Local communities are weaker as globalization and corporatization grow, said representatives from a UT-driven company who hope to turn that trend around.
Borrowed Sugar designed a website which will provide news and information on events, people and businesses in local communities to members, said UT alumna and co-founder Kelley Rytlewski.
“How can we be so connected across the world but not across the street?” Rytlewski asked.
She said the website will use member addresses and language patterns in searches to create an interactive experience that feels authentically local and provides the information they seek about their own community.
Rytlewski said Borrowed Sugar wants to lead the “local movement” and help not only businesses but also schools, community organizations and individuals build a network.
“It’s really about harnessing the individuals in the community to create a place that is thriving and connected,” Rytlewski said.
The company will launch a beta version of their website in a month through which they will be able to get feedback from communities, said UT alumnus and co-founder Eric Sung.
“The key challenge that we’ve solved is really recruiting talented and passionate people who believe in this idea of living locally,” Sung said.
Twelve of the 17 employees are current or former Longhorns, and they said the skills they learned and people they met at UT prepared them to raise the necessary funds and create their online product.
Investments in November 2010 allowed the company to test out and learn from an initial prototype this spring, Sung said.
By providing local businesses with a place to advertise to their customers and informing these customers about the businesses, Borrowed Sugar can have a profitable self-sustaining business that will be viable in the future, he said.
“Right now we are in the learning mode, and we have been really fortunate to have a lot of people who believe in us,” Sung said.
Rytlewski said one of the biggest technological challenges was customizing the website for every local area to provide what residents were looking for. She said another challenge was ensuring a vibrant online community from the start to foster member participation in the long run.
Rebecca Melancon, executive director of the Austin Independent Business Alliance, said local businesses contribute and reflect the city’s culture tremendously and provide its economic backbone.
Austin has about 35,000 local businesses, and everyone benefits when profits from those companies stay in the city, Melncon said.
“When people travel they look for what makes a place different, what makes it unique, what it has to offer that others don’t,” she said.
Melancon said a healthy local economy also needs support from national chains, and while having consumers abandon corporate businesses is unrealistic, a shift in spending toward local businesses could put millions into the local economy and significantly expand the job market.
She said the major issue faced by organizations trying to encourage awareness of local communities and businesses is finding funding and employees that will sustain them.
Borrowed Sugar has already overcome these challenges and recruited many UT alumni and students through the Undergraduate Business Council, said finance computer sciences senior and outreach coordinator Jay Shah.
Shah said the company is preparing for its national launch in Austin next month, and will launch in other cities as soon as a certain number of members signs up.