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Modern tools for mom-and-pops

Operators at KES Dispatch keep track of the company's taxis on a yellow legal pad. They communicate with cars using a two-way radio. Drivers navigate their journeys largely by memory.

In the age of Uber and Lyft, the company is desperate to modernize.

"I gotta change something," said Miguel Duarte, who has run his Mount Kisco, N.Y., company for 13 years. "I gotta stay ahead of the competition."

Miguel Duarte, the owner of KES Dispatch, a taxi company in Mount Kisco, N.Y., seated, is being trained in Dashride by its founder, Nadav Ullman.
Gregg Vigliotti for The New York Times
Miguel Duarte, the owner of KES Dispatch, a taxi company in Mount Kisco, N.Y., seated, is being trained in Dashride by its founder, Nadav Ullman.

Help is on the way. Dashride, a new start-up, wants to give KES Dispatch a fighting chance. It is helping Mr. Duarte modernize his company's clunky dispatch system, starting with a mobile app that will soon let customers book, track, pay for and rate rides.

Dashride is just one of several web-based start-ups with a mission of empowering small, local businesses — often in struggling, traditional industries — by equipping them with tools and strategies that could help them keep up with changing times.

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For example, Cups, a coffee subscription app that came to New York in April, helps independent coffee shops compete with giant chains like Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts. It is working with 50 small shops in Manhattan and Brooklyn. ShopKeep, a New York company, helps small businesses ring up sales, accept credit cards, email receipts or print remotely with an iPad-based checkout system.

Shakr, a start-up based in Seoul and San Francisco, helps small businesses create their own video advertising through video templates created by graphic designers who have worked on ad campaigns for major brands, like Nike and Samsung. And Edelweiss, a Seattle-based newcomer, last year introduced a networking site for independent booksellers and publishers to connect online — and to regroup against Amazon, seen increasingly as an industry bully.

With an explicit focus on the underdogs, these start-ups reverse the perception that web companies seek to put mom-and-pop operations out of business. Instead, they say they want to help small, local businesses take on corporate giants and juggernaut revolutionaries like Uber.

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In return, the start-ups are able to tap into strong, distinctive businesses with longstanding ties to local communities, qualities that cannot easily be recreated online. KES Dispatch is a fixture in this leafy town in Westchester County, and Mr. Duarte knows the roads by heart and many of its residents by name.

And even decidedly old-school sectors of the economy, like the livery industry, remain a huge market. There are over 200,000 taxi and limousine services in the United States, according to the industry research firm IBISWorld, with revenues of $11 billion.

"When you have disrupters like Uber and Lyft, it creates a need for the other 99 percent of the industry to update their tools, and for a company to sell them those tools," said Jonathan Axelrod, managing director of the New York-based Entrepreneurs Roundtable Accelerator, which invested $40,000 in Dashride this year. Dashride is working on raising other financing.

In addition to the mobile app, Dashride is helping KES Dispatch in other ways. All its 15 drivers will soon use smartphones to organize and manage rides, navigate streets and chat with clients. The company's dispatchers will also use a sleek online portal to keep track of drivers and clients on a real-time map — and even use automatic dispatching to assign rides to the nearest available driver.

"We're disrupting the disrupters," said Dashride's founder and chief executive, Nadav Ullman, 24, who built the company out of a service he started in college to help students get home safely from bars. "There's a feeling that the taxi-limo industry has come to a now-or-never moment, and there's a hunger for change."

Retail stores have perhaps been the best served by technology start-ups. OpenTable operates a reservation system for diners and restaurants; Yub helps brick-and-mortar merchants lure customers from the web with promotional offers; Shopkick alerts smartphone users to deals at nearby stores.

Gilad Rotem, an avid coffee drinker, long found the indie coffee scene in his native Tel Aviv a refreshing antidote to the cookie-cutter chains that seemed to be springing up across the city. So in 2012, he founded Cups.

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Customers with a monthly Cups subscription get unlimited coffee from a network of indie coffee shops, marked on an interactive map. Pricing for all-you-can-drink plans range from $45 to $85, depending on the types of coffee subscribers can order. Cups reimburses the shops for that coffee, after keeping a cut of the sales, while cafe owners get exposure and traffic.

In Manhattan and Brooklyn, Cups has signed neighborhood stalwarts like the Bean and Pushcart Coffee. Mr. Rotem likes to call his collective New York City's third-biggest coffee chain, behind Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts. For customers, the allure of getting their coffee fix while helping to empower the independent coffee shop culture is Cups's biggest draw, he said.

"We want to bring local coffee shops the economies of scale of big chains, but also have them keep their atmosphere and vibe," Mr. Rotem said.


Jason Richelson is a pioneer in the field of start-ups aimed at helping local retailers. His company, ShopKeep, was born in 2008 from what he said was his misery working with the cumbersome hardware and systems he used to run his New York wine store. His rudimentary database kept crashing. His data server in the basement, linked to five computers upstairs, constantly malfunctioned.

So Mr. Richelson developed ShopKeep and its iPad-based checkout system. In April, he raised $25 million in a third round of venture funding.

Simplifying the nuts and bolts of selling can free up small business owners to focus on expanding their business or communicating with their customers, he said. "Some of the only people who can expand now are the Starbucks of the world," Mr. Richelson said. "What we're doing is taking back Main Street for small businesses."

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In the view of Shakr, small merchants can use some of the bells and whistles available to savvy start-ups or big corporations — like the video ads that run before YouTube clips.

Tacky photo slide shows with awkward transitions just don't cut it among consumers with an increasingly voracious appetite for slick video, said David Lee, Shakr's founder and chief executive. Americans watched nearly 30 billion video ads online in March this year, according to the data company comScore. Rates for video ads can often be cheaper than advertising on a program like Google's AdWords.

Shakr's clients include auto dealers, hair salons and other small businesses that are able to drag and drop photos or video clips they already own into thousands of the video templates that the start-up offers.

This month, Shakr announced it had secured its latest funding from Posco Venture Capital, bringing its total funding to $3 million.

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Edelweiss, in Seattle, was originally an online digital catalog of print books. It also runs an analytics service to allow booksellers to compare their sales anonymously with their peers, giving even small booksellers access to a vast amount of sales and marketing data.

Its social network, Edelweiss Community, allows independent bookshops to share reviews of over 500,000 titles in its database — and to exchange trade tips and offer support as print books come increasingly under siege from e-books and web giants like Amazon. The community got its start after Amazon announced last year that it was acquiring the popular social reading platform Goodreads, dismaying many independent booksellers, said John Rubin, Edelweiss's chief executive.

Mr. Rubin, a former management consultant, said he was initially skeptical of trying to work with feisty indie merchants. "I was warned it would be like herding cats," he said.

"But I just want to give them every edge, everything they can do to narrow the gap between Amazon and the bookstore," he said. "It's all about helping those one or two people in the tiny back office. I want to help those guys."

By Hiroko Tabuchi, The New York Times

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