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Shopping local, online: Alumni, students help businesses build a digital presence

First-year Carson Moore, alumnus Kris Chellani, and senior and Launch Local co-founder Nikita Billman stand outside of Classic Carolina on Jan. 30 2021. Classic Carolina is one of Launch Local's clients.

Launch Local, a new organization based in Chapel Hill, is aiming to help local business owners improve their digital resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Founded by UNC graduate Varun Amesur in November, Launch Local provides college students and business owners the opportunity to collaborate and form partnerships in marketing and strategy consulting.

“Small businesses very heavily rely on traffic to their stores,” Amesur said. “When the pandemic hit, traffic to these stores fell dramatically. There was a market for small businesses who wanted to digitize their storefronts and college students desired more real-world experience and opportunities.”

Launch Local’s first client is Classic Carolina — a UNC apparel store on Franklin Street operated by Kris Chellani and his father. 

Chellani said business has been difficult because of the pandemic. 

“With the student population gone, with the alumni being gone, it’s definitely been hard,” he said. “And foot traffic has gone down significantly.”

Since starting the organization, Amesur has partnered with UNC senior Nikita Billman, UNC graduate Ben Trybulski and five other college graduates to serve as founding members of the organization. 

Billman, a major in business administration, said Launch Local specializes in increasing the digital presence for clients, which includes market research, website development and digital marketing campaigns on social media. 

“With our current client, we’re helping out with search engine optimization, which backlinks on websites,” Billman said. “Connecting a larger network of websites together, which increases the position when you Google ‘Classic Carolina.’”

Launch Local has also implemented a program through which board members mentor 35 college students from various universities — including current UNC students. Through the program, board members teach students skills to help spur digital growth for local communities. Some students have even been part of the team working with Chellani to digitize his business. 

“They are all doing amazing and I see a very bright future in store for them,” Chellani said. 

Trybulski, who leads the team’s internal and external development, said one of Launch Local’s current goals is to look for other small businesses to work with and to eventually work with other nonprofits.

“Right now, we’re in the very early stages, been around for two months or so,” he said. “The biggest challenge has been getting businesses on board without an established track record. 

Despite being in the early stages of development, the team has set large goals. They have decided to provide free services and plan to operate on a 501(c)(3) nonprofit status soon, so companies will be able to provide donations, which, in turn, allows Launch Local to write grants for local businesses. 

Billman said the organization’s expansion strategy involves finding business organically through client referrals and local entrepreneurship hubs in Chapel Hill. She also said the organization has chosen to reach out directly to business owners. 

Amesur said Launch Local hopes to continue servicing the communities around them — even beyond COVID-19.  

“Once the pandemic passes, we want to future-proof these small businesses because there will always be changes that can impact them,” he said.

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