Leading local businesses into the 21st Century: Brett Wiewiora and Onlyin…
Not everybody turns to entrepreneurship because of a business opportunity; some do their own thing because they are driven to do good, to make change, and starting and growing something new is often the best way to accomplish that. Meet Brett Wiewiora, a social entrepreneur who recently graduated with a masters in public policy from Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College.
Brett is convinced that small neighborhood businesses in rust-belt cities, like Pittsburgh, Cleveland, and Baltimore, need help moving into the 21st Century, particularly in online marketing. So, he is starting a social enterprise that he calls the Onlyin… franchise. The prototype is Pittsburgh, Onlyinpgh.com which went to live beta on August 17.
I live in Pittsburgh and I know first-hand that the city is slow to echo hipper peer cities. And I know that the problem exists on two sides:
- Small neighborhood businesses have trouble marketing to the younger generation of social media addicts;
- Young people, particularly college students and young professionals, want to congregate where their friends are but you don’t always know what is going on, or who is there.
Background. Brett always had a negative association with the word “entrepreneur.” A social activist in college, Brett thought business was the anti-Christ of his beliefs. However, if you look at Brett’s actions growing up, you too would see a budding entrepreneur at heart:
- Like many an enterprising youth, Brett sold things to other people. At age six, while with his mother on a Semester-at-Sea program, Brett and his older brother would go pick up leftover pens in the empty classrooms and then sell them back to the students who probably left the pens in the first place!
- In elementary school, Brett rented computer games to friends.
- In college, Brett fixed up old laptops and sold them. To be fair, Brett often sold these computers at super cheap prices to people who really needed them, and they had no money.
- Brett likes to make things and he had an African drum building business for a while.
- He also dabbled with a T-shirt company which broke even.
Brett realizes now that, “The spirit that inspires entrepreneurism is the same spirit that spurs the creation of something new, something that can really affect and help people, something that can change the world.”
Why social media? Brett described the problem he sees: “For newcomers to mid-sized cities in the US, it’s not obvious where to go to find things to do. Few local businesses market effectively online, which is the primary way people find things to do in the internet age, and therefore newcomers are left experiencing only a fraction of what the city has to offer. Proportionally, the number of newcomers can also be quite large – for example, nearly one fifth of Pittsburgh’s population are students, a group largely made up of people who are new to the city.”
Brett continues, “Providing better and easier to use information about things to do in mid-sized cities can have a huge impact. Not only does it help spread economic activity to neighborhoods outside of the immediate student and tourist areas, it also can significantly affect an individual’s perception of the city. Every city wants people to feel like it is a fun and vibrant place to be, and that’s doubly important for cities in the nation’s rustbelt that battle antiquated negative impressions every day.”
Brett is trying to balance thinking big with thinking locally. He is from Pittsburgh and like so many of boomerangers who moved away, he wanted to return home. And he wanted to bring some fresh ideas and energy to make Pittsburgh lively for people of his generation.
Pittsburgh is a great place to live and work; it has a lot of offer: great architecture, low cost of living, and super friendly people (let’s not talk about the weather, please!). Brett wants to highlight the uniqueness and fun that is Pittsburgh – “the biggest little city that you will find,” as he calls it.
Business model. Onlyinpgh is redefining the “finding things to do” market through two disruptive innovations:
- An interactive interface that makes it easy for users to navigate a large number of event listings.
- A business model that provides social as well as financial returns. Brett describes, “Rather than solely through advertising, our model involves crunching information about where people are coming from and the events they’re attending to provide businesses analytics about who their customers are and the types of things they like.” In many ways this information is similar to the information that large chain stores obtain through loyalty cards — it allows businesses to make better decisions by understanding what their customers want. These analytics are available through a subscription, and businesses can market to specific groups using the information.
Market. Based on the number of businesses able to benefit from this type of information in Pittsburgh neighborhoods and the amount typically spent on marketing, Brett estimates the local market size to be approximately $10M. When applied to the 75 other mid-size cities around the country, that number becomes $750M.
Status. Onlyinpgh just launched its public beta. For its prototype testing, Onlyinpgh featured profiles of 70 businesses. The beta site attracted nearly 50,000 unique visitors, 1000 Facebook fans, and 1650+ Twitter followers. For a locally-focused website in a market like Pittsburgh, those are pretty decent stats.
Challenges: As with any startup, there are challenges. Huge challenges. Entrepreneurship is just hard. Brett’s challenges in particular fall into the following:
- Big picture vs. prototype or how to scale a hyper-local business. Onlyinpgh is customized to Pittsburgh and will Brett be able to standardize his efforts in order to scale nationally?
- Differentiation in social media space. We all know there is TMI everywhere. Social media is a super-crowded space. But Brett tells me “There is not going to be any event-oriented site that comes anywhere close to what we do. Things-to-do website is what it really is.” He thinks that’s enough differentiation but reality will have to confirm that.
- Programming talent. Like many other New Venturists profiled in this blog, Brett needs technical and operational talent to ramp up to launch. And people is the hardest challenge by far.
Good luck, Brett. Make Pittsburgh a better place!