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Detroit tech startups offer free, reduced-cost services to small businesses

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

Detroit — Tech startups are expanding their outreach during the COVID-19 pandemic by offering free or reduced-cost services to entrepreneurs and small companies pressed to do more things online.

Internet marketing company Waymark is giving away customizable website video templates. Autobooks is waiving fees through the end of the year on its recently created payment and accounting platform. And Sift is offering its employee directory software free for six months.

Through partnerships with Spectrum Reach and FordDirect, Detroit-based Waymark has given away $950,000 worth of the video templates for businesses. The offer includes a one-month free subscription and two free videos.

“It’s needed so much because people are adjusting, changing their business practices on the fly,” said Nathan Labenz, the CEO of Waymark. “They’re moving to new ways of doing things… All these changes are just challenges not only for people to operationalize, but they also have to communicate that to their customers.”

A woman types on a keyboard in New York.

The videos will help businesses communicate changes to their customers, such as a restaurant offering takeout only. Even with no experience, he added, a person can customize a good-looking video.

“Typically, our content is about advertising your business, but now we’ve really created a bunch of stuff that is dedicated to the most common messages that we see businesses needing to get out to update people about how they’re evolving for the crisis,” he said.

Detroit-based Autobooks is waiving fees through the end of the year on its recently launched payment and accounting platform that allows small businesses and nonprofits to receive credit card and electronic payments, and have that money deposited directly into their bank accounts.

The company is offering a simplified version of a platform the company offers through banking institutions, said Steve Robert, CEO of Autobooks. Some institutions have been unprepared to help small businesses in a timely manner.

“It’s hard to deploy new services in this environment,” he said. “That’s why we have decided to make our Get Paid edition available direct to consumer so that there’s no longer the time delay on standing up a new service. It gets tools in the hands of small businesses faster.”

As corporate offices work remotely during the pandemic, Sift is offering its employee directory software free for six months.The Detroit-based company launched last month its “Work Together, Apart” program. The purpose of the directory is to help employees in large organizations to more quickly connect with one another, said Sean Jackson, founder of Sift.

Most clients signing up have at least 100 employees, Jackson said. Small companies with multiple offices have also signed on to access the directory software that is designed to go beyond a list of names and job titles.

“If you’re looking for a really good way to understand the knowledge skills and experiences of your people, this is a platform you can implement,” he said. The offers by the tech companies are good for both them and small businesses.

“It’s creating benefit on both sides,” said Erik Gordon, a professor at University of Michigan’s business school. “The small companies that don’t have the cash can access the services. For the vendor, they hope some of those companies will have the cash to pay for the services.”

Gordon said that while it’s common for companies to provide free trials to customers, the pandemic has brought about more generous offers. "They realize a reduced price is not as helpful as a price of zero. … I think a lot of vendors have beefed up their offers in response to the tough situation their potential customers are in.”

For people looking to take on a new skill, Detroit-based Grand Circus will offer a 12-week remote coding bootcamp in July. Detroit or Grand Rapids residents whose jobs have been impacted by the pandemic can apply to receive half-price tuition, which is regularly $11,750.

“Given the uncertainty that we all face in terms of working remotely, I think tech is a really great option for people because it is a profession where for a long time people have worked remotely in tech,” said Damien Rocchi, CEO and co-founder of Grand Circus.

Grand Circus had been working for the past year toward delivering a bootcamp remotely. The pandemic sped up those plans.

“We’re doing everything that we would do in-person online,” Rocchi said. “Plus we’re adding in extra support in the form of mentorships because we recognize this is going to be an adjustment for some people.”

Twitter: @CWilliams_DN