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Redmond native assembles plan for small businesses

2008 Redmond High graduate Kate Catlin has come up with an online platform to help small businesses work together to compete with big businesses. - Courtesy of Kate Catlin
2008 Redmond High graduate Kate Catlin has come up with an online platform to help small businesses work together to compete with big businesses.
— image credit: Courtesy of Kate Catlin

In the summer of 2009, Kate Catlin took a cross-country bike ride from the Pacific Northwest to Washington, D.C. with a group of friends.

As they rode from town to town, the 23-year-old Redmond native saw that outside of the coast, many small businesses had been boarded up — a depressing sight, mostly made possible by the big-box stores located just outside of these towns that put the small businesses out of business.

“That was hard to watch,” Catlin said.

When she started at Gonzaga University in Spokane that fall, she majored in economics and quickly learned that big businesses have an easier time than smaller businesses because they can save money by ordering things in bulk.

This realization, combined with the sight of many empty buildings in Detroit — where Catlin currently lives — prompted her to do something about it.

CHAMBERS OF COMMERCE, 2.0

Catlin came up with Assemble, an online platform to help small businesses connect, so they can compete with big businesses. She described it as a “2.0 version” of chambers of commerce in which small businesses can come together to help each other.

For example, Catlin said small businesses can connect to cross promote, go in together to order items in bulk to save money or save on health care for their employees.

“It’s not a new thing,” she said about small businesses working together in this way. “(Assemble is) just a web version of it.”

But unlike most chambers of commerce, Catlin said those who join Assemble won’t need to pay expensive membership fees or be required to attend any sort of networking events — something most small businesses have neither the money nor time to do.

Catlin said small businesses such as bookstores, cafes and more are what give an area that feeling of community.

“It’s depressing (without small businesses),” she said. “There’s nothing left to our character.”

Catlin discovered her passion for small businesses in her Advanced Placement environmental science classes with Mike Town at Redmond High School. In these classes, she learned the sustainability benefits of local shops and a walkable city.

RAISING FUNDS

While Catlin has come up with the idea, she still needs the funding to get it started. She has started a crowd-funding campaign on RocketHub.com at tinyurl.com/ngvzte7 as part of a contest through Venture for America (VFA), a fellowship program she is participating in that has led her to Detroit. The top fundraisers in the VFA Innovation Fund contest will receive additional prizes, with $7,500 for first place, $5,000 for second place and $2,500 for third place.

“The VFA Innovation Fund is an annual competition for fellows to crowd-fund for side ventures over the course of the two-year VFA Fellowship,” said Leandra Elberger, admin and development manager for VFA. “The emphasis is on social ventures, nonprofits and physical products.”

So far, Catlin has raised $4,218. She said her original goal was $3,000 but since she has reached this already, she is bumping it up to $10,000.

Catlin said she is determined to win because it would be great for the money to go into Detroit, a city that really needs it. She said at first, she will focus Assemble on the Motor City since that is where she is located at the moment. But the good thing about having an online platform is that Catlin doesn’t need to be in the same city she’s serving and she hopes to build it out and create Assemble hubs in communities throughout the country.

Another reason Catlin is so determined to win the VFA contest is because no woman has won it yet and she wants to be the first.

YOUNG ENTREPRENEURS

VFA is a program in which college graduates spend two years in the trenches of a startup with the goal that they will become socialized and mobilized as entrepreneurs moving forward.

“We recruit the best and brightest recent college graduates, provide them with training and mentorship, and place them at startups to help build those organizations and get the experience they need to then become business builders and job creators themselves,” said Elberger. “Our goal is to help create 100,000 new U.S. jobs by 2025.”

The startup Catlin was placed at is an education center that teaches people computer program coding. She has also learned to code and said with this knowledge, she is able to create the front “pretty” end of the Assemble website but the back end — in which businesses can sign up to become members and post messages — is beyond her abilities. The money from the RocketHub campaign will go toward paying for someone to create this part of the website.

Catlin, whose background is more in community building than business, said she also wants to hold a summit to bring businesses and people together to see how they can work together better.

“I just want to help people,” Catlin said.

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