Nahil Mehta founding partner of early-stage investment firm Eniac Ventures is channeling his nervous energy and uncertainty about the coronavirus pandemic into a tool he hopes can help some of the most hard-hit—small businesses. On Wednesday, Mehta launched helpmainstreet.com, a crowdfunded platform to support shops and restaurants, and their workers, keep afloat through gift card purchases.
“Every dollar that’s attracted from this service is going to go 100% to that business,” Mehta told Forbes. “This is a total volunteer effort and the people that built this donated their time and their engineers put this together for free.”
On Monday Mehta tapped his network of founders, startups and venture capitalists with this plea: find a way to help the restaurants and their workers who have seen foot traffic grind to a halt as cities tell people to avoid gatherings for fear of spreading the deadly virus. By Wednesday, friends from lunchbox.io, a startup that helps restaurants establish online orders, had built the platform.
The initial roll-out of the site features 20,000 restaurants across all 50 states, the majority of which are located in New York and San Francisco. Restaurants can use existing gift card amounts or take donations through the site. There are plans for adding other kinds of small businesses after the site proves viable. For now, there are no stipulations on how restaurants can use money generated from the gift card sales but Mehta has cautioned that the restaurants use funds efficiently, cut cost and do what they can to survive.
“Mom-and-pop-shops will not be able to pay rent or make payroll because no one is buying inventory from them,” Mehta says. “It’s just our civic duty to be able to use whatever skills you have to be helpful to people in need.”
Metha isn’t the only one with small businesses in mind, Mike Kreiger, cofounder of Instagram, started saveourfaves.org which also facilitates online gift card donations but specifically for San Francisco restaurants. While Grubhub has removed its commission fee for restaurants and Facebook launched a $100 million grant for small businesses impacted by the coronavirus. Nabeel Alamgir, the CEO and founder of lunchbox.io has an especially personal connection to the project.
“I am an immigrant who came to this country and started working as a busboy at 16 in Astoria, Queens,” Alamgir says. “We know what these restaurants are going through. They need our help!”
American Express, Square, Mastercard, Google, even Boulder, Colorado’s Chamber of Commerce and Stockton, California Mayor Michael Tubbs have expressed interest in the platform, Metha says. Partnerships with these companies and municipalities could come down the road. Mehta is hopeful that gift card purchases and a recurring monthly donation feature that’s forthcoming would help businesses on the platform eventually reopen. But he acknowledges some may become insolvent.
“You have to think of this as a donation and you may lose your money,” said Mehta. “You’re helping these businesses but there’s no guarantee that these businesses can be helped.”
The businesses that survive may be the ones that can shift to more digital services. Coronavirus may have sped this process along as in-person professions like therapy, fitness training and teaching utilize video services.
“This is a good opportunity for somebody that has integrations with a lot of local merchants that can spin them all up together and really help them deliver,” Mehta said. “Imagine if you were to go to an Amazon.com that’s just an aggregate of local merchants, wouldn’t you feel great about going there and spending even 50% more if you knew they were sourced locally? Maybe that’s a website for next week!”