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June 22. 2013 2:42AM

Mike Cote's Business Editor's Notebook: Start-up keeps online local


 

Allison Grappone, founder and CEO of Nearby Registry, gives an update on her business during the MYPN NH Start-Up Challenge at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Goffstown on Wednesday. Thomas Roy/Union Leader 

It took a little while, but Allison Grappone has made the transition from weekend dabbler to full-fledged entrepreneur with the launch of Nearby Registry, an online shopping site that supports local merchants.

Two years ago, Grappone stood on a stage at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics to accept her first-place award in the MYPN NH Startup Challenge business plan competition and walked away with $25,000 in cash and $5,000 in services.

On Wednesday, she was back at the St. Anselm College venue in Goffstown to offer an update on her progress before the 2013 winner was announced. About three weeks ago, nearbyregistry.com went live with nearly 90 participating retailers, service providers and nonprofit groups.

"I can't say enough about the Startup Challenge," Grappone, 33, told the crowd of mostly young professionals gathered at the event. "It is the Kickstarter for my business."

When Grappone won the contest, she was working full time, devoting nights and weekends to her start-up venture. A year later, she left that job to focus on Nearby Registry, which she says didn't really get going until about six months ago.

"Everyone in the business community - the tech startup world and the business world - have been really, really helpful in helping me get this far," Grappone said recently from Switzerland, where she was vacationing with her husband and his family.

Grappone originally envisioned the business solely as an online gift registry, inspired by her and her husband's frustration that they had no easy way to support local merchants for their wedding. But as soon as Grappone won the Startup Challenge, she broadened the concept to become an online shopping platform.

"It's just a natural fit," said Grappone, noting that 80 percent of her partner companies and nonprofits don't have their own e-commerce presence. "Nobody has this capacity of shared local search. It was just a natural fit. From what I was hearing from the end-users, the shoppers, they wanted more than just a gift registry."

After refining the concept, Grappone sought investors before doing much else.

"As soon as I won the $25,000, before I even went to the next step to develop the website, I did a round of funding to make sure there was enough interest to keep going," said Grappone, whose great-grandfather founded the Grappone Automotive Group in Concord. "(Under the Startup Challenge guidelines) you have to spend the money before they reimburse you. I had to physically raise money before I could move forward."

Early on, Nearby Registry had a strong focus on Concord because Grappone was most familiar with that area. Ten companies associated with the Concord Merchants Roundtable have signed on, including Gerry Carrier, who manages the Main Street business issues group. Carrier owns, with his daughter Tressa Kosowicz, Little River Oriental Rugs.

Grappone began attending the business group's meetings early in her startup's development to gauge interest and to help shape her business model, she said.

Nearby Registry now also includes partners in the Lakes Region and the Seacoast. About half of the partners are retail, a quarter are services, and the rest are nonprofits.

"We're very quickly branching out to the rest of the state," said Grappone, who is organizing informational meetings around the state to sign additional storefronts.

Deb Thompson, owner of Nachotta, a gift and home goods shop in Portsmouth that recently joined Nearby Registry, said she was attracted by the site's ease of use. Though Nachotta has had its own website for most of its 13-year history, Thompson said she was impressed with Nearby's focus on registries: "a gift registry, a wedding registry, a baby registry, the ease of being able to set one up across lots of different categories."

"There is this added element of being more of a local feel to it, money going back to your local economy, which is obviously appealing to a small business owner," Thompson said.

Grappone said the fledgling site has already kept $2,000 in the local economy. She's hired two employees and is looking for a tech partner. She's based in Manchester at the abi Innovation Hub, one of the organizers of the Startup Challenge and a place where collaboration is the rule.

"I can have this very steep learning curve ahead of me ... and then I can have a two-minute conversation at the abi, and it's figured out," Grappone said.

Mike Cote is business editor at the Union Leader. Contact him at 668-4321, ext. 324 or mcote@unionleader.com.


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