For weeks, local shops were forced to stay closed and focus on online sales. One Houston entrepreneur decided to use technology to help customers support local. Getty Images

The retail industry has been hit hard due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent social distancing measures that kept customers out of stores. With retail stores reopening at 25 percent capacity, a Houston startup is helping customers find and support local independent retailers online.

Support My Local Shop is the 'Yelp" for independent retailers, giving local customers the most accurate information about store hours, allowing customers to write reviews, and support their favorite independent shops by ordering online through the store's website or buying gift cards.

"Before Support My Local Shop there wasn't a great way to find local indie retail stores around you and know exactly how to support them," says the creator of the tool, Adrianne Stone.

Stone, who is also the founder of Stockabl, the wholesale marketplace for handcrafted and independently designed goods. From her retailers, she heard of the struggles they have gone through as shops closed down to prevent the spread of the virus.

Users can find store information on the website. Screenshot via supportmylocal.shop

Support My Local Shop make it easier to order from local Houston shops by creating a platform especially for local retailers. For Stone, it has been a labor of love. Manually inputting information from store websites and creating the retailer's profile within the tool. Retailers have a chance to claim the store page and update it with the most reliable information.

For many retailers, Support My Local Shop is a great tool that customers can use to support them. Forth and Nomad — an apparel, arts, and decor store in the Heights — has become an anchor in the Houston arts and maker community.

"It's a good tool," says Andy Sommer co-founder of Forth and Nomad. "Anytime we can have anything that could point to our business and tell people about us and that wouldn't find us otherwise is very helpful."

The handmade local small-batch goods retailer does not only sell goods, they also provide a place for the community to gather, learn new skills, and support other local shops by providing retail space in their location.

Sommer's business has been able to make a fast transition into online shopping, but it has been a bumpy ride learning as they go the best practices for shipping products and the ins and outs e-commerce. With Texas reopening retail stores at limited capacity, that brings its own set of challenges.

"We're ready to continue on as is, but it is a great relief to open physically," Sommers says. "However, we need to have some sort of guidelines for the opening to make sure that we can open safely."

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Houston SaaS startup closes $12M series A funding round with support from local VC

money moves

A Houston startup with a software-as-a-service platform for the energy transition has announced it closed a funding round with participation from a local venture capital.

Molecule closed its $12 million series A, and Houston-based Mercury Fund was among the company's investors. The company has a cloud-based energy trading and risk management solution for the energy industry and supports power, natural gas, crude/refined products, chemicals, agricultural commodities, softs, metals, cryptocurrencies, and more.

"We led the seed round of Molecule upon their formation and are excited to participate in their series A," says Blair Garrou, co-founder and managing director of Mercury, in a news release. "Molecule's success in the ETRM/CTRM industry, especially in relation to electricity and renewables, positions them as the company to beat for the energy transition in the 2020s."

The company will use its new funds to further build out its product as well as introduce offerings to manage renewables credits, according to the release.

"In 2020, we realized that electricity — the growth commodity of the 2020s — represented over half of Molecule's customer base, and we decided to double down," says Sameer Soleja, founder and CEO of Molecule, in the release. "We were also rated the No. 1 SaaS ETRM/CTRM vendor. With this fundraise, we have the fuel to become No. 1 SaaS platform for power and renewables, and then the market leader overall.

"Molecule is ready to power the energy transition," Soleja continues.

Molecule's last round of funding closed in November 2014. The $1.1 million seed round was supported by Mercury Fund and the Houston Angel Network.

Houston-based afterlife planning startup launches new app

there's an app for that

The passing of a loved one is followed with grief — and paperwork. A Houston company that's simplifying the process of afterlife planning and decision making is making things even easier with a new smartphone app.

The Postage, a digital platform meant to ease with affair planning, recently launched a mobile app to make the service more accessible following a particularly deadly year. The United States recorded 3.2 million fatalities — the most deaths in its history, largely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

After losing three family members back-to-back, Emily Cisek dealt first hand with the difficulty of wrapping up a loved one's life. She saw how afterlife planning interrupted her family's grieving and caused deep frustration. Soon, she began to envision a solution to help people have a plan and walk through the process of losing someone.

The Postage, which launched in September, provides a platform for people to plan their affairs and leave behind wishes for loved ones. The website includes document storage and organization, password management, funeral and last wishes planning, and the option to create afterlife messages to posthumously share with loved ones.

"Right now, as it stands ahead of this app, end-of-life planning is really challenging. It's this daunting thing you have to sit down and do at your computer," says Cisek. Not only is it "daunting," but it's time-consuming. According to The Postage, families can expect to spend nearly 500 hours on completing end-of-life details if there is no planning done in advance.

With more than 74 percent of The Postage's web traffic coming from mobile users, an app was a natural progression. In fact, Entrepreneur reports the average person will spend nine years on their mobile device. Cisek wanted to meet users where they are at with a user-friendly app that includes the same features as the desktop website.

"What we wanted to do [with the app] is make it so easy to plan your life and the end of your life using one click — as easy as it was for posting and commenting on social media," explains Cisek. "People are so used to reflecting on those behaviors and clicking one button to add a picture ... we wanted to make it that simple," she continued.

Cisek and her team focused on providing a "seamless experience" within the app, which took approximately four months to build, which mirrors the desktop platform.

Though The Postage's website had mobile functionality, the app includes the ability to record and upload content. Whether snapping a picture of their insurance policy or recording a video to share with loved ones, The Postage app allows users to capture photos and videos directly within the app.

After snapping a picture, "the next step inherently is sharing it with your loved ones," says Cisek. Photos, family recipes and videos can easily be shared securely with loved ones who accept your invitation to The Postage so "that legacy continues on," she says.

Since The Postage's fall launch, the company has grown a steady base of paid subscribers with plans to expand.

"We're really starting to change the way people plan for the future," says Cisek.