always taken inspiration from, his close set of friends he could always bounce ideas off, and Julian Robinson, without whom according to Kai, the project would not exist. 

When asked for final remarks, Kai said, “[It is] cliche but go for it, today is the best day to start your startup idea, make that Instagram or the website. The worst [that can happen] is [you] learn. It can be an expensive lesson or a cheap one, but you are always learning something.” I could feel a motivational force enveloping the room as his works settled. After an hour of going through the ins and outs of the BobaBot, it was clear that he really believed in the journey, not just the end product.Kai confidently and gleefully concluded, “Come back in five years and see where BobaBot is. It’s been a long journey, but we are only getting started!”

Photography by Ben Chen

Sana Agarwal interviews Kai Hussien a 2nd year geography student and an eutreprenuer who recently launched the bobabot in CBG.


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