Local Startup Spotlight #4: BuyTheChange & Localtweeps

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LSS #4: Buythechange.com AND localtweeps.com

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Buythechange.com & Localtweeps.com are two websites created and co-founded by local tech startup Monkey Island Inc. entrepreneur Zack Steven. While these initiatives are miles apart in their application and scope, they share the same DNA: hyperlocal, community-driven services focused on generating both financial and social capital.

Buythechange.com, which launched around 3.5 years ago, is a localized social commerce network that helps people buy and sell products/services with their community friends and next door neighbors. It also aims to promote local businesses – as opposed to faceless corporate enterprise – say for example, one owned & operated by an out of area central office. Hyperlocal is the mom and pop shop down the street, the independent contractor neighbor, or the local food shelf. When products or services are posted “for sale” on the site, a specific geographical network (neighborhood/community) is alerted, which fosters more personalized connections than a craigslist model by simply removing the anonymity factor. This form of commerce enhances social bonds which lends itself to more meaningful long term relationships, commercial and otherwise. There are three membership levels: a free Basic membership which allows people to post goods and events, a $24/year Personal membership which allows people to post services (as well as goods and events), and a $120/year Business membership which includes a business profile and posting of unlimited goods, services, jobs and events. The social cause comes into play when a portion of the membership fee (33-50%) is donated to a local non-profit of the members choice, and then(optionally) the cause is added into the member’s profile, further shaping the identities and intentions of each individual member. Simply put, Buythechange.com is “classifieds with a conscience”.

Localtweeps.com is a much newer and arguably more efficient means of connecting with local like minded individuals – whether the objectives are social, commercial, or otherwise. Launched in April of 2009, the premise of Localtweeps.com (via Twitter’s open API) is the most comprehensive user-created ZIP code level directory of Twitter profiles used to identify fellow tweeters (individuals, businesses, and organizations) within a specific geographic zip code. In essence, it takes the sheer size and noisy nature of such a unique tool like Twitter and zooms in on who or what is relative to our own (or our target market’s) physical location. The near-term result is accelerated interactions and community commerce. Localtweeps.com isn’t the only hyperlocation based Twitter directory (see Twellow), but according to Zack, it is the only “opt in” directory that exists, differentiating it from other, more automated services on the market. To enroll into the localtweeps directory within seconds and see who’s around you, go here. For enhanced features (and monetization model), $9.95/month automatically keeps you up to date by auto-following new listings in multiple specified ZIPs and saves time by following all current listings within those ZIPs – a priceless resource for any business looking for new ways to engage with their market. More recently, they’ve seamlessly integrated the ability for a member to promote specific events and tweetups throughout a targeted zip code, opening up the platform doors.

Interestingly, we are beginning to see some early signs of the necessary self organization that is long overdue in regarding Twitter. It’s through such services as Localtweeps.com that we can begin to make a greater sense of purpose by initiating online connections with those already within our proximity. In reality, apps like Twitter and it’s innumerable plugins (Localtweeps.com) are simply manifestations of our fundamental human needs to explore our world and connect with those around us. Novelty and narcissism aside, the upside potential is huge: new people – diverse dialogue – fresh opinions – deeper personal connections – greater acceptance/understanding – broadened worldviews – richer and more meaningful experiences overall. With consideration to how isolated and divided we’ve become as a society at large over the decades, us digital utopians hope that the end game will be to use the technologies we’ve created to foster more real world, face to face connections aimed at improving the quality of life for all individuals within our communities.

Both Buythechange.com and Localtweeps.com are organized under the legal name of Monkey Island Inc.. Monkey Island’s three founders Zack Steven, Josh Becerra, and Colin Hirdman are St.Paul natives (St.Anthony Park) that define the meaning of life long friends: they have literally known each other since 2nd grade. And like most good friends they went their separate ways as time passed, but like best friends they never lost touch and reconnected later in their adult lives – around 5 years ago- to leverage their history, shared values, and professional strengths to make their mark on the world.

When referring to their first initiative, buythechange.com, Zack Steven noted:

“[we reconnected] to figure out how we could use our skills and our passions around creating a business that would not only make a profit but also make a difference, and so that was the genesis of buythechange.com. It came out of our own desire to see our communities strengthened for ourselves and our kids and trying to think about what we could do to help create tool that would bring people and neighborhoods closer together.”

Eager to re-unite and form a meaningful business together, they even began their initial brainstorming sessions while Josh Becerra was still in South America, working in the non-profit space as a business manager for a Uruguayan school. Meanwhile, Zack had been working in the finance & operations sector, where (prior to buythechange.com) he was controller for a portfolio company of a local private equity group. Colin Hirdman, the third partner, had since started, owned/operated, and sold a direct mail/email marketing/website development firm called Vencio.

When asked what advice he had for other tech entrepreneurs Zack responded: “Do it! But keep it lean, and expect to iterate and don’t lose site of the need to monetize. There is no such thing as perfection, so just get it out there and see how people use it.”

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