MOUNT KISCO – Operators at KES Dispatch keep track of the company’s taxis on a yellow legal pad. They communicate with cars using a two-way radio. Drivers navigate their journeys largely by memory.
In the age of Uber and Lyft, the company is desperate to modernize.
“I gotta change something,” said Miguel Duarte, who has run his Mount Kisco, N.Y., company for 13 years. “I gotta stay ahead of the competition.”
Help is on the way. Dashride, a new startup, wants to give KES Dispatch a fighting chance. It is helping Duarte modernize his company’s clunky dispatch system, starting with a mobile app that will soon let customers book, track, pay for and rate rides.
Dashride is just one of several Web-based startups with a mission of empowering small, local businesses – often in struggling, traditional industries – by equipping them with tools and strategies that could help them keep up with changing times.
For example, Cups, a coffee subscription app that came to New York in April, helps independent coffee shops compete with giant chains like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. It is working with 50 small shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn. ShopKeep, a New York company, helps small businesses ring up sales, accept credit cards, email receipts or print remotely with an iPad-based checkout system.
Shakr, a startup based in Seoul and San Francisco, helps small businesses create their own video advertising through video templates created by graphic designers who have worked on ad campaigns for major brands, like Nike and Samsung. And Edelweiss, a Seattle-based newcomer, last year introduced a networking site for independent booksellers and publishers to connect online – and to regroup against Amazon, seen increasingly as an industry bully.
With an explicit focus on the underdogs, these startups reverse the perception that Web companies seek to put mom-and-pop operations out of business. Instead, they say they want to help small, local businesses take on corporate giants and juggernaut revolutionaries like Uber.
In return, the startups are able to tap into strong, distinctive businesses with longstanding ties to local communities, qualities that cannot easily be recreated online. KES Dispatch is a fixture in this leafy town in Westchester County, and Duarte knows the roads by heart and many of its residents by name.
And even decidedly old-school sectors of the economy, like the livery industry, remain a huge market. There are more than 200,000 taxi and limousine services in the United States, according to the industry research firm IBISWorld, with revenues of $11 billion.
“When you have disrupters like Uber and Lyft, it creates a need for the other 99 percent of the industry to update their tools, and for a company to sell them those tools,” said Jonathan Axelrod, managing director of the New York-based Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator, which invested $40,000 in Dashride this year. Dashride is working on raising other financing.
“We’re disrupting the disrupters,” said Dashride’s founder and chief executive, Nadav Ullman, 24, who built the company out of a service he started in college to help students get home safely from bars. “There’s a feeling that the taxi-limo industry has come to a now-or-never moment, and there’s a hunger for change.”
Retail stores have perhaps been the best served by technology startups. OpenTable operates a reservation system for diners and restaurants; Yub helps brick-and-mortar merchants lure customers from the web with promotional offers; Shopkick alerts smartphone users to deals at nearby stores.
Gilad Rotem, an avid coffee drinker, long found the indie coffee scene in his native Tel Aviv, Israel, a refreshing antidote to the cookie-cutter chains that seemed to be springing up across the city. So in 2012, he founded Cups.
Customers with a monthly Cups subscription get unlimited coffee from a network of indie coffee shops, marked on an interactive map. Pricing for all-you-can-drink plans range from $45 to $85, depending on the types of coffee subscribers can order. Cups reimburses the shops for that coffee, after keeping a cut of the sales, while cafe owners get exposure and traffic.
In Manhattan and Brooklyn, Cups has signed neighborhood stalwarts like the Bean and Pushcart Coffee. Rotem likes to call his collective New York City’s third-biggest coffee chain, behind Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. For customers, the allure of satisfying their coffee fix while helping to empower the independent coffee shop culture is Cups’ biggest draw, he said.
“We want to bring local coffee shops the economies of scale of big chains, but also have them keep their atmosphere and vibe,” Rotem said.
Edelweiss, in Seattle, was originally an online digital catalog of print books. It also runs an analytics service to allow booksellers to compare their sales anonymously with their peers, giving even small booksellers access to a vast amount of sales and marketing data.
Its social network, Edelweiss Community, allows independent bookshops to share reviews of over 500,000 titles in its database — and to exchange trade tips and offer support as print books come increasingly under siege from e-books and Web giants like Amazon. The community got its start after Amazon announced last year that it was acquiring the popular social reading platform Goodreads, dismaying many independent booksellers, said John Rubin, Edelweiss’ chief executive.
Rubin, a former management consultant, said he was initially skeptical of trying to work with feisty indie merchants. “I was warned it would be like herding cats,” he said.
“But I just want to give them every edge, everything they can do to narrow the gap between Amazon and the bookstore,” he said. “It’s all about helping those one or two people in the tiny back office. I want to help those guys.”