Assemble Aims to Create Disruptive, Online Chamber of Commerce

When Kate Catlin, a Venture for America fellow based in Detroit, biked across the country the summer before her freshman year of college, she was struck by how many mom and pop businesses had been closed and boarded up in the towns she passed through.

“We’d ask people where the businesses went, and they would say the big box stores moved in,” she recalls. “I thought, how can we help small businesses lower their prices? It’s economies of scale—most independent small businesses can’t order in bulk as cheaply as Wal-Mart.”

What Catlin saw on that 2009 bike trip stuck with her, and she’s been looking for a way to make a difference ever since. This summer, she launched a RocketHub campaign to fund Assemble, a website she describes as “a disruptive online version of a Chamber of Commerce.”

The crowdfunding campaign was a runaway success—it raised just shy of $6,000, almost double the $3,000 goal—and now Catlin is preparing to build out Assemble and expects a beta site to be live by mid-November. (Anyone who wants to get involved can tweet @SMBAssemble or message

“Assemble will offer the same things that a business association or chamber of commerce does: It will bring small businesses together to cross-promote and collaborate,” she says. “But rather than holding networking meetings, it will all be online.”

The services Assemble plans to offer include delivery-truck sharing, finding partners for cross-promotions, and finding mentors in other cities to eliminate a sense of competition. Catlin and other site administrators also plan to go behind the scenes and act as matchmakers if it seems like folks aren’t finding each other on their own.

“Say you’re a small business making bikes,” she explains. “You need to order 1,000 parts from China. You can go on our website and look for someone else who also needs to order parts from China, because a bigger order will lower the cost. A lot of websites have a narrow focus—they’ll connect people just for delivery-truck sharing or just for bulk ordering. Nobody does all of it.”

This isn’t Catlin’s first foray into helping small businesses succeed. Last year, while she was still a student at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA, she helped organize the Spokane New Economy Summit to promote ideas and strategies for a stronger and more sustainable regional economy. She plans to convene a similar summit in the Detroit area sometime in the next year.

“A lot of it is about forming coalitions and co-ops to work together,” she says. “I want to bring that to Detroit.”

Detroit seems ready for her efforts. She convinced 14 local small businesses like Grand Circus and Great Lakes Coffee to donate goods and services to be used as rewards for Assemble’s RocketHub donors, and she says her first step after fundraising is to sit down with those businesses to solicit their feedback in shaping the website.

“The supportive nature of Detroit’s small-business community makes it a good place to start,” she says, adding that she hopes to eventually scale Assemble to other cities. “This isn’t a sharp elbows kind of town. Everyone is so willing to help.”

Trending on Xconomy