Boulder startup Nigh Technologies builds app to help users find deals
Josh Ritzer, a former Silicon Valley high-tech manager, is on a mission to save Main Street by developing a digital platform specifically for small businesses.
Taking inspiration from a prototype that he and a college professor worked on, Ritzer has launched a mobile app designed to draw customers to local businesses for special events or when things are slow. Last year, users and businesses in Boulder started testing the app, called Nigh, pronounced “nye.” Ritzer launched a pilot in January.
Ritzer worked for about 10 years at Accenture, a global consulting and information technology services company, and then co-founded a venture capital firm. He thinks the e-commerce revolution has, for the most part, left Main Street in the digital dust.
“That’s our mission, is to bring local back,” Ritzer said. “The local revolution is starting here in Boulder and it’s going to be huge.”
What Ritzer sees as the spark for the revolution is called the “Nigh Zone.” Ritzer and his team at Nigh Technologies are still building the interactive platform, but more than 60 local businesses and more than 10,000 users, mostly University of Colorado students, have been trying it out.
People sign up for a spot on a waiting list to access the app. Users can open the app to see what special events or items businesses are offering. The information is available to users in the Nigh Zone, a physical area within a certain radius of the business.
Nigh Technologies, co-founded by Ritzer, is seeking a patent on its algorithm.
“It’s very dynamic, so you only see things you can get to on time,” Ritzer said. “If there’s a yoga class that’s 5 miles away and it starts in 45 minutes, we only show it to people who can get there safely in the next 45 minutes.”
The zone in which people can see the information about the class shrinks as the start time gets closer. People use the app to buy one of the limited tickets for a class, a spot at an event or a discount on a pizza. Ritzer calls the information or events “drops,” or videos and posts by businesses.
“Drops are essentially a spontaneous local event or opportunity at a local business,” Ritzer said. “It looks like TikTok for local where everything you see in the feed is from a local business that’s near you and wants customers.”
Ritzer took part in a recent drop at The Sink restaurant on University Hill across the street from CU. All 10 tickets for a $10 pizza in the middle of the afternoon sold out. Emmylou Williams, a CU student, was among those who turned out. She has attended other drops with friends.
“I think it’s a really good community experience. I don’t make a lot of excuses for myself to leave the house so it’s a really good excuse to leave the house,” Williams said.
Building community support for local businesses is a driving force behind Nigh, Ritzer said. “We’re not a deal app. We’re actually trying to make local businesses more profitable.”
The Sink, which first opened a century ago, was one of the early users of Nigh’s platform. Mark Heinritz, co-owner of The Sink for nearly 31 years, said a big change in business has been in advertising, which has become more decentralized and involves many different channels.
“With the Nigh app, you can be sure you’re talking to people in close enough proximity to be able to take advantage of what you’re doing. That gives you a good feedback loop,” Heinritz said.
The Sink is one of several stores and restaurants on The Hill with signs that say “Change is Nigh,” or near.
Saving Main Street
Ritzer’s passion for seeing local businesses thrive was ignited in his youth. He grew up on a farm near the small town of Stillwater, Minn., where family members ran businesses and where he worked for several years for a local store.
Advances in e-commerce have largely helped larger companies, Ritzer said. His goal is to promote “L-commerce,” or local commerce. He wants to build “the next great technology” that can help revitalize local economies.
“It’s so critical that we transform local communities because today the biggest issue we have in America is inequity,” Ritzer said.
The inequity is driven by the fact that some people have capitalized on globalization and technology, Ritzer said. “But that’s not local jobs. Local jobs are high-touch service jobs and we’re leaving those people behind.”
Ritzer always wanted to be an entrepreneur. At Minnesota State University, he combined that goal with an interest in technology he said was fueled by a professor, John Kaliski. He and Kaliski, who worked for IBM before becoming a business professor, collaborated on the technology that was a prototype for Nigh.
“Josh was a blue-collar kid when I met him,” Kaliski said.
The retired professor, an adviser to Nigh, said Ritzer talked about wanting people like his family to benefit more from advances in technology. As a serial entrepreneur, Kaliski sees himself as one of those “small little fish swimming upstream against some really big whales” that Ritzer wants to champion.
Building out the platform
Ritzer has been working on developing the Nigh technology since 2015. He and his family moved to Boulder around that time when his wife took a new job. He put together a team to work on the project that included co-founders Rob Conroy, the lead engineer, and Christian Dokken, who focuses on new products.
Ritzer said he has put in seed money to build out the platform. Nigh charges businesses $1.25 for each customer who shows up for a drop and a 3.5% transaction fee for credit card purchases, which are managed by the payment processor Stripe.
Nigh plans to eventually provide businesses more advanced features through a subscription. There will always be a free version, Ritzer said.
“We’ll never be an ad platform. If you’re an ad platform, your customer is the advertisers,” Ritzer said. “Our customers are the local businesses.”
A new Boulder business that has become a Nigh customer is Pasta Press, which opened downtown in November. Owners Stefano and Rachel Demartin have sponsored drops to introduce their restaurant to the community.
“The first drop was, ‘Hey, we’re finally open. Come and see us,’” Stefano said.
Ritzer said about 30 people showed up but the Demartins’ video was seen by thousands.
The couple opened the restaurant after years of lamenting not being able to find the kind of food that Stefano missed from his native country of Italy. Stefano, an engineer, and Rachel, a website and graphic designer, trained to make pasta. They import flour, meat and cheese from Italy and make the pasta on-site.
“We use just traditional recipes. We have a lot of Italian repeat customers,” Rachel said. “We sell fresh pasta by the pound and sauces.”
Much of the restaurant’s business is takeout, although it has a counter and a few tables. Stefano said Nigh is a good way to spread the word to people who are looking for traditional Italian food.
“This is a tool to be able to get our name out there,” Stefano said. “Then people will talk to their friends once they come to realize how good it is.”