An App Is Born: KC Entrepreneur’s Struggling Hometown Inspires Career in Tech

An App Is Born: KC Entrepreneur’s Struggling Hometown Inspires Career in Tech

KC entrepreneur Donald Hawkins has seen what happens when businesses leave a community.

He grew up in the mid-sized town of Albany in southern Georgia, and when he was in middle school, that’s when he says factories there started to close. Bob’s Candies. Merck. Cooper Tire. Family members lost jobs, and some even moved out of state.

And then came the fallout.

donald-hawkins-citysmart-small pic of app

“I remember as a kid thinking, ‘Man, businesses have a huge impact on communities,’” he says. “And now, my hometown has been hit really hard. High crime rate. High poverty. So even as a kid, I was thinking what I could develop to really help push businesses and help them keep a community propped up.” 

Fast-forward decades later, his latest venture, CitySmart, is an app that he hopes is the next big thing for communities. Donald says the CaaS (Community-as-a-Service) platform helps small businesses save over 50 percent on mobile marketing while also giving consumers access to area-specific specials, news and other features all in one place. Donald says one of the app’s big selling points is that small businesses can bypass increasing advertising rates from traditional media and paid placement from Google search and social media by using CitySmart as a level playing field to reach area consumers.

Although Donald has run a few businesses, worked a few sales positions and created some apps, he still had plenty of hurdles to clear with CitySmart. He says it all started with a cold email to Lesa Mitchell, managing director at Techstars Kansas City Accelerator. He says she drove an hour and half to meet him for the first time, and she introduced him to the KC tech community and the WeWork coworking space; at the latter, he met fellow entrepreneurs who told him about presenting at 1 Million Cups KC. That led to him to pitching the concept to Digital Sandbox KC, joining the Lee’s Summit Velocity Pitch Crawl and being part of Enterprise Center in Johnson County’s Pitch Perfect class.

“I feel like I’ve gone through the gamut of all the resources KC has available,” Donald says.

Plus he’s listened to the words of wisdom in Kansas City. And one of those early opportunities was the Elevation LAB’s Tech Venture course, which he says helped him adjust his value proposition, define who his customers were and tweak his business model. He says a lot of the people he met in the class became his friends.

“Just that group of people in one room really digging in and answering the tough questions really helped take CitySmart to the next level,” he says. [[CTA]]

So all that real-world experience, love for community and fighting for the little guy (small businesses), it’s no surprise that would eventually become Donald’s passion project. He says in the age where Google requires top money for top placement in searches and as Facebook shuffles the deck with how businesses’ posts are promoted, it’s harder for smaller businesses to get that visibility, especially as ad rates overall climb. Getting those impressions and eyeballs on social media is a lot tougher for smaller operations.

“If companies don’t have strong SEO or pay for paid placement, they effectively don’t really exist for consumers online,” he says. “Everyone’s fighting for that limited space with organic placement. So it’s really difficult to find all the good businesses in the area so you can made informed buying decisions. In most cases, you’re choosing a company that has the largest advertising budget instead of a business that actually may offer the best value for you and your family. CitySmart is trying to remedy that.”

But this isn’t the first app Donald has created to meet a need, but he’s gained his fair share of learning experiences  from some of those early ventures. With his earlier startup, DocsNearYou, he signed a three-year lease on a building, hired five salespeople and was ready to hit the ground running. But he soon realized the sales cycle was about six months per client, which didn’t work with his model. Even though he was able to eventually sell the app to one of the developers, there was a valuable lesson:  Validate your concept before you start and start lean. So with CitySmart, Donald spoke with 150 different chambers of commerce and hundreds of businesses to get feedback on the pain points he could address with his app.
Donald Hawkins of CitySmart points to a sign that says, think outside the box

Even with research, he realized you can’t account for everything. He planned to license the app to chambers of commerce across the United States and thought they’d sell it to millions of businesses nationwide. But he says he soon realized that chambers weren’t a good fit for licensing his model.

“We learned that chambers are not-for-profits, and while they love the app and what it does to propel the community, they don’t have the same level of aggressiveness that a startup would that’s selling to businesses,” he says.

So Donald pivoted to a freemium model. The base plan is free with three tiers of paid plans; a feature on the top paid subscriptions lets businesses create automated notifications to targeted customers that are within 250 feet.

But it’s not just about local businesses and chambers; he’s seen CitySmart has the potential to do more. Dallas was the first community to adopt the platform, and he says when a man there went missing, a user found him 20 minutes after the notification went out.

“We realized we have an app and a company now that can potentially help save lives and create safer communities,” he says. “That’s a big leap from just helping small businesses save money on marketing.”

And Donald has made big leaps that have primed him for being accepted into the Quake Capital Startup Accelerator in Austin, Texas, as he embarks on the next stage of his journey. He couldn’t land a similar opportunity in Kansas City, so he’s taking a three-month stint down south. Of course he’ll be making trips back home to KC to see his family and to take advantage of the resources for startups in KC.

“Every resource we’ve taken advantage of in Kansas City, I’ve been able to keep in contact with those individuals, let them know how we’re doing, how we’re scaling and how things are moving,” he says. “Now that I’m going to Austin, Texas, I feel prepared because I know I have a group of people behind me who want the best for me and CitySmart. It gives me a boost knowing that I’m going there to prove to them that their effort and insight and advice was worth it.”

Donald Hawkins of CitySmart poses in front of the Kansas City skyline

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