About 10 years ago, Brett Rounsaville found himself stranded in the pouring rain at a defunct train station outside Arkadelphia, Arkansas — an unforeseen consequence of a months-long, cross-country quest to check off 50 items on his bucket list. After two days of watching Amtrak trains barrel pass the sodden terminal, he came to a resolution: “I’ll (just) walk to Texas,” he recalled thinking.
Although he was spared the trek — a police officer picked him up after 10 miles, dropping him off at a nearby gas station from where he hitchhiked the rest of the way — Rounsaville is still driven by that same determination.
The Oakland resident’s latest journey? Helping save local businesses during the pandemic with an ambitious new initiative, Keep Oakland Alive (KOA).
The first pilot project of the newly formed public benefit corporation, Local Laboratory Corp., KOA operates “just like Amazon,” aggregating goods from dozens of local stores on its website. Users can peruse and order thousands of items — everything from organic skincare products by Urembo Asili, to delicious drinks from The Lemonade Bar, to swag designed by Oaklandish. Purchases are delivered for free to customers’ doorsteps in a single package.
It’s convenience mixed with the assurance that “your money is supporting businesses here instead of going to a compound in Seattle,” Rounsaville said. And that support is more important than ever, as more and more beloved Oakland shops—Independent Brewing Company, Wolfman Books, Dopo, Slicer—fall victim to the pandemic and popular thoroughfares such as Piedmont and Lakeshore Avenues increasingly feel like ghost towns.
Rounsaville has worked at a number of different startups in his career but is currently a stay-at-home father of two. Before moving to Oakland he lived for a time in Pleasanton and Los Angeles. “When I moved here a decade ago, I was instantly smitten,” he said of his adopted home. “It’s that vibrancy I fell in love with, and I want to support it.”
Much like his detour in Arkansas, Rousanville’s journey to starting KOA has been a circuitous one. It started with an impromptu trip to the local toy store, Adventure Toys, during the first week of lockdown to search for a birthday gift for his soon-to-be four-year-old daughter — only to find the store temporarily closed due to the pandemic.
No big deal, he thought. He went home and ordered some toys online from Amazon. Two days later, the shipment arrived — along with a heavy dose of regret.
“I felt like the biggest a—,” he said. “Retail shops were in full panic mode, and I was just making it worse.”
Determined to make amends, he started emailing and calling businesses near his home, listening to business owners’ concerns about the shutdown and brainstorming possible solutions. He came up with the idea of an online marketplace that could bring local stores together into a single, centralized website. At the same time, he connected with April Underwood, a Bay Area-based venture capitalist. The pair founded Local Laboratory soon after, and on Sept. 23, KOA went live.
At launch, the website counted 17 Oakland businesses with an inventory of more than 20,000 items. Since then, “we’ve added 30 other shops that will be going up in the next few weeks,” said Rounsaville. He hopes to expand the website to include other Bay Area cities, but for now, Oakland remains the focus.
KOA, which doesn’t charge a commission, markets the website through social media and email. Local business owners are grateful for the chance to be a part of Rousanville’s self-described “impossible dream”— and the opportunity it gives them to keep their doors open.
“There are a couple of other places that do a (similar service), but they take a very steep commission. You don’t actually make any money from them,” said Erica Perez, co-owner of Oaktown Spice Shop. “Not only does (KOA) promote us to people, they’re also saying, ‘Shop here, they’re great, and we’ll bring it to your doorstep for free.’ It’s really a win-win. I’m just grateful that he reached out to us; we have a vibrant small-business community here, and a lot of people are going through tough times, so anything people can do right now is really, really appreciated.”
For his part, Rousanville is just happy to be helping.
“I want to make them the heroes of the site,” he said of the local business owners. “They’re here first and foremost to serve other people. It’s been really fulfilling to get to know them and help out in some small way.”
Support local businesses by shopping at keepoaklandalive.com.