With nonessential brick-and-mortar businesses closed and restaurants were limited to takeout, gift cards have become a big deal for small businesses, allowing them to bring in some immediate cash flow.
For some small businesses, online sales, including gift cards, have been the only source of income. This has been especially true for small business owners of color.
“I was hearing a lot about how small businesses were applying for [the Paycheck Protection Program] and different economic injury disaster loans and not getting funding,” said Newark-based entrepreneur Garry Jonson III, whose fintech platform, KnowCapp, recently launched. “Business owners who were relying on these funds to stay afloat were simply not getting access to that.”
To help in the dire economic situation, several fintech companies, including Square and Kabbage, started to provide free services for businesses that allow them to sell gift cards on their websites, along with a searchable database where potential buyers can purchase cards.
“I thought that was a pretty cool way for the community to continue to support small businesses,” Johnson said. “But when I checked [the databases] out, that’s when it really clicked for me — at first I was excited to see that companies were putting out these databases, but I was really disheartened and kind of upset to find that when you would search ‘Wilmington, Delaware,’ the list was not an all-inclusive list. I know businesses are out there that need the support, so I wanted to figure out a way to help people take advantage of this opportunity.”
With that, he started KeepUsOpen.com, a collaborative crowdfunding platform that allows community members to purchase gift cards, while at the same time making the funds accessible to all participating businesses.
Ensuring that once gift cards started selling, all participating businesses would have the same chance to come away with a sale — what Johnson calls “democratizing access to financial support” — involves one twist that other gift card databases don’t have: When a buyer purchases a gift card, they choose a campaign and set the amount, but rather than choosing the business, they receive a gift card to use at an algorithm-selected business.
In addition to giving lesser-known businesses a chance, this small-business roulette model helps people discover new businesses that are right in their back yard, and in most cases the cards can be used immediately online.
The platform, which launches May 5, has several campaigns in several locations, a result of Johnson’s networking with social media influencers who agreed to become what he calls “champions” of localized campaigns, each one taking care of galvanizing their communities. So far, the campaigns include: Delaware First, Black-Owned Philly, Made in Harlem, Made in Texas and the global online marketplace Shop Katika.
“They’re all just people I know in different communities who want to support small businesses owners, so that’s going to be really cool,” said Johnson.
The Delaware First campaign is open to small businesses in Delaware that offer products and services of any kind. If you don’t have a gift card setup, KeepUsOpen.com has information on how to do it for free. Sign up here.