It’s all part of a mission to get North Carolinians to spend at least 10 percent of the $35 billion they buy in food each year, locally. With a new startup called Localbeet, formerly Simply Local, they’ve teamed up with North Carolina’s 10 Percent Campaign, which aims to help build up North Carolina’s farmers, businesses and communities by having individuals pledge to spend 10 percent of one’s existing food dollars locally. Eventually they’ll expand to other states.
But first, the men have a bigger battle. Like many young startup founders, they're starting a company with little funds and full-time jobs. That means their work stays a side project until enough funding is secured to hire coders and business professionals to help make progress more quickly.
“We’re just two creatives that are rumbling and stumbling right now,” says Eastman.
What keeps them motivated is a big and important mission, the help they've received from the Elon community and some early interest in the app from the Campaign and local healthcare and food industries.
Meet the founders
Eastman and D'Amato graduated in May from Elon’s yearlong full-time interactive media masters program, where D'Amato, for a capstone project, built an app to help people locate, engage in and purchase locally grown foods. Now called Localbeet, it is an MVP (minimally viable product), but the men are busy adding new features so they can launch a Kickstarter campaign and release the app to the public.
Eastman became interested in locally grown food and its benefits for communities and health when he studied abroad in the Costa Rican rainforest during the summer of 2011. The entire community functioned in near harmony, living on locally grown foods.
“There’s a sense of community. It’s special when a neighbor gives you a bucket of fresh vegetables,” he says. “To watch something grow from the ground to eventually eat it is a spiritual thing.”
When he returned, he shifted his focus to North Carolina’s food system, and the startup world.
Eastman had some prior startup experience from helping to create the Myrtle Beach Collegiate Baseball League, where he served as media director. This is D’Amato’s first entrepreneurial endeavor.
They spent last fall researching locally grown food offerings in North Carolina (compiling this 65-page research report) and looking for apps similar to what they envisioned. Finding nothing quite like Localbeet, they used their research this spring to begin to build it.
Early into the project, Eastman and D'Amato presented their idea and competed for the Fan Favorite award at the State Employees Credit Union (SECU) Emerging Issues Prize for Innovation at the 30th Annual Emerging Issues Forum at NC State in early February. Although they did not win, the loss motivated them to push even harder. Like many entrepreneurs, they understand that multiple failures are sometimes necessary in order to successfully launch a startup.
How it works
What will set apart the app is its gaming function, the men say. But the beta version will start out much simpler. It will have a map portraying the locations of co-ops, locally sourced food, farmers markets, grocery stores, farm-to-table restaurants and family farms where food can be purchased. When users select a location on the map, they see the vendor’s contact information and social media activity. This saves time because critical details about a vendor (like location and hours of operation) are featured on one page, accessible without clicking other tabs. But once on a vendor’s page, users can click through to see reviews.
The beta also encourages users to take and post photos of locally-grown food to the vendor’s social media page, documenting the experience of buying local food in a fun way. Although there are no incentives for taking these pictures, the page will help promote the vendor while also promoting and gauging the effectiveness of the app.
The gaming feature will be rolled out once potential investors and the community responds to the MVP, and later the beta. Here’s how the men envision the finished product: When users purchase a locally grown product, they will receive points that can be redeemed for discounts at predetermined local food vendors. They will specifically target college students, the most tech-savvy demographic, and kids, who will encourage their parents to buy local foods to compete with their classmates.
According to statistics from The State of Obesity and 2011 National Survey of Children’s Health, 16 percent of children age 10-17 in North Carolina are considered obese. North Carolina’s obesity and overweight percentage among adults is 66.1.
Eastman believes apps like Localbeet can combat health problems:
“Technology is the only thing growing faster than American waist lines,” he says. “We [the United States] have the highest child obesity and diabetic rate in the world. It’s kinda embarrassing and the local food community offers a sense of pride to those who do care about that they put into their body.”
Development and Future
Last fall, the founders created a prototype with dummy content to test how users would interact with the interface. Those findings guided development of the MVP, and also made Eastman and D’Amato aware of their own limitations. Over the course of their research and learning, the duo asked many professors for coding advice, product suggestions and direction for the project.
They also realized they can’t include all the features they desire in the beta because of financial and time restraints. Potential funders have helped them finetune the feature list.
“We’re talking to investors for informational purposes about what they would want in an app like ours,” Eastman says.
The men are hopeful that North Carolina will be the best place to launch the app—it already has vast local food infrastructure. However, they may expand to other states too.
“We have started reaching out to other local food organizations in other states, mostly out West, where there may be more support,” Eastman says. “Jon and I are confident our system will work, we just need people willing to give young entrepreneurs with our skill set the time to create solutions for the future. We don’t mind putting in the work now to see it pay off later.”
Brett Gubitosi is a journalism major at Elon University with a strong interest in individuals' stories and innovations. He is a Styles reporter at Elon's newspaper, The Pendulum. He has also interned at The Times-News in Burlington. In his free time, Brett enjoys playing tennis and exploring a wide variety of music.