This story is part of a series about Washtenaw County businesses' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Support for this series is provided by Ann Arbor SPARK.
As many activities have shifted online during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ann Arbor business Jottful has stepped up to the challenge of helping small businesses build their first websites – often at no cost to the business owners.
Jottful specializes in creating and managing websites for small businesses. At the start of the pandemic, CEO and founder Dawn Verbrigghe says Jottful saw a slowdown, but that pause was short-lived.
"We saw a number of customers begin using their websites for the first time," Verbrigghe says. "[Before COVID,] a lot of companies knew they needed a website, but hadn't had the time before to work on it."
Verbrigghe says Jottful was also tasked with adding new features, such as e-commerce functionality, to existing sites. Additionally, more businesses began to approach Jottful to help them set up a website for the first time.
"There’s been an urgency with it," says Natalie Bruno, Jottful head of customer and business development. "It’s non-negotiable now. Mostly when they’re coming to us, they're saying, 'I need a website now.'"
To help struggling small businesses create websites for the first time, Jottful applied for and received Michigan Small Business Development Center (SBDC) funding through the federal CARES Act. The SBDC funding involves an agreement that allows Jottful to create a contracted number of websites over the next two years for small businesses working with the SBDC. Verbrigghe says she expects Jottful to fulfill that contract by mid-2021.
Milan-based Heath Farms was one of many small businesses whose owners created their first website with Jottful after COVID-19 gave them a push to go online for the first time. Before the pandemic, Heath Farms raised pastured chickens and sold the meat to local restaurants. However, once restaurants were closed, Heath Farms had to reevaluate its business model.
Rob Heath, Heath Farms farmer, decided to make and sell bone broth, which is known for its benefits to the immune system and would be a popular product during the pandemic.
"When COVID hit, we looked at our business and saw bone broth was a more relevant part of our business that we can distribute more easily than chickens," Heath says.
However, Heath knew the farm needed a way to get the word out about its new product. It also needed lending and investing partners to expand into bone broth operations, and a website would help the business demonstrate a professional first impression online.
"Before, our business was about relationships with restaurants. We didn't need a website or online presence at all," Heath says. "Then, suddenly we're thrust into this consumer-centric model and we definitely need a website or online presence."
Heath says Jottful was able to create a beautiful website for the farm in a short amount of time, even after revisions and changes. The site is currently live at happy-chickens.com.
Heath says the new website has legitimized Heath Farms' business message and been a helpful resource in finding investors. The site's mobile capacity is another critical feature, since most visitors are browsing on a mobile device, Heath says.
"We could have done this ourselves, but that would be farmers creating a website and that wouldn't have made sense," Heath says. "With Jottful, you get to work with professionals to look at what you're doing every step of the way."
As online business operations continue to advance during the pandemic and beyond, Verbrigghe and Bruno are confident Jottful will continue expanding and gaining more clients. The pandemic has highlighted the need for an online presence, Verbrigghe says, and that need will only continue to grow.
"The case for needing a website is moot at this point," Verbrigghe says. "I don’t think we’ll ever be in a place where people think they can get by without a website."
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Emily Benda is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.