Article by Phil Hall of the Waterbury Republican-American. Evan Dobos, owner of a startup company based in Torrington, was recently honored for its potential by the Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs (HYPE), an initiative of the MetroHartford Alliance.
Darlene Douty Republican-American Evan Dobos, owner of a startup company based in Torrington, was recently honored for its potential by the Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs (HYPE), an initiative of the MetroHartford Alliance.
When Evan Dobos' Web design and marketing agency, PictureThisWEBCENTER, was contacted by the city of Torrington to create an online resource for community-driven news and information, he thought the project would be a one-off endeavor.
But since last September's launch of the city-sponsored ItsHappeningHere.com, Torrington-based Dobos has been bombarded with inquiries from municipalities to create similar sites.
As a result of this feedback, Dobos is preparing to open Civic Lift, a startup company that will provide municipalities with a turnkey approach to creating their own online community information resources.
ItsHappeningHere.com enables Torrington-based companies, nonprofits and individuals to call attention to local events and projects. Among those using the site are the historic Warner Theatre for listing of its current and upcoming shows, and community radio station WAPJ-FM for a crowd-sourcing fundraiser.
A half-dozen local bloggers offer a lively mix of original opinions and observations, while reader-contributed photos and videos provide a visual record of Torrington's ebb and flow.
"Half of Torrington has been on the site," Dobos said.
"Twenty percent of Torrington uses the site more than twice a week. People are hungry for the content."
All of the editorial and photographic elements of ItsHappeningHere.com is contributed by readers, with Dobos offering a bare minimum amount of moderation of postings.
"Maybe we've had to say no to two since we launched because they were ridiculous," he said with a laugh.
To his pleasant surprise, news of ItsHappeningHere.com found its way to other localities that wanted him to create similar versions serving their populations.
"Now that site is acting as a central communications system for anybody in the city, I look at Torrington as the prototype," he said. "And now that we've proven that the model works, how can we take it further? What will it take to make this a market-ready product that we can roll out for other communities?"
Reader-driven sites rich with information on local events are not a new idea, but quality control issues and problems in online navigation have diluted their appeal.
"I looked at Patch a lot to see why it is a 'zombie' site," Dobos said, referring to the Patch.com network. "I can do this (type of site) at a low cost because the community is the one that is fulfilling the site."
Dubbing his new pursuit Civic Lift, Dobos sought to further explore the possibilities of this business model. He enrolled in a 15-week course sponsored by the Hartford-based Social Enterprise Trust -- commonly known as reSET -- a nonprofit organization that bills itself as being "committed to promoting, preserving, and protecting the concept of social enterprise as a viable concept and a business reality."
"They introduced me to numerous advisers and lawyers and everyone to help me get my business rolling," he recalled.
The reSET team also connected Dobos with Hartford Young Professional Entrepreneurs, or HYPE, an initiative of the MetroHartford Alliance. Dobos was encouraged to enter the HYPE Awards competition in the "pre-launch" category for startups that have yet to officially commence operations. He prepared an entry to explain how Civic Lift could successfully work.
"I made a five-slide presentation, had five minutes for a pitch and four minutes for questions from the judges," he said.
Carla Thayer, HYPE's program director, was particularly impressed with his presentation.
"When Evan came to speak, the judges could tell he lived and breathed what he does," she said. "They were impressed that his work is definitely succeeding in Torrington."
Dobos' Civic Lift was one of nine entries in the pre-launch category, and while he's not based in Hartford -- Thayer said anyone in Connecticut can be a HYPE member -- his proposed Civic Lift won the award and its $1,000 prize.
Dobos is now focusing on preparing Civic Lift with the help of Left Brain Games, a software developer located directly across the street from his office.
"We wave to each other," he said, pointing out his window to his partners across Torrington's Water Street. "We are hoping to have it ready in six to eight months — but when I say that, it sounds way too long for my liking."
The budget for creating Civic Lift is between $50,000 and $75,000, and Dobos is considering several financing options ranging from investors to a bank loan. However, he is focused on having his concept ready as a turnkey offering that can be adapted to meet any municipal information needs.
While his initial focus is on municipalities in Connecticut, Dobos is also looking across the border for opportunities in Massachusetts and is confident his concept can find a national audience.
"I can come out with another prototype easily, but I don't want to," he said. "I want to systemize this and make this a viable business unto itself. I am trying to get enough interested communities to help me pay for the initial investment. What I would roll out for them would be the market ready product."