At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, city-wide shutdowns created a chaotic situation that forced many small businesses to lose their customer base overnight. While some restaurants were able to cover some losses by providing takeout/delivery, it was estimated that up to 30% of all businesses wouldn't survive the lockdown.
My friend Justin Mares and I were discussing the problem above and decided to think through ways to solve it over a weekend. The intial idea was something along the lines of "could we get people to loan money to restaurants they love so they can survive the lockdown?" Looking into it a bit more, it seemed complex and legally challenging, but we realized there was a simpler way to achieve a similar goal: gift cards. Going on restaurant sites, many had existing gift card purchasing links. What if we made a website that contained all of those links in one place, per city?
The goal was to build this app as quickly as possible. So in one caffeine-fueled Sunday, we took a new Bubble app and built out the functionality needed. Justin worked on the homepage and copy, and I took the city/listing pages and workflow functionality.
Making the directory listing part was pretty straight forward, but the challenging piece was how to get people to add new cities/restaurants. The solution was building some logic into a simple "Add restaurant" form. Using the Google Maps API, we could check the address against our database. If the city already had a page, we could add it, but if it didn't, the app would create a new city page, dynamically route the user to that new page, and add the listing. That way, city pages were created automatically, and that first user who added to it could share the page with others in their city.
Since this was a directory site, it was only going to be useful/helpful to those businesses if we had a lot of listings. So on Monday, we pushed the site live and out on Twitter, where we asked people to contribute to their cities and add restaurants that needed help. That intial push worked really well, and we saw new cities and restaurants added at an impressive rate.
On Tuesday, we pushed the idea further on sites like ProductHunt, Reddit and HackerNews, and suddenly we were seeing traffic spike. It seemed that while a lot of people had a simliar idea to help restaurants, because we built quickly we were the first to hit publish.
Why it succeeded:
The next part was pretty wild. Two days after launching, we started to receive inquiries via the site's contact form. One of them was from the CEO of Gannett, the large media company that owns USA Today. He was inquiring about a partnership, so we set up a phone call. On the call, he explained that USAToday wanted to build a similar product, and they were impresed with the traction we had in a short period of time.
And then the crazy part: "Rather then re-invent the wheel, what if you guys just sold us the site?" It was the perfect outcome: they had the distribution of the nation's largest newspaper network to get the word out, and we could help them do it faster. They acquired the site in 24 hours, and that whirlwind 4 days was something Justin and I will probably never experience again (hopefully no more pandemics).