Adaptability and resilience – these are the two words that have come to define how small businesses are managing not just to survive, but to thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of the ways these companies have adapted to this seismic shift are thanks to technology and innovation.
It’s for this reason that TechAlliance created the 5-10-15 Main Street Innovation Challenge – to inspire creativity and collaboration between tech start-ups and small, local businesses in Southwestern Ontario and to create mutually beneficial partnerships. Challenge recipients were awarded $15,000 in March to further develop their innovative and technology-enabled business.
The final featured recipient is Seedz, an app that uses geolocation to encourage people to explore and support local businesses. It was created by Stephen Kiernan, a software developer in Sarnia and his daughter Jessika, who is now running the company.
The original idea for the Sarnia-based app came as a result of a friend of Kiernan’s who was battling terminal cancer. She wanted to leave messages for her daughters to find after she was gone, but was looking for something more substantial than email, and the idea of leaving them in meaningful geolocations was appealing. His plan was to place seeds of these messages in geographic locations that were meaningful to the people involved, however, his friend passed away in 2016 before he finished coding the app.
During this time the Pokémon Go craze was hitting fever pitch and, according to Kiernan, “this premise of placing things for people to search for made sense for offers and coupons for businesses,” he says. Not to mention, it could be the key to making a coding-heavy – and therefore costly – application like this one pay for itself. And so began their pivot toward business-to-consumer use.
The Seedz app is, at its core, a map patrons use to explore their city and discover local businesses, while earning points, which translates to rewards at those businesses. The map shows participating vendors, each of which offers links to their social media channels, directions, and contact information. Those vendors plant seeds (or “seedz”) in locations either nearby or around the city for users to find and collect.
As they use the app, which employs their mobile device’s GPS, patrons need to go to a physical location to collect a specific seed. Seeds can be anything a business wants them to be – a coupon for a specific item, discounts, even part of a scavenger hunt they host – the point is to engage app users through gamification and build their base of potential patrons.
“Our use of geographic-based placement of data allows businesses to target specific users,” Kiernan explains, “such as college students, hockey players, golfers or any person who visits specific locations often.”
Seedz originally launched in Sarnia in the fall of 2019, but the pandemic threw a wrench into their rollout just as they were ramping up. Kiernan says they used the downtime to work on some programming issues, so it hasn’t been an entirely negative disruption in their plans.
When they first set their business in motion, Seedz was monetizing the app by charging businesses an annual fee to participate. With the challenges brought about by the pandemic, however, they’ll be using the $15,000 from the 5-10-15 Main Street Innovation Challenge to onboard an additional 75 local businesses in the Sarnia area at no cost.
Eventually, the Kiernans hope to expand the platform beyond Sarnia, to London and Detroit, and at some point, across Canada. “We’re planning a large rollout once Covid lifts,” he says.
With gamification happening everywhere right now, it only makes sense to use this technique to engage patrons and encourage them to have fun and get active, all while discovering and supporting their local businesses.