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Podcast: Supporting Akron Businesses During COVID-19 with James Hardy and Michael Mazur

Posted on September 1, 2020


Akronite App GovLove
James HardyMichael Mazur
James Hardy
Deputy Mayor for
Integrated Development
City of Akron, Ohio
Bio | LinkedIn | Twitter
Michael Mazur
Vice President for
Business Development
Colu Technologies
LinkedIn | Twitter

Rewards for shopping local. James Hardy, Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development at the City of Akron, Ohio, and Michael Mazur, Vice President for Business Development for Colu, joined the podcast to talk about an app that connects Akron residents with local businesses. The Akronite app gives retailers marketing tools and incentivizes shopping local by providing rewards at participating Akron businesses to residents.

Host: Alyssa Dinberg

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Learn More

Akron taps Israeli company to develop small business app

Akron Partners With Colu to Launch Akronite App to Support Small Business Recovery from COVID-19

Colu Website

Mayor Dan Horrigan Enlists Pioneering Technology Company To Help Strengthen Relationships Between Residents And Small Businesses


Episode Transcript

Message

Gemütlichkeit, Gemütlichkeit, Gemütlichkeit. ELGL’s annual conference is all about a state of warm friendliness and good cheer. Hence the Gemütlichkeit theme. We’re doing an Oktoberfest themed ELGL conference. And for the whole month of October ELGL members will be gathering virtually to learn from one another and connect. You’ll be able to customize your registration and pick the sessions that most interest you or work best with your schedule. We have a session every day in the month of October. It’s going to be great. Plus all sessions will be recorded for later viewing. To get you even more excited, here are a couple of our awesome sessions. We’ve got a session on Nudges, Behavioral Insights and Other Ways to Impact Change, Integrating Racial Equity into Local Government, Creative Community Engagement While Social Distancing, plus many, many more. You can learn more at the ELGL website and register for what will be the best conference of the year by going to ELGL20.org. That’s ELGL20.org to learn more.

Alyssa Dinberg

And we’re ready to go. Coming to you from Denver, Colorado, this is GovLove, a podcast about local government. GovLove is produced by ELGL, Engaging Local Government Leaders network. We engage the brightest minds in local government. I’m Alyssa Dinberg and today I’m joined by Michael Mazur, Vice President of Business Development at Colu, and James Hardy, Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development at the City of Akron, Ohio. Welcome to the podcast, James and Michael.

01:43

Thanks for having us.

Alyssa Dinberg

Yeah, I’m super excited to have you both here. I think this is a really timely topic, so I think the listeners are really gonna enjoy it. So today we’re going to learn about the City of Akron’s new partnership with Colu to support small business recovery during COVID-19. Colu has developed a platform to help cities engage with residents by rewarding them for taking actions that promote their strategic goals using a unique city coin. So it’s timely for everyone and I think we’re gonna learn a lot. All right, so let’s get started with one of our signature lightning rounds. Are you guys ready?

Michael Mazur

Yeah.

James Hardy

Absolutely.

Alyssa Dinberg

Okay, so today this first question was one of the questions that Kirsten posted on our members group. Every Friday she posts a question to get people talking and I thought it was a good one for our episode today. What is your favorite breakfast food? Let’s start with Michael.

Michael Mazur

So my favorite breakfast food is probably Fage yogurt 2% with blueberries and bananas.

Alyssa Dinberg

I love that. That’s a good breakfast. What about you James?

James Hardy

That’s super healthy Michael. I’m gonna go with eggs, sunny side up, and like a really good bread, you know, like a thick bread that’s toasted.

Alyssa Dinberg

That’s what I had for breakfast today. That’s like my go to breakfast. It’s just very easy. Yeah. All right, next question. And this is a question I’ve been asking during every episode I’ve done during this crazy time, just because I’m curious to hear everybody’s responses. Umm, James, what have you done to keep yourself sane during quarantine?

James Hardy

I’ve mainly been fixing things around my house. So nothing that exciting, but things that I have needed to get to for a long time.

Alyssa Dinberg

It’s a good time for that for sure. What about you, Michael?

Michael Mazur

So I’ve been trying to take a lot of walks, you know, it’s tough, being home in a small Manhattan apartment working such long hours. So I really try to get 10,000 steps in per day, and I’ve been pretty consistent, because I usually get around 9000.

Alyssa Dinberg

I’m very jealous of that. That is something like in my mind I have told myself I’m going to do but I just in reality have not. We even got a puppy and I’m still not walking as much as I probably should. Okay, so James what is your weird life skill blind spot or something that you should know how to do but you don’t?

James Hardy

So I know this is gonna sound strange because I just said that I’ve been fixing things around the house but I am actually not good at all you know with my with my hands. Meaning I don’t do woodworking very well. I can change a light bulb and that’s about it. So YouTube has come in incredibly handy over the last five to six months.

Alyssa Dinberg

Nice. I’ve I’ve also used YouTube a lot to figure out how to do things that I don’t know. I think YouTube is like the greatest resource in our generation. What about you? What about you Michael?

Michael Mazur

I also am not good with my hands and with woodworking and stuff like that. But I would say for me it’s like folding or like doing the sheets on my bed. I just, I am not good at it. I have, I’ve tried and tried learning and it just can’t get good. So …

Alyssa Dinberg

Have you, have you watched the Marie Kondo videos?

Michael Mazur

I have not. My mom I think uses the, her technique to kind of read things is I think she calls them.

Alyssa Dinberg

Yeah, yeah, you should check it out. I like, that was one of my quarantine things. I like went through and refolded every piece of clothing that I own into the Marie Kondo method and surprisingly have kept it up. I I’m very surprised with myself about that. Yeah. Um, so Michael, if you were a vegetable what vegetable would you be?

Michael Mazur

Um, it’s a good question and I did hear your previous podcasts I sent prepared fight. I think cauliflower represents me well. I think you know cauliflower on its own seems like it’s a bit quiet and decent and simple but once you get to know its attributes it can become like complicated or complex and sophisticated and opens the palate away. You know because I like grew up and going back and forth between the US and Israel and I always kind of came across as shy and reserved and so I always felt like I had to prove myself and I still do but I think cauliflower connects it because if a cauliflower is executed well it can make an impact on others, positive and obviously good food and healthy and make them happy. So I try to integrate that analogy with myself.

Alyssa Dinberg

That’s awesome. You’re having your moment right now as a cauliflower. Cauliflower is super trendy. And what about you James? If you were a vegetable what would you be?

James Hardy

Yeah, I did not think it out that deeply. [Laughter] That was really good Michael.  I was going to go with spinach mainly because it’s my favorite vegetable but I also, I really love to cook and spinach is like my go to, because you can put it in pretty much everything. You can eat it raw, you can eat it cooked. It goes with so many different things. So I’m gonna go with spinach.

Alyssa Dinberg

Good answer as well. All right, so I feel like we’re thoroughly warmed up. Let’s move on to our conversation about community engagement and COVID. Umm so, I introduced you very briefly at the beginning, but I hope, I was hoping that each of you could maybe spend a minute just telling the listeners who you are, what you do, and kind of how you got to where you are. James, can you start for us?

James Hardy

Sure. So I have the privilege of serving as Deputy Mayor for Integrated Development of my the city that I was born in Akron, Ohio, home of LeBron James and The Pretenders and Devo and Black Keys and so many others. James Ingram, I could keep going. And within that role, I have responsibility for economic development, community development, planning functions, urban design, parks and rec, downtown operations, and then development engineering. And so really anything that impacts the way the city looks, feels and develops is in our office of integrated development. Prior to that, I served as Chief of Staff to the Mayor, in his first term, and prior to that I actually came from a background in public health, which has proven to be interesting and helpful over the past half year, so I love my job. I love serving, as I said, the community that I grew up in, and that’s what I get to do every day.

Alyssa Dinberg

Awesome. What about you, Michael? What do you do? Who are you?

Michael Mazur

Good question. So I am the Vice President of Business Development at Colu. I am responsible for the company’s expansion to new markets right now, particularly in the US market, and also helping spearhead the launch in cities. So really looking at quickly seeing what’s the dynamic going on in the world and in cities in the US, and really seeing how we can position our technology to meet the unique needs of cities. So that’s my role. Now, before this, I about five years ago started a company called Green Spot with the part of a different larger company that held or dealt with implementing electric vehicle charging stations and shared mobility solutions in cities. And I really started it with an idea and helped expand it to 10 cities and it’s still going on today, even in a nearby city in Ohio called Columbus. And so I did that and I started again, that was my first foray into the world of government. And I had really no experience before. I actually left law school to start this company. And I learned and fell in love with it, because I saw that, you know, we have is the private sector and opportunity to make an impact on so many people by working with government, and I’ve just been addicted to it since. So I joined Colu in March, really, with the goal of expanding the company and I saw so much potential. And it really was inspiring to meet the CEO. And I think where we are now is amazing. And just, we’re just getting started.

Alyssa Dinberg

Great. Thank you so much. So my first question, I guess my second question is for you, Michael, can you talk a little bit about what Colu is, where the idea for this platform came from and why Colu is so unique?

Michael Mazur

Yeah, so Colu I think you mentioned the beginning, but I’ll explain a little bit more. So the way we work is, we work with governments, typically cities or counties. And we develop a white label, app and platform that rewards residents for engaging in behaviors that meet the strategic goals of the cities. So we work to see you know, what do cities want to help and promote, what do they want to help and promote within their city, and see how we can use behavioral economics and concepts of gamification to ultimately create that sort of behavioral change of residents. The way it ultimately is working now is because of COVID, we saw that one of the main pain points that cities have is really how they can help support small businesses. So what makes us unique is that we’re really able to take our core technology and adapt it to the current place that cities are, and the current issues that they have. And one other thing is really, you know, when we came to the US market, we saw that one of the main missing links between cities and residents was a platform that is cool and fun and in line with other apps that people use, and a way for cities to really have impact on residents and get them to take action. So that’s something that we are focusing on, and that makes us unique, and really coming into cities and being able to understand and identify what are the problems and how we can use these types of incentives and rewards to ultimately get people to change behavior, but then to and then use those rewards in the city and stimulate the local economy that way. So that’s really you know, where we are, and ultimately, we’re very excited about kind of growing in the US market as well.

Alyssa Dinberg

That’s great. We’re really happy to have additional platforms like this that that are helping cities, figure out these tough challenges. So James, can you talk a little bit about Akron and what the challenges you’re facing due to COVID are?

James Hardy

Sure. Akron is a post industrial mid sized American city in the heart of the rust belt. We were once the rubber capital of the world. We still use that moniker and wear it proudly but we were called that in large part because we were the home to pretty much every tire making company in the world, was headquartered in Akron at one time. So Goodyear, Firestone, General Tire, Mohawk, etc, all had massive factories in Akron, which caused incredible population growth and this amazing city that built up this working class city around it. Just like a lot of cities in the Midwest, globalization, automation etc. caused a lot of the factories to shut down, go overseas or and the jobs sort of evaporated. We still are lucky enough to have Bridgestone, Firestone has their Research and Technical Center in Akron and of course, Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company is still headquartered in Akron. But we obviously have been going through an economic transformation for quite some time. And when COVID hit, I think it’s safe to say that we were, we were on an upward trajectory from the last great recession. So it would be incorrect to state that we were riding high or doing extremely well. In fact, we were just getting back to pre Great Recession job levels. And now we face an economic disruption unlike anything we’ve seen since the Great Depression and so the concern, right, is that cities like Akron are going to be harder hits, take longer to recover, all of the things that we experienced during the last recession of 08-09. So that is the sort of the backdrop to this engagement with Colu.

Alyssa Dinberg

Absolutely, yeah. So I in my daytime job this is, this is my hobby. In my daytime job, I’m a Recovery Manager for a county here in Colorado. And they’re facing the same exact challenges. And what I keep telling them is that all the challenges that we’re seeing right now, we’re already there, they’re just being amplified by COVID. And so shifting that lens to really try to focus on how we fix these systemic issues. And it sounds like Akron is going through the same thing.

James Hardy

Absolutely.

Alyssa Dinberg

So, James, I was, I’m sorry, Michael, I was hoping that you could talk a little bit about why you, why you chose Akron? And from your perspective, what what’s unique about Akron?

Michael Mazur

Yeah. So I think first of all, what’s unique about Akron is just their approach to innovation and the speed in which they’re able to move forward as government. And I think that, you know, James represents what city government can look like, in the sense of, you know, being able to take action and execute ideas, right. We always see that one of the biggest challenges is there’s always this euphoric sense of technology and technology can make change, and everyone loves it, but then how do you take that idea of technology and implement it with, you know, boots on the ground approach to ultimately help and impact people and residents and I think that Akron really on one hand, showed that they’re able to, you know, move things forward and work fast but on the other hand, also able to take action and boots on the ground. And really, you know, do what they say and say what they do, which ultimately, you know, again, I think is amazing to see what else is really, Akron met a lot of the criteria that we look for in in cities. And that’s really I mean, number one, make a commitment to support local retailers and restaurants immediately. And, you know, we hear and see so many articles up about how our cities, you know, trying and discussing, you know, what they want to do to help and stimulate their local economy. But again, those are a lot of times discussions and they’re very often they’re very much the same, you know, their grants or their loans. And I think, you know, Akron made the decision to look outside the box and look at things that did not exist in the US market and say, Okay, this is a great idea in our opinion, and let’s go let’s test it out. And I think that yields so many dividends in the long run for the city and ultimately brings it as a sort of thought leader and then on the other hand, also Akron has an awesome team that, obviously James is here. And then we have the rest of the team, Heather and Julie, and everyone else that are so committed to the local businesses, so committed to, you know, on a day to day basis reach out and get their hands dirty, that that’s the secret sauce, right? You have to not only just say what you’re going to do, but ultimately when you have that option to go ahead and really go out there, meet the businesses, see them in person, and that’s what makes it unique. And ultimately, it’s been a great few months now working with the city and launching and really a great experience.

Alyssa Dinberg

Michael, when did you launch in Akron?

Michael Mazur

So we launched about two and a half weeks ago in the city.

Alyssa Dinberg

Oh wow! Okay.

Michael Mazur

The official launch. Yeah.

Alyssa Dinberg

Very recently. Okay. Um, James, can you talk about what kind of problems you were looking to solve with your partnership with Colu? Were there specific things you were looking to accomplish or was it just a broad set of challenges?

James Hardy

So I think it’s safe to say that we did not have creating and launching a city app on our to do list for 2020, prior to COVID. It really was something that was spurred by the pandemic and its impact on our local businesses. And so what Michael said, when, when Ohio started to shut down, rightly so under the leadership of Governor DeWine, and Dr. Acton at the time, and we saw that our small business community was going to be impacted first, longest and hardest. We really had to retool our small business and entrepreneurship plans for the year. And it sounds cliche, but we really, the task that I gave the team and myself was, what is out there, what have we not thought of that could help us to adapt to this moment, at the time, of course, we, we didn’t know how long it was going to last. I think that’s still true to a certain extent, even though parts of the economy are open now. And so we started to reach out to try and solve this problem, which was how do we safely connect consumers back to our small businesses in a time of a pandemic. So technology obviously, came to us as one potential way that we could do that. So we started reaching out to our partners nationally and regionally and really fell in love with the work that Colu had done in Tel Aviv in particular. We have a large infrastructure project going on downtown that was already impacting small businesses before COVID. They had intervened in a similar project in Tel Aviv and had some great success. And honestly, the proof was really in the pudding when we started to talk to Colu and Mike and has team about what it what it could look like to partner in Akron. You know, I am not somebody who believes that technology solves every city problem. Obviously, Smart City agendas are a big, trendy thing right now for people in my position and in our position. And of course, every conference we go to, right there’s like a subset section or track on Smart City. And we get inundated by vendors and by different startups wanting to help solve problems that we didn’t even know we had, right? This was different. This was a specific problem in a specific time, where technology we thought might actually help. And so far it has helped and so I think that, you know, even though things have eased up somewhat, in terms of the business restrictions, clearly we are in for the long haul here unless something changes radically in terms of the impact on our economy long term and our small businesses who we had already had a focus on. I think that’s important to note. And Michael touched on a little bit. We knew our businesses, we had already made small business and entrepreneurship a key factor in our economic development plans. That helped tremendously to be able to launch this so quickly, and get to market so quickly. So I think, I think the central problem we were trying to solve is how do we safely connect consumers, again, to their locally owned small businesses, how do we encourage and reward good civic spending behavior? And then how do we help people to learn more about our local business community in a way that builds loyalty?

Alyssa Dinberg

That’s great. I think that’s a really good segue into my next question, and maybe both of you can tackle this. Can you can you paint the picture of what the app looks like and what it does?

Michael Mazur

Sure, I can start and so the app itself is really branded for the City of Akron and it’s called Akronite. Each time someone engages in a behavior that meets the goal of the city, which right now is, like we said shopping at local businesses, they get rewarded with a local coin. That local coin is called a blimp because of the history. So Goodyear and blimps in the City of Akron, and each blimp is worth $1. So the way it works is every time or anytime you purchase at a local business in the city, you earn blimps, which as you earn you can then redeem at businesses in the city. And the uniqueness of it is there are different types of initiatives within the city that represent cashback for different segments of businesses. So for example, right now, there’s a thing called Taste the City. So say if you shop at any of the restaurants and downtown University Park, you get 30% cashback in the form of blimps. And then there’s another one that focuses on other we call it beauty salons and things like that. So those are the 20% cashback if you shop at those businesses. And then another thing that was really an initiative of the City of Akron was, how to help also support minority owned businesses and specifically black owned businesses at these times. So there’s another initiative in the app that says if you shop at black owned businesses in the City of Akron, you get an additional 10% cashback. And it’s interesting because not only does it make people aware, right, we always talk about in behavioral economics is a lot of it is about the awareness of things and being able to think about it but it also shows people the different options they have and gets them to subconsciously, you know, when they shop, they oh, wow, I didn’t even realize that, you know, this is a black owned business, and once they think about it more, they can really get more inclined to engage in those behaviors. And so that’s really sort of how the app works. Like, in addition, though, there are different stories and the app, it’s very similar to, like an Instagram. And the stories either represent calls to action where it’s shop at local businesses, but then you have other stories that represent different local nonprofits in Akron. There really some amazing local nonprofits that have their stories on the app that the City of Akron let them have and enable them to show and, and just to really connect those nonprofits, which are like the Arts Community, the Innovation Community, with the residents and show their message. And really that’s been I think one of the more amazing things also with the app is being able to connect with the local ecosystem, with the residents and especially now when we’re stuck at home more than ever. You want to feel that sense of community meaning technology is great as a means to connect people with other things that technology otherwise, without technology they wouldn’t have been able to do. And I think that’s really what’s extremely unique right now. And I’m very happy that we’re getting a lot of users in Akron and user ship is growing pretty quickly.

James Hardy

I would only add that, I think it’s important for listeners to know that from a civic perspective, from a city’s perspective, we get to tell our story through the Akronite app. As Michael was saying, beyond the gamification, the rewards and the … economics and all that behind it, it’s trying to respond to that very important notion of civic pride that we all have right now in our local communities. I heard from multiple places all over the city, from all different neighborhoods, how can we help during the initial onset of the pandemic? And this is a way to get the community involved in supporting locally owned small businesses. And also they get to track their impact on the app. So for example, I can see the impact that I’ve had economically on my small businesses through the blimps that I have earned and spent throughout the city. So I think that it’s a way for cities to tap into that civic pride, reward it and actually turn it into some tangible economic gains. And that’s why I love the name of the app so much, Akronite. It really is, it’s in so many ways a small symbol of what it means to live and work in the city.

Alyssa Dinberg

So I would imagine you have to have significant buy in from the businesses. Can you talk about what you’ve learned from the launch in Akron, and both of you can answer this question as well. What have you learned? And what has been the response from the businesses? James, if you want to start?

James Hardy

Sure. So I must admit that as we were planning with Michael and his team, there was a real fear that given everything that’s on the plates of small business owners, that this was going to be very difficult to get them to buy in to get on boarded, and then ultimately to become a redeeming business, which is the gold standard, right? That wasn’t our experience at all. And I think that was the case for a few reasons. One is we started out as a city startup partnership that this wasn’t going to cost our small businesses, anything. You know, there are ways in which you can monetize an app like this and certainly it would have been easy for us to charge a fee or something like that to be a participating business. But given everything that was going on, we made it free to the businesses. The second thing that I thought was really impactful to it being so easy to get the businesses to sign up, was that if you’re an earning business, it really doesn’t take anything. You know, it’s just a simple, okay, I’m willing to be marketed on the app and we can then start pushing your establishment out to our users and rewarding them for shopping there. And then to be a redeeming business, which is where our citizens can redeem their coin, their blimp, as we call it in Akron, it takes some, some simple paperwork. There really wasn’t much that we require from a city, obviously, for all of our city files out there that work at a municipality, I had to get everything through my law department. But once I did that, it actually became a pretty simple process. And so it was really just the toughest part, quite honestly was in the age of COVID, how do we get in front of these business owners so that we can walk them through the nuts and bolts of the app so that they would become a redeeming business? But I was surprised from my perspective at how simple it was to get things moving.

Alyssa Dinberg

What about you, Michael? What’s your experience been like?

Michael Mazur

Yeah, so like James mentioned, initially, we did not know what to expect because of the environment with COVID and the potential inability for us to go and meet with these businesses in person and so we prepared for not being able to meet them in person and initially, the mayor, Mayor Horrigan made an announcement and a lot of the businesses participated. We at first had calls with the local businesses to explain to them more because as you can imagine, when a new platform comes into the city, local businesses right now, again they are hurting like never before. And so for them, there’s this initial immediate thought of, oh, what is this? Like, maybe no, you know, there’s initial or like no, but we had a lot of calls and we explain what the program is with the city. And we were able to get excitement. Then we said that for the initial 40 or 50, businesses, it’ll be important to go out and meet them also in person. So once we had a quick call, we also made it a point to come out and I flew myself at least four or five times to Akron in a span of two months, awesome place. So great restaurants and everything. But the point being is that I was able to go in with my team and meet a lot of the business owners. And every time we went to a meeting, there was a representative from the city with us. And even if it was a quick 10-15 minute meeting, explaining to them about the app, explaining how it’s going to look like in the city because this is pre launch, we saw that businesses overall, I would say with the exception of one business that was just a little hesitant, but ultimately ended up becoming part of the app, all of the businesses said, you know, showed us excitement about this sort of initiative coming in. And they really needed a morale boost, because we heard their stories. And these are such amazing entrepreneurs in the city, right? You hear how resilient they are when just speaking to them. And so many of these business owners say like, hey, I know we’ve been suffering. It’s been very difficult. We haven’t experienced these types of challenges. A lot of these businesses weren’t around, you know, the previous recession, and have never experienced anything like this. And to see their optimism also, in general, was so empowering for me even working with Colu, and in this company, so and personal level, I would say, to get their optimism. So by going to meet these businesses in person, we were really able to overcome that initial barrier. And ultimately, we got the businesses really with the help of the city to join and participate and be, I would say one of the bigger advocates of the app because ultimately, they recognize that this is a win win win right? For them, it drives traffic, it’s getting people to shop local instead of, you know, Amazon, big box retailers. And these are the people that don’t have that backing, that typically those larger retail chains have, right. They don’t have that support or the bandwidth to handle these types of pandemics. And ultimately, these small stimulus checks are helpful. But if people aren’t shopping at these businesses, right, they can’t survive. So I think that once the business is understood, and as the city really obviously understood, we were able to come in and really help the businesses on board and then also tell their friends, tell their clients about it. And that’s the success of the app when we talk about, again, behavioral economics, that the network effect is so big, because when you see other people doing things, and when you see how it’s helping other people you want to join. So for us, it was important to instigate that to be the starter of this initiative going on. And so that now, as it progresses, it will grow on its own. And that’s, I believe, really what’s been happening. And I know, James would probably …. we’re going to expand a few more neighborhoods in the city pretty soon and probably to the whole city also, fairly soon. So that’s been the experience so far, and it’s been really amazing to see.

Alyssa Dinberg

That’s really great. How many businesses are involved right now?

Michael Mazur

I believe it’s a 150 or so.

Alyssa Dinberg

Oh, wow. That’s a lot. Okay. That’s amazing. And you said it’s only in certain neighborhoods right now?

James Hardy

So right now, we decided to launch, you know, in the beginning with our downtown businesses in our University Park neighborhood, which is where the University of Akron is, with the hope that it would catch on, that we would, we would meet our KPIs for the first month, which we blew out of the water in the first two days actually. And then we would expand to other neighborhoods. But the demand has been such that, to Michael’s point, we’ve been talking recently about, you know, we need to expand. We’ve had so many other businesses raise their hands and say, we want to be a part of this, that we just can’t say no. And so we’re now in the process of on-boarding neighborhood by neighborhood, business district by business district, throughout the city. So it’ll be a process that’s going to take I’m sure the bulk of the fall to complete, but it’s one that it’s a good problem to have. I’d rather have more businesses interested in coming on board than the opposite.

Alyssa Dinberg

Absolutely. What does it look like for promoting to residents to get them involved? I mean, it sounds like you haven’t had a hard time getting businesses involved. But how have you let residents know that this is now a thing that they can participate in?

James Hardy

So I’ll let Michael talk. He probably has the exact number of users right in front of him, knowing Michael. But I, I would say that one of the things that has been challenging but we are overcoming it, is how do you market to your citizenry and get users on the app. We have, like most cities, no money for marketing, very little resources devoted to the communications function. And so how do we do that? We’ve been as creative as we can possibly think of. We commissioned a, with the money we did have, we commissioned a local company to do a video explaining how the app works and trying to get people excited about it that went, I would say, semi viral on our social media platform. Social media has been the primary marketing tool that we’ve been utilizing. But we’re also thinking of things that are, you know, less obvious, like, we’re going to be putting something into every water bill that goes to 90,000 households, all across the city and even into the county, because obviously, the water service extends beyond our borders. So things like that, where you wouldn’t necessarily think of it as ways to market the app. And, you know, beyond that, we’ve been leaning heavily on our partners throughout the city, whether it’s the University, our corporate entities, other nonprofits, as Michael said, to cross promote, and so far, the response has been tremendous.

Michael Mazur

And I’ll just add, I think, you know, when we look at it, we come from a strategy perspective. And every city is unique. And each city has their own unique ecosystem. So when we think about customer acquisition for the app, we can come with these ideas and thoughts. But ultimately, it’s very important for us to modify them to the unique nuances of each city. And from going to Akron a few times, I saw the sense of community and community pride and city pride that residents have. And I believe that that’s been very helpful. Especially you hear the Akronite app, people realize that this is something that is unique to their city and want to be part of it. And from a, again, because of COVID, there is less of an ability to do things or you can’t really do events. You can’t do these bigger ribbon cuttings right. We’re limited in the amount of things we can do in person. So it’s been interesting to get creative. Social media has been great. The launch, about two and half weeks ago got picked up by local press, and then also national press, and people have been hearing about it. It’s been buzzing. We’re constantly thinking about new innovative ways to acquire more customers just to see how we can keep getting continuous growth. And ultimately, it’s happening on its own. But it’s also an interesting study again, because of the situation, because of COVID to really see how you can connect with people in this virtual type of nature and virtual environment. University has been great, as James mentioned, and other nonprofits and even the businesses, they started promoting on their social media. And that’s the cool thing about it, right? Like you have these businesses that initially we’re like, oh, what is this and now they’re ultimately posting it in social media, telling their people who shop there, right? It’s amazing to see that transition. And that’s how we see the growth. And then ultimately, as more businesses join as it grows to additional neighborhoods, that’ll be that constant growth. And we really anticipate it growing even exponentially in terms of user base, like we’ve seen in Tel Aviv and in other cities that we’ve launched in, it really grows and picks up. So I definitely have been seeing that. And we’re constantly thinking about user acquisition and how we can help get more users on the app.

Alyssa Dinberg

So you kind of alluded to this in your answer just now. But there have been a lot of things going on in America right now, not just COVID. Umm, how have the other social issues and the Black Lives Matter movement impacted the way you work with cities and the program in Akron?

Michael Mazur

Yeah, so with all this, so it started right with COVID and the pandemic and the economic impact And a few months later, we had a lot of the social things that were really high up. And when we start now working with cities, we really look at what’s going on not just from an economic level, a lot of the research that we do, looks at the different minorities in the city, looks at what’s going on, we really dig deep in each municipality that we go to, and even listen to city council meetings, like literally going and listen, to see what they’re talking about, what’s on the agenda. And that’s been something that we’ve only been doing in the past months, but we’ve seen that things are so dynamic, and that there’s such a huge ability for us, again, as the private sector to help minorities in general, and we want to make sure that we as a company, then that’s part of our mission as a company, not just to help cities but to help the minorities in cities and to really use that to make a positive change that otherwise maybe would have taken much longer. So a lot of our focus now is showcasing to cities and municipalities and counties how this app can ultimately help support minority owned businesses that convinces and other minorities. And that’s really how we’ve changed and I hope that we can continue to promote and support minorities.

James Hardy

So if I could add, Alyssa, I think that from our perspective, and from our mayor, we have been focused on equity since day one coming into office. But there’s no question that since the murder of George Floyd and everything that’s been happening in America around the question of justice, racial justice, that we have rightly taken a fresh look at how we are engaging in economic development. And so we were adamant from the very beginning, working with Michael and his team that equity had to be a part of this app from day one. And we needed to build on that. And so within the app, we have a special promotion for black owned businesses. It’s important to us that regardless of whether it’s a barbershop, beauty shop, a yoga studio, a restaurant, a bar, a retailer, that we take pride in our minority owned businesses, that we specially market them and try our level best to put the tools of economic justice in the hands of our consumers. And we can do that with the app. So you know, I’ve had anecdotally, people who are using the app that I know in town, tell me I didn’t know that, that business was a black owned business, but you know that that’s really important for me to know and, and from a positive stance they’re making choices a little differently now, in terms of where they’re spending their money. They’re, they’re finding businesses they didn’t know existed, and trying new things and new neighborhoods and, and that’s a whole other piece of, of why we are at the moment we are in America, the segregation that still exists within our neighborhoods, within our economy, within our schools, everything about our daily life. And you know, this app while not you know, a panacea, it is a important tool in again, equipping people with the knowledge and the information they need to make more equitable choices.

Alyssa Dinberg

I really love that Akron’s leaning in completely and being innovative not only with how they’re supporting local businesses, but being innovative Within that innovation, I think that’s fantastic. I hope other cities learn from this episode and are able to take away some ways to support not only local businesses, but minority owned businesses. And so Michael and James, are there, are there local nonprofits involved in the app or is it just businesses?

James Hardy

So we have been intentional about including our nonprofits, obviously, they’re hurting as well. In a typical year, we would have included concerts at the Civic theater at our downtown, outdoor venue, lock three and across the city. And obviously, those theaters, those stages, those artists are not able to perform safely right now. So it was important to us that regardless of the mission of the nonprofit that we included them some way. And so the most obvious way was to offer free marketing through the storytelling on the app. So it’s been tremendous working with them so far. As things improve with the pandemic, I would hope that there would be an opportunity for us to start rewarding consumers for attending nonprofit events or for even maybe someday contributing, making a contribution to a nonprofit to get rewarded for that. But at least in the in the short term, we can promote the good work they’re doing, we can promote the people that are being served by our local nonprofits. And Michael may have some more to say from the app perspective, but from the city perspective, it’s been tremendous.

Michael Mazur

Yeah, and also in my end, it’s been really amazing to see the nonprofits join and participate. The way it works in the app is that, there are different stories, like we mentioned, some are in shopping businesses downtown and restaurants and get 30% cashback. But others are just stories where the call to action is learn more, participate, go to the event. And even if it’s not tied immediately with the reward, it gives people that aspect of awareness. And for me, it was very moving to see and meet a lot of these nonprofits. I know and one in particular, just I keep thinking about and it’s not just October. It’s a young local entrepreneur Levar Jacobs, and his nonprofit assists families with, you know, financial hardships due to breast cancer. And I met him and it was so inspiring to hear his story and how his mission is to do this and to help and support, and it’s he has a job right day to day, and this is something he does on the side. And he said, because of the pandemic, right, people are not donating as much. And it’s affected his nonprofit. So I feel like even now more than ever, there is a lot of room to show the public what are the nonprofit’s that are out there. People are still hurting and things that they had been hurting before COVID. This pandemic has hurt so many businesses, but also so many nonprofits that had these missions and the fact that people have less disposable income, and that people have been hurt so bad financially, also has this residual effect. And nonprofits that want to promote, again, breast cancer awareness. It could be the arts community, it could be innovation. And I see it as our company mission to help support cities also to give these nonprofits that are part of the ecosystem, a sort of location or place to connect with residents, and hopefully what it’ll do is it’ll get people who use the app to learn more about these local nonprofits and maybe help you know, if they’re thinking about donating, maybe like, oh, wow, I didn’t even realize that this is a local nonprofit that now I’ll actually donate here. So this is something that’s very helpful. And also, as the app expands to more parts of Akron, I hope that additional nonprofits also and it’s been amazing that the city also has really given them the space to do it, and really donated them the space so it’s been very good and very inspiring. And that same level.

Alyssa Dinberg

That’s really really cool. I like that a lot. I’m super curious to see maybe like two years from now what the impact of Colu has been. I bet it’s gonna be huge. So that kind of leads me into my next question, and this is for both of you. James from the city side,  what is, what does the future look like with your partnership with Colu? And for Michael, what’s the future for Colu? I mean, I know that right now Akron is the only city in the United States. You are in Israel. But what’s the future for you and in America? Let’s start with James.

James Hardy

So our goal is to continue to build user ship on the app, to build in more businesses, more neighborhoods, more stories. And as long as the businesses and our consumers are finding value from Akron night, we want to try and keep it going as long as we possibly can. So a year from now, two years from now, I agree, I’m hoping that we have significant economic impact, but also, I don’t think it can be understated, the morale boost that we need to give at this time, to, you know, the real true champions of our local economy which are those small entrepreneurs that have taken the risk to try and fuel our neighborhood business districts and keep them going. And so if we can do that as well, if we can provide some hope and connect consumers to businesses they hadn’t seen before, I think that’s success. I don’t think that we went into this thinking that it was going to become this, you know, global phenomenon in Akron, right, that you know, or become super intricate to our economy. I think it is a tool, an important tool that we have found in our COVID toolbox that so far is already showing tremendous impact. And so if that continues and grows, which, right now, I see no signs that it wouldn’t, then we’re going to keep funding it, fueling it and driving those great stories and great consumers, to our businesses.

Michael Mazur

Yeah, and so I’ll say with us is Colu, I mean, we have launched now in Akron and we, this was our first city. Now we actually have capacity for about five more this year. And since the launch and since, like James mentioned, it’s been a very good success so far and is well more than exceeded our initial KPIs. We have been getting a lot of interest from additional cities and counties. So right now we’re working to select those five additional cities and counties that we’ll be launching in this year. And you know, as we continue and grow, it’s of course, our goal to get into and help as many cities as possible and counties as possible and governments and so it’s been a fascinating ride, you know, entering the US market right before COVID and having to quickly adapt to the new world and the post COVID norm in my mind will also be different. And so for us, it’ll be very important to keep a very hard and stern look at how cities are evolving, and what other use cases can we look at. Obviously, stimulating local economy, getting people to shop local is a key priority now. But later on, there will be other things that are going to be potentially equally as important to cities. And again, these are very tough decisions to make right and we want to help everyone but ultimately, when it comes to encouraging sustainable behavior, encouraging people to take public transportation instead of their own car, encouraging people to volunteer, there’s so many other things we can do. Even another one is actually like I mentioned the beginning walking 10,000 steps per day. Technically, if someone walks 10,000 steps per day, that could also be rewarded, right? But for me, it is kind of helping drive the growth of Colu. It’s so important to as we grow, not look at things as how they are today. But also look at things as they evolve, and constantly try to think again about how we can improve because the world is so dynamic. And it’s really these sort of uncharted territories. So I think that as we continue to work with more cities, we’ll constantly learn from each city that we work in. But we’ll also constantly keep an eye internally and seeing how we can bridge that gap between technology and the way technology can be used ultimately, as a boots on the ground way to help and support communities, cities, and just people in general.

Alyssa Dinberg

That’s amazing. I’m super excited to follow where both Colu and the City of Akron go. I think it’s great. So I have one more question for our for our episode today. If you could be the GovLove DJ, what song would you pick as our exit music for this episode, and you can either pick one together or you can do individual songs, whatever your preference is.

James Hardy

I have worked so closely with Michael over the last few months, but I still don’t know his musical tastes. So I’m gonna I’m gonna submit and keep it local. I’m gonna go with Low High from the Black Keys. Hometown voice.

Alyssa Dinberg

Good choice. I love that song. What about you, Michael?

Michael Mazur

Hmm, that’s a good question. It’s true. My music taste is very interesting. I am very much something that’s like I’m very based on a certain time of year, month. I switch around a lot. I would go with Led Zeppelin, D’yer Mak’er.

Alyssa Dinberg

Okay. All right. Good choices. Well, thank you so much for both of you coming on to talk today. I really, really appreciate it. GovLove is produced by a rotating cast of awesome ELGL volunteers. ELGL is the Engaging Local Government Leaders network. Our vision is to amplify the good in local government and we do this by engaging the brightest minds in local government. For our listeners, you can reach us at elgl.org/govlove or on Twitter at @govlovepodcast. And if you have a story for GovLove, we want to hear it. Send us a message on Twitter or email [email protected] Thanks for listening. This has been GovLove, a podcast about local government.


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