Michigan businesses of all sizes have been forced to close their doors, and restaurants have switched to take-out and delivery only due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recognizing the shutdown’s immense financial impact on the state's small businesses, Josh Botkin, a faculty member at the Ross School of Business and entrepreneur-in-residence at the Zell Lurie Institute, created an easy way for patrons to support their favorite local establishments. Save MI Faves is a not-for-profit website that allows users to easily find and purchase gift cards to nearly 400 restaurants, bookstores, salons, and other shops across Michigan.
Botkin, MBA ‘06, said he was initially motivated to take action when he began hearing that Ann Arbor restaurants were being hit hard by the shutdown.
“I was inspired by a site created by Instagram co-founder Mike Krieger and his wife to save restaurants in the Bay Area (of California),” Botkin explained. “Gift cards seemed like the best, quickest way to get cash to these struggling businesses quickly. Our mission is to help as many businesses as possible stay afloat and reopen their doors once the shutdown ends.”
On March 21, Botkin sent an email to members of the Ann Arbor entrepreneurial community in search of a tech partner. Steve Schwartz, co-founder of Ann Arbor-based health care startup Genomenon, quickly volunteered to fill the role. Within 48 hours, the website (www.saveMIfaves.org) was ready, and on March 24 they soft-launched with 75 of the city’s restaurants listed.
Word of Save MI Faves spread around town, and the team quickly expanded statewide -- adding restaurants plus other types of businesses from Albion to Zeeland. To attract further support, Botkin and the team reached out to Michigan business organizations (such as chambers of commerce and downtown development authorities), and they secured media coverage from Michigan Radio, MLive, and Click On Detroit.
Save MI Faves now features nearly 400 small businesses, including 110 from Ann Arbor. The directory grows daily, as anyone can easily “Submit a Fave” by clicking a button atop the site’s homepage.
“It all came together really quickly, and people have been extremely supportive and encouraging,” Botkin said. “Customers have flocked to the site to show support for their favorite restaurants and shops. And business owners have been very appreciative. We’ve also received moral and logistical support from terrific folks throughout the Ross and U-M community, including Rishi Narayan, Mike Rein, Dug Song, Alison Todak, Stewart Thornhill, and many others.”
Although Save MI Faves cannot track how many people have purchased gift cards (because all sales are handled directly by the local businesses), Botkin said there have already been thousands of visitors to the site.
Despite its success, Botkin knows that not every business on Save MI Faves will reopen after the crisis ends. “Each day that passes puts them further at risk of closure, but we hope that this effort, similar initiatives, and state/federal funding can help keep many of these beloved businesses open,” he said.
Botkin is also using his experience with this entrepreneurial venture to share real-time insights with students in the course he co-teaches at Ross.
“Save MI Faves demonstrates how one can apply business skills and knowledge in ways that help create economic and social value,” he said.