Plain Sight Pivots to Help Local Businesses Drive Foot Traffic

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In a sharp pivot designed to help local business communities survive the pandemic, the localized networking app Plain Sight has shifted gears as it rolls out in 10 U.S. markets.

Founded by James Chapman and backed by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, Plain Sight originally started as a way for people to explore professional connections based on location. That was October 2019, before the world knew what was just around the corner in 2020. The concept at the time was straightforward and simple: Someone working out of a coffee shop for the day could use the Plain Sight mobile app to find other professionals within the shop of nearby with whom to connect. Users would also be able to message within the app and create posts for announcements based on the types of networking opportunities for which they were looking.

That initial plan focused largely on catering to business travelers and networking events. As Covid-19 gained a foothold in the months after Plain Sight’s initial debut, the app’s founder knew something would have to change.

“Events and travel spaces indicated demand and a path to scale. Once Covid hit, those verticals were completely eliminated,” Chapman says. “We responded quickly and broadened our focus to connecting local business communities at large, in a time where it’s needed the most.”

With local businesses closing by the thousands, Chapman says he’s envisioning the Plain Sight app as a tool for businesses to promote themselves and increase foot traffic. Businesses can use the platform to develop stronger customer loyalty by engaging with consumers directly. In addition to sharing information about how they are keeping customers safe, restaurants and other businesses can also accept free and paid reservations through the platform.

“They can also send promotions directly to the phones of individuals through push notifications to people in their area,” Chapman says. “A specific example of this would be a yoga studio sending a promotion to every person in the area who has mindfulness or yoga as an interest on their profile in the app.”

In order for Plain Sight to work in the long term, Chapman and his team need consumers to get on board, too. Chapman believes that consumers will want to use the app’s business directory to find their “tribe,” or local places they want to visit. Individuals can also share business resources, opportunities, and advice with one another through the app, and they can search to find people nearby based on shared skills and interests.

“We also use incentives, like small business gift cards and reward points for users when they visit and check in at places on the app,” he says.

During its initial rollout, Plain Sight is targeting 10 U.S. markets with a high percentage of Black-owned businesses. The hope is that the app’s features will drive people into those communities, and that it will also assist like-minded people, professionals, and creators to grow their networks in those communities — from a social distance.

“A factor for deciding which 10 markets we would launch in involved the percentage of Black-owned businesses that could be found in the area. As we know, Black businesses have been hit twice as hard during this time — from the lack of federal aid received to the percentage of Black and brown people affected by the virus,” Chapman says.

Chapman sees local Chambers of Commerce and community networking groups as Plain Sight’s biggest competitors, although these groups haven’t mobilized the process of finding and developing local business relationships at scale in the way that Plain Sight is aiming for. Chapman says LinkedIn could also be seen as a competitor, but they “focus more on showing you information from people you already know, with no specific focus on real-time or local.” Platforms like Yelp offer some similar business marketing features, but Chapman says his app helps users prioritize where to go based on the type of people they might meet there, rather than the number of reviews or relative popularity of the business.

Despite still being in the early stages, Chapman says he’s seen a positive response to the rollout. Plain Sight has signed up more than 100 businesses, 4,000 users, and seen over 1,000 check-ins at small businesses within the Detroit area since its debut. Chapman is eager to see how the app will continue to grow differently as it expands into other cities throughout the U.S.

“We focus on building relationships and community,” Chapman says. “When the initial verticals make a return, our business and business model will be even more comprehensive and well-positioned to seize the moment, as if we planned it that way all along.”

Stephanie Miles is a senior editor at Street Fight.Rainbow over Montclair

Stephanie Miles is a journalist who covers personal finance, technology, and real estate. As Street Fight’s senior editor, she is particularly interested in how local merchants and national brands are utilizing hyperlocal technology to reach consumers. She has written for FHM, the Daily News, Working World, Gawker, Cityfile, and Recessionwire.