With Yelp still prevailing as the gold standard of crowdsourced restaurant reviews and competitors such as Foursquare and Google's Zagat not far behind, it's no longer enough for mom-and-pop businesses, largely restaurants, to keep the chalkboard specials up-to-date. They need websites. And Facebook pages. And mobile apps. And, of course, those paper menus need to stay fresh, too.
Rene Reinsberg thinks the country's 27 million small businesses, especially restaurants, could be making better use of their time. He and two fellow MIT grads have spent the past two years creating technology that can handle those laborious updates for them.
Today they're officially launching Locu, a free publishing platform that lets businesses simultaneously push updates, such as daily-changing specials, across all their different online and mobile presences. An online dashboard lets small-business owners manage constantly-changing store details such as prices, menu items, and services across all their different web and mobile presences. Locu is a freemium-based service, and currently offers a premium service that lends support to owners of multiple venues for $25 a month.
"We wanted to find a way to help the small guys compete," Reinsberg, himself the son of small-business owners, tells Fast Company. "There's a big problem of restaurant owners wasting a lot of time updating their data online just making sure it’s consistent."
As we turn to more devices and online spaces for our information, small-scale restaurants are expected to keep up. According to research from AT&T, "restaurants" are the top online and mobile category in local search. In order to stay competitive, resource-strapped local businesses have to invest more time in mundane but important tasks, like making sure the little things—such as store hours or menu offerings—are always up-to-date wherever a potential customer might be searching for them.
The idea for Locu initially came out of a class project. Reinsberg and his cofounders first spun their penchant for data-crunching into GoodPlate, a personal recommendation app that helped eaters find good food on the dish level, similar to what Foodspotting does. But as they started engaging with merchants and learning about their pain points, Reinsberg realized they had stumbled upon a more compelling problem.
"That first attempt helped us very quickly narrow in on the data problem and the publishing problem these businesses were having," he says. "We decided to tackle the much bigger problem we had found."
On the surface, Locu seemingly just tackles the publishing problem, but Reinsberg explains that the real power of the service is in its capabilities as an enormous, real-time database of small-business information. His real interest lies in helping businesses find useful ways to drive sales through solutions gleaned from all that data. Locu has released an API, so search directories and recommendation apps can tap into its rich dataset and make use of merchants' real-time updates as well, giving Locu customers the potential for better visibility through third-party services.
In this way, Reinsberg says he sees Locu, which has raised $4 million in series A funding from investors such as General Catalyst Partners and Lowercase Capital, as a complement to services such as Yelp and Foursquare, rather than competition.
"A lot of companies in local search or recommendation engines are quite happy about our API offering and tapping into it to build better consumer experiences," he says. "We want to be an enabler for the overall ecosystem."
In due time, Reinsberg says Locu is also set on creating a user-facing service that scoops up all these local data points and makes it useful for customers, not just merchants. Locu's technology can, for example, list all the restaurants in a given area that have burgers on their menus, or which hair salons offer Japanese straight perms. Ultimately, he says, the goal is to take all that inside-baseball data and offer it to partners who are interested in creating consumer apps.
And with so many data points to choose from, Reinsberg says he has to be careful to make sure the data Locu puts in front of its merchants is always useful and never overwhelming.
"Even if the merchant can see how many times someone looked at their website, for example, that might not translate into revenue," he says. "We’re trying to understand which insights are going to be valuable."
[Image: Flickr user Paul Beattie]