Q&A; with Libby Higgins

Libby Higgins is the younger half of the mother-daughter duo behind CitySitesInc.com, a website design and Internet marketing company that operates the online business directories JustBurbank.com and Just-Glendale.com.

Launched last spring out of an office on North San Fernando Boulevard in Burbank, JustBurbank.com has amassed more than 5,000 listings while its 5-month-old sister directory in Glendale tops 8,600.

The directories — including ones in Pasadena and North Hollywood — offer free listings of all area businesses, along with postings and alerts to everything from community events to garage sales to job listings.

Among their goals is helping small business owners sashay into the digital age using the Internet and social networks to better market their shops and services, said Higgins, 29.

We sat down with Higgins to discuss the model, Burbank's much-anticipated city website and what it's like to work full-time with her mother.

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CHRISTOPHER CADELAGO: What compelled you to start your company, CitySitesInc. com?

LIBBY HIGGINS: The idea for local directories came about when I was in college. My mom was trying to find a local vendor in Boulder, Colo., who would be able to send me a care package with food and goodies in it for Thanksgiving. She couldn't find any store in Boulder with a website. That was the first of numerous searches for local vendors that came up short. That was back in 2002, but small, local businesses still have yet to learn all the ways to get found online, which means that we — the consumer — aren't finding what we're looking for, especially when what we're looking for is local. We decided to stop waiting for someone else to come up with a solution. We built our solution.

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Q: Explain JustBurbank.com and Just-Glendale.com.

A: [They are] the first of four local business directories that we launched over the last year. Every business is listed for free. They are all there. The idea is to create a hub where anyone can find anything in their community — local businesses, events, garage sales, volunteer opportunities, nonprofits, government numbers, real estate, job listings, night life, etc. We decided early on that this was going to be a resource first and foremost.

That's why it's free to post just about everything on the site. We, of course, make money with advertising, but we wanted the local residents, businesses and visitors to be able to use our site and find what they were looking for regardless of whether or not it was a paid advertisement.

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Q: What is it going to take for more companies to discover that social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, and sites such as YouTube, can do more than just connect us with long-lost classmates and videos of ninja cats?

A: Many companies are already discovering the value of the sites you mentioned. We seem to be nearing a tipping point. Businesses are coming to us for consultations on a regular basis now. Business owners know that they should be on these sites, they just don't know how to get on them, what to do on them and exactly why they would benefit from being on them. When you ask, “What is it going to take?” the answer is, “It's already happening.” The economy is pushing a lot of businesses to venture into Facebook, Twitter and YouTube and other free marketing venues just to stay afloat. We will be past the tipping point when businesses see them as exciting tools instead of nuisances.

From here on out, there will always be a new tool, there will always be new technology. It's all happening fast and furious, and it's time to get used to it and get on board.

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Q: What do small-business owners need to understand when it comes to this downturn?

A: This is the time to do everything you've always meant to get around to doing. Re-evaluate, re-educate, re-allocate, re-prioritize everything. Take a good hard look at your marketing.

Does it create an impact? Is it interactive? Can people easily give you feedback? Is there a call to action? Who are you targeting? How many campaigns are you running? One doesn't cut it anymore. Where can people find out more about you? Does that venue represent you well or is it outdated? The most important thing to remember at this time is marketing is your No. 1 priority.

What you do now will determine how you come out of this economy. You can keep your budget low; and instead spend more time on your marketing plan. Having less money can be a blessing in disguise. It forces you to get creative. No money for postcards? Make a short video, post it on YouTube and e-mail it to everyone you know. Make it funny or informative so that it gets passed on. Keep it under 1 minute 30 seconds. Cost: Free. Repeat.?.?.?.?Try their online ads. You will still reach your target audience as online visitors tend to be more educated and have more disposable income to spend on your goods/services. Is your business bland and boring, i.e. insurance or legal? Create a mascot — think Traveling Gnome — take pictures of it everywhere you go, post your pictures on Flickr and ask your clients to send in pictures or ask them where they would like to see him go next. Write a newsletter or blog about your adventures and relate it to your services. Now you're not so boring or forgettable. Cost: Free.

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Q: What tools should Burbank and Glendale be using to connect with residents?

A: Ha, I don't like to think of myself as critical; I just like to pose “challenges.” I like to ask questions. I also like to get answers. At the economic summit, put on by the city and Chamber of Commerce, I asked the panel of experts a question. My question went unanswered by the “experts.” I didn't care if anyone on the panel had an iPhone — which was the answer — or knew how to text message. I just wanted to know what the city and local businesses were doing to engage Gen-Xers and Gen-Yers. The expo was supposed to be about the future of our city, but no one was talking about the Internet or the ways that businesses have to adapt online. Only three questions were allowed during the question-answer section, I could tell time was tight, so I decided ask a tough question. Even though I didn't get my answer, I did ruffle some tail feathers, which can be a good thing. Let's just say, I'm not sorry for asking the question. I have one easy suggestion for cities trying to connect with their residents: Use what you already have. People have to sign up for all sorts of things. Water and Power for one. Why not collect people's e-mail addresses on city forms and create a collection of updates tailored to each resident? First, create the categories — Education, Sustainability, Transportation, Safety, etc. — then every time someone signs up for a business license or permit or power you send them an e-mail asking what categories they would like to receive updates on. They can sign up for one, many or none. But now you are giving community residents and businesses the option of staying informed. If it is done right, it may even save the city money since they won't have to send out mailers, except to opt-out addresses.

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Q: Moving on, what's the best part about working with your mom?

A: We have very different ways of thinking. She is more creative and I am more analytical. She's the idea person, and I'm the one who loves Excel spreadsheets. She keeps me on my toes, always coming up with new ideas and ways to improve our product and service. She's the main reason my job is never boring.

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Q: And the worst?

A: She always inspects my outfits before a meeting. I hear “You're going to wear that?” a lot.


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