Startup Bludot Tackles Economic Development Amid COVID-19

The company got its start just as small businesses were struggling to stay afloat during shutdowns. Here’s how it has worked with governments on economic development in an unprecedented moment in history.

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With a staff of two, Kwame Reed, the economic development director for Antioch, Calif., had his hands full in the best of times. But right as the pandemic hit last year — a period that would also bring significant civil and racial unrest — Reed made a bet on new software from Bludot Technologies, a Silicon Valley gov tech startup.

Reed wanted to use cloud-based technology to unify civic data and strengthen business ties — a goal that took on added importance as the novel coronavirus closed retail shops, restaurants and other operations. But reaching out to those businesses meant digging into separate licensing and financial databases.

“We did not have a lot of data at our fingertips without going through a long, drawn-out system,” Reed said. “We wanted to communicate with businesses at the flick of a button.”

The pressures of the pandemic have encouraged local and state governments to deploy software-as-a-service (SaaS) tools, both to augment staffs that were already stretched thin and to get the most out of data, email and other digital services. Bludot, which launched its SaaS platform in 2020, is riding that wave with an offering tailored to small- and mid-sized cities. Now the company’s technology will further expand in the coming months, according to CEO and Founder Sophia Zheng.

The Bludot Business Retention and Expansion platform is designed to further the work of small economic development departments by bringing together various sources of data and enabling what Zheng called “concierge-like” services to local merchants and other stakeholders.

“They have very small teams of one or two employees,” she said of the company’s typical clients. “They often just have spreadsheets and don’t have time to learn a really complicated tool, and they have 10,000 things on their plate, and not a whole lot of staff members.”

The company charges based on how many businesses are in a jurisdiction. Those with fewer than 1,000 business pay $195 per month.

Zheng said the Bludot platform makes it easy for users to get started. That’s because governmental clients don’t have to clean up their disparate information sources on their own before using the software. Onboarding can last up to a week or so depending on the complexity of the spreadsheets and data, Zheng said.

Bludot also pre-populates the platform with local business data via partnerships it has. For now, however, the company’s technology does not include machine learning or artificial intelligence capabilities.

“But with so much data, that is something to explore,” she said.

Takoma Park, Md., was one of the first to deploy the software, using it to administer a citywide emergency grant program. In Danville, Calif., city officials created an online business directory. In all, Bludot now counts 30 clients in 12 states.

Around mid-June will come perhaps the biggest test of the company’s offering. Zheng said that the University of Kentucky-backed Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky will offer the platform to all 120 of the state’s counties.

“This will be the first statewide use of the technology,” she said.

Back in Antioch, Reed and his department use the software to target specific businesses — say, hair salons — with messages relevant to them, to keep the local merchant community abreast of county public health updates and to inform business owners of curfews related to protests.

“As long as we have functioning and accurate emails for business owners, we can do all that,” Reed said.

Bludot arrived on the scene during what may amount to a golden era for SaaS technology.

As the pandemic raged early last year — during which many revenue and tax streams shrunk, and remote work become the norm — purchases of software-as-a-service platforms increased 26 percent in the early months of COVID-19 shutdowns, according to a survey of more than 100 companies from software provider Zylo. The trend looks certain to continue. A recent report from Information Services Group, a technology research firm, anticipates that by 2023, 57 percent of organizations worldwide will use hybrid or subscription-based SaaS services.

When it comes to those services, add-ons can improve profits for technology providers. Bludot currently has no such features.

Even so, the company continues to up the ante as it strives for more presence among local and regional governments. As Bludot prepares its Kentucky push, Zheng is promoting a new service called Bludot Open, built in the midst of the pandemic. The product basically functions as a digital directory hosted via a local government’s website.

“It’s a public-facing portal that allows cities to promote businesses to (residents),” Zheng said. “It allows businesses to update their information in real time — such as grocery delivery or changed hours.”
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Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.