This article is part of a series covering the most exciting start-ups featured at the most recent TechBUZZ conference, held at AOL Fishbowl Labs. To read the rest of the articles in the series, click here.
You may think it would be crazy for another tech start-up to enter the crowded universe of mobile shopping and bargain-hunting apps, but D.C.-based entrepreneur Shana Lawlor has developed a product that may be exactly what the "shop local" movement needs to thrive. While the vast majority of shopping apps are powered by large retailers, Lawlor's offering, known as YOPP, provides a platform for small, local businesses to be found.
Keepin' it real -- real small
YOPP is unique because it will only allow companies that qualify as small businesses (as defined by the Small Business Administration) to participate in the YOPP network. The historical problem for these "Mom and Pop" businesses is that they lack the huge marketing budgets and economies of scale that their big-box competitors enjoy. For years, these smaller shops have come and gone, much to the chagrin of local residents who want to support local businesses. Unfortunately, the micro-local, fragmented nature of these small businesses has made it hard for them to get the word out to potential customers. This is where YOPP comes in.
By restricting its network to small, local businesses, YOPP offers a powerful set of discovery tools for both local customers and the businesses themselves. Using the YOPP app, you can tell everyone in your area about a fantastic sale you found or ask other YOPP users to help you find something you really want. Not only will you get replies from YOPP shoppers, but you may also hear from the actual shop owners who have what you need. Can any other app do that? As I write this, you can see from the image to the left that many shoppers are online right now looking for DC-themed cycling jerseys, taupe heels, and more. I won't be much help with the heels, but I know a great sporting-goods store a few blocks away that does nice custom design work. All I have to do is tap the icon for the person looking for the cycling jersey and let them know where they can go.
When we talk about "social," we usually think about individual users communicating deals to one another, but when it comes to the YOPP network, shop owners are central to the success of this social experiment. Not only can they reach out to individual customers, but they can also offer discounts and other promotions. These local businesses are represented by the purple icons, and all of the deals and discounts are handled right in the YOPP app.
An eye for opportunity
Back in 2007-2008, YOPP CEO Shana Lawlor was operating an import-export business in Arlington, Virginia. She would help small local businesses find customers overseas when they struggled to find buyers here at home. During the financial meltdown of 2008-2009, Lawlor's business actually did quite well, helping ship U.S.-manufactured goods to a European customer base that wasn't hurting quite as badly as we were back home. Unfortunately, when Europe got hit hard in 2011 and the U.S. was only slowly recovering, Lawlor's business took a turn for the worse, and she had to figure out a new approach.
In 2012, Lawlor organized the Arlington Small Business Day (ASBD) to raise awareness of all of the small businesses in her community. She rallied more than 80 local retailers together to provide discounts, promotions, and cross-promotions, and the event was a huge success. One local bookstore was visited by a certain D.C. resident named Barack Obama -- who purchased 17 books from the shop and brought nationwide attention to the ASBD. Lawlor quickly recognized the power of organizing all of these small businesses, took advantage of the visibility that the presidential visit provided, and started working on YOPP. The app launched in September of 2014.
Lawlor recently gave a presentation on YOPP at TechBUZZ. Check out the video below: