Nimble tech startups grow in Petaluma

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Among the shops at the Great Petaluma Mill, two tech startups have moved in recently, bringing new life to Petaluma’s technology industry. The new companies provide niche services to movers and nonprofits.

Crater, a startup that makes and sells software to moving companies that allows them to connect with costumers and give them estimates on moving costs, works with more than 200 moving companies, including Pickfords and Nor-Cal Moving Centers.

Nonprofit Easy handles data management for nonprofits. They work with many local nonprofits, including Petaluma Educational Foundation and the Charles M. Schulz Museum. Sharing an office downtown, both companies are looking to make their mark on Petaluma.

Crater is an app that moving companies can add to their websites, allowing people to schedule moving estimates and the companies to interact with their customers and provide estimates remotely.

“Consumers are buying products in a different way, like Amazon, and people expect things to be instantaneous or on demand like Uber,” said Alex Alpert, founder and CEO. “They want to be able to buy services much in the same way.”

Alpert and Lomesh Shah, founder of Nonprofit Easy, met at SoCo Nexus, an incubator for new companies in Rohnert Park. The two noted similarities between their companies, and decided to set up shop together.

“He was trying to restructure his company, and we started talking about my experiences,” Shah said.

Alpert said they chose Petaluma because of its favorable business climate.

“We wanted to put ourselves in an environment where we were going to flourish,” he said. “You want to be in a place that is inspiring. We’re both using disruptive technologies which are changing the way that people move and the way nonprofits work and so it was really important to us to be centrally located so that we feel that energy of being in downtown.”

Shah said he thinks that Petaluma has a great small-town feel.

“The Theatre District really changed the vibe for the city,” he said.

Missy Singh, director of operations for Nonprofit Easy, was impressed with the wide variety of activities in downtown Petaluma, and its many restaurants.

“There’s literally everything here,” she said.

Singh started with the company when it was created, working as an intern. She said the startup creates software that can track donations and help nonprofits with fundraising.

“Our goal is to serve the nonprofit industry and provide them with what they need, which is a database that can track all their operations,” she said. “You can get consultants, you can have a platform that’s really expensive and nonprofits don’t have the budget, so we’re focusing on small- to mid-sized nonprofits.”

Alpert founded Crater in March 2015. His family has been in the moving business for three generations. He got the idea for the platform when his wife, Daniella, was doing moving cost estimates in the Bay Area and she had to drive to San Jose for an estimate.

“I looked at her and said it makes no sense for you to drive four to six hours right now to go to San Jose for a 15-minute estimate,” he said. “Why don’t you just call the customer and see if they can use Skype.”

The Skype call went well and Alpert realized the potential of online meetings.

“I realized right off the bat that somebody had to develop this technology because moving companies needed it badly and Skype and Facetime are consumer-grade applications which are not built for enterprise-level environment, and nobody was filling that need. That’s when we decided we had to build Crater.”

Shah was approached by local nonprofits Mentor Me and Petaluma Bounty to build database software that keeps the data in one place and keeps track of where the donations go. Nonprofit Easy was founded in 2011 under one of Shah’s parent companies, but was spun off on its own in 2013.

“The original idea was to build something that would help them out operationally,” Shah said. “As the requirements started unfolding, we realized that the only way to justify the cost would be if a lot more nonprofits could use it. So, we pitched it to a dozen local nonprofits and they all joined in the effort.”

Alpert wants to show people that Petaluma is a fostering place for technology companies and startups.

“Some of our employees are coming from San Francisco to work here in Petaluma, which is kind of nice with the reverse commute,” he said. “Lomesh and I both have kids, and this is a great place to raise a family as well as start a business.”

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