StartUp New York Helps Small Businesses After Superstorm Sandy

by Robert Moskowitz on January 14, 2013
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The StartUp New York Coalition is an ambitious new organization intended to provide free assistance to small businesses affected by Superstorm Sandy. If your Big Apple-based enterprise took a hit from weather damage, power outages, or reduced customer activity — or if you want to help those that were — here’s what you need to know.

First, get into a cooperative frame of mind. Although StartUp New York aims to provide promotional and educational resources that will help local businesses recover, the group isn’t an arm of Big Government that writes checks. It’s a volunteer organization from which entrepreneurs can seek support and offer assistance to others.

David Bensinger, for example, operates the Little Laptop Shop, a computer repair center on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. His business went without electricity for nearly a week after Sandy hit, leaving his customer base in disarray and driving his revenue down to zero. Bensinger heard about StartUp New York and asked to be included in its promotional programs. In return, he offered free consultations to small-business owners whose computers needed attention after the storm.

Other businesses are giving back through StartUp NewYork, too: The Parkside Lounge used its premises as a staging area for donations. Babycakes NYC gave its day-old vegan baked goods to people devastated by Sandy in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of Queens. Virage Mediterranean Bar and Grill offered whatever inventory was still edible to its neighbors. The Cardinal restaurant cooked spaghetti in the dark for the community. Northern Spy Food Co. opened as a food kitchen. The stories go on and on.

Building a Coalition of Grassroots Groups

StartUp New York is an all-volunteer organization whose movers and shakers include Tom Gray, executive director for Greenwich Village-Chelsea Chamber of Commerce, and Jeff Hittner, a leadership professor at Bard College and founder of the social venture Ethikus.

“A lot of small businesses closed as a result of Sandy and may never open again,” Gray notes.

After different people reached out to him, asking how to help small businesses after the storm, Gray says he felt compelled to help bring together a coalition of about 30 grassroots groups. StartUp New York has focused on creating and promoting events to bring consumers into small businesses devastated by Sandy.

According to Hittner, “One thing that’s so great about StartUp New York is how organic it is. A variety of leaders — community, c0ivic, small businesses — started emailing one another right after Hurricane Sandy to figure out the best way to deal with the aftermath. StartUp New York is built on a mass of good will among hardworking, well-connected, grassroots folks who were ready to roll up their sleeves and go to work.”

Hosting Promotional Events to Drive Business

As a result, Start Up New York required only about 12 days to conceive and organize its first event, which was designed to capitalize on the holiday shopping season. Rally Downtown — held on Dec. 7 , 8, and 22 — garnered what Gray calls “a ton of media attention,” thanks in part to the event’s cleverly integrated scavenger hunt. During a three-hour period on Dec. 7, registered scavengers raced to complete a mission at seven of some 45 participating small businesses. Checking in on Foursquare, they had to accomplish specific tasks, such as “shoot and post a photograph online” or “make a qualified purchase.”

StartUp New York estimates that the Scavenger Hunt alone resulted in more than 125 individual purchases averaging more than $10 each. Total sales from two weekends of StartUp New York activities so far exceed $2,000, with more than 150 individual purchases.

StartUp New York also sold $10 tickets for five separate “restaurant crawls” through Tribeca, the East Village, the West Village and Greenwich Village, Chelsea, and Murray Hill. The organization split 100 percent of the proceeds, about $750, among participating restaurants, which offered special deals and bargains to ticket-holders.

“This kind of help was urgently needed,” Hittner says, “because many small businesses that have been successful for a long time — not only bars and restaurants, but a variety of New York City retailers — were seriously damaged by Sandy’s flood waters.”

With the holiday shopping season over, Gray says the group is “trying to figure out what to do in the first quarter, with a view toward helping people understand the importance of small businesses in their communities and of spending money locally.”

StartUp New York tries to incorporate some kind of analytics in each of its events, so it can track the impact.

“Basically,” Gray says, “we call the event ‘successful’ when business owners get more business, and when we get people to go out and shop in some of the harder hit neighborhoods.”

Robert Moskowitz is a business writer for Intuit and is passionate about solving small business problems.

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