Shop like your town depends on you — because it does.
April Underwood, Founder and CEO of Nearby, on why the future of retail is just around the corner
When shelter-in-place was introduced last March, my heart immediately ached for the business owners in my town. The prior year, I’d observed local businesses close forever after a preemptive four-day power outage during fire season. I knew that a shutdown of not just days but weeks or months would present an existential threat to the businesses that make my community vibrant and unique. Those businesses relied on foot traffic to get discovered and make sales — and that foot traffic had vanished overnight.
But local business owners are resilient. They didn’t waste time. They started taking phone orders, launched online stores, reinvented curbside pickup, and started their own local delivery routes. They worked tirelessly, not sure their businesses would survive, but undaunted.
Like many people did, I made the conscious choice to support my local businesses with my own purchases, and found it was… just as hard as it always has been to find out which stores exist, whether they sell online, and how I would get products from them.
Why on earth, in 2021, is there not an easy way to shop from the stores in my town, online?
I talked to hundreds of people: shop owners as well as shoppers. My research made a few things clear: I wasn’t alone in wanting to shop local. Far from it. And further still, people largely felt guilty about spending their dollars at Amazon rather than keeping those dollars in their own community, but it was just too hard.
Could local merchants, armed with the right tools, actually beat the heavyweights at their own game — easy online shopping and delivery, but with the curation, expertise, and human touch that separate local business owners from algorithms?
My research led me to want to be a part of building the solution, and it was clear I needed to move fast. Over Slack, Zoom, and countless phone calls, I assembled a team of people dedicated to giving these business owners access to a more level playing field. And ultimately, to help them team up with one another, their merchant neighbors and their communities, to ensure that storefronts on every Main Street will continue to bustle with businesses and customers when COVID-19 is long behind us.
So, howdy. We’re Nearby. We chose the name because it’s a neat little word which references the two things that matter most in what we’re building: place (hence “near”) and the people behind the businesses you love (hence “by”). For our first act, we’re open for business in Oakland, and the 40 merchants and growing who we’ve teamed up with are ready to serve you at keepoaklandalive.com.
Shopping local is a small but pragmatic form of community activism. It’s a choice, and we’re taking up the mantle of making it an easy one. We’re building a future where shopping local is the norm, and the expertise and curation by the owners behind your local stores can shine through. The products aren’t the stars here — the people who sell them are, like Ami, Erica and John, Iguehi, and Howard.
Every town has incredible shops facing the same challenges. We’ll be spreading our wings beyond Oakland soon, and we’d like your input on where we go next. Our approach is to build our marketplace teams from the ground up, with team members who are already a part of the communities we’ll be serving — just like we did in Oakland. Maybe you’d even like to be a part of the team to launch and run the Nearby marketplace in your town!
We are a team of 12 and we’re hiring. This won’t be easy, but it’s hard work worth doing. Tipping the scales back toward small businesses, after decades of mounting challenges against them, is going to take a dedicated and talented team, genuine admiration and care for the communities we’re serving, and also capital.
To that end, we are grateful to have received the backing and partnership of a slate of investors who are aligned with the why behind what we’re doing. We’re proud to have Jessica Verrilli at GV and Andrew Beebe at Obvious Ventures as our co-leads, along with 30 additional participating firms and angel investors. Jessica and Andrew have been thought partners to me since before I had even decided to take the leap as a founder, bringing both my decade-long relationship with Jessica at Twitter and #ANGELS and also my role as a venture partner at Obvious with Andrew full circle.
In closing, I want to express my gratitude to the community of Oakland, whose community activism as demonstrated in its support of Keep Oakland Alive is a blueprint for what we aim to bring to communities across the country. What started here in Oakland is a movement, and Nearby is here to carry that torch to a neighborhood near you.