Hal Rucker: Linking firms to communities

Smalltown is about to go nationwide. Hal Rucker’s company, Smalltown, is based on an idea that small companies in local markets can be better served by local forums than on the Web. After opening the latest of six such “hyperlocal” sites serving towns on the Peninsula, Rucker said the San Mateo-based company will announce plans this year to expand its presence to dozens of towns and neighborhoods across the country.

“Our charter is to connect local businesses with their communities,” Rucker said. “In most business models the company will put up one Web site that serves the whole planet. We don’t think that works for local advertising.”

Rucker said he got the idea for the service from a kitchen remodeling project that went bad. Half way through construction, Rucker’s contractor suddenly fell out of contact. Rucker, a former Web interface designer and brand marketer, wanted to start a forum for sharing experiences with local businesses and warn people about “flakes.”

Rucker, a former vice president at Laszlo Systems, invented the concept of “Web cards,” which became Smalltown’s main attraction. The digital cards can be used for coupons, appointment taking, customer tracking and more.

“Half of small businesses don’t have Web sites,” he said. “And those that do don’t know how to change them or how to use them. There seemed to be a need for a type of Web presence that really served the local clients.

“We build one Web site for the local community and we do it in a way that those Web sites work together very efficiently,” he added.

For now, basic Smalltown membership is free, but Rucker said the company makes money by charging for different levels of enhancements. To raise awareness, he sponsors town fairs, school plays and Little League teams.

The Peninsula towns whereSmalltown started are contained communities, small and exurban. But Rucker said the expansion will include metropolitan areas where it will be split up not by towns but by neighborhoods.

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