Kwabena Okrah, Founder and CEO of Alirtify (formerly Shelly News), has a global vision. He is reinventing local news by building a community where users can see the news that is local to others.
His company gives users real-time information about what is important to them through location-specific headlines, articles, and videos. It keeps members current on what is happening to people in their network, that is the people they care about most. This creates opportunities to engage with others, contribute information, or flag inaccuracies.
“I’m originally from Ghana in West Africa,” explains Kwabena. “Living in the U.S., I find it fascinating that when there is something big happening here, my family will call me from Ghana and ask if I’m okay or if the things they saw on the news were affecting me.”
Kwabena continues, noting how hard it is for consumers seeking meaningful knowledge about current events in a specific place, especially internationally. “It’s one thing to watch CNN for general world news, but I don’t always get to see what’s happening locally back where I came from.”
Bridging the Miles
Like America’s 50 million other immigrants, Kwabena wanted a timely way to keep track of what’s affecting friends and family back where he grew up. Unfortunately, many news sources have a narrow bandwidth for international news. Headlines focus on the most sensational occurrences in a few locations, often repeating the same limited details among major outlets. This leaves audiences overloaded, unsatisfied, and overwhelmed as they grapple for context and personal perspective. Emails, text messages, and voice notes are then used in an attempt to fill in the gap.
While it is easy to get information on big events, finding local news happening around multiple people in different places is a challenge. “Unless you are texting with people constantly, you wouldn’t necessarily know about the local high school winning a game or a house that burned down in your hometown.” Kwabena insists, “These are the things that help you feel connected and if you’re in sales, can improve your communication with clients.” The idea evolved into Alirtify.
Imagine being able to build rapport with a prospect in Massachusetts by easily conversing about the Wellesley resident who transformed a fallen tree into a huge Boston Red Sox-themed gnome or intelligently discussing the recently installed electric car charging stations with a contact in Riviera Beach, Florida.
Alirtify is taking local newspapers globally.
As technology permeates every aspect of society, it is naturally changing the way people access various forms of media, creating a ripple effect across the entire industry. The trend started with Craigslist. Classifieds that used to be exclusively listed in local newspapers went online, along with the rest of the industry’s revenues. While the big newspapers could defend themselves with paywalls, the local newspapers had few options.
With Alirtify, local news outlets can connect with consumers well outside their primary delivery zone. This will allow them to capture new fans across the globe and increase their digital footprint in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
Building a Community around Local News
Alirtify officially started in February 2019, but the earliest prototyping, customer discovery, and surveys for the platform started in 2017 while Kwabena was still managing a $2.5 billion revenue engineering service business within Sodexo’s US and Canada regions. He left the multinational company in March 2020 to focus on Alirtify full-time.
Kwabena, who holds an MBA from Columbia Business School and has degrees in systems engineering and electrical engineering from the University of Maryland and Morgan State University, is the group’s visionary and strategist. He explains, “Alirtify also provides a forum for honest and respectful discourse on what’s important to you. It is an open platform that allows you and the people you care about to openly share your opinions within a community.”
As a change-maker, Kwabena envisions the platform evolving organically, adding features and subscription services based on what users say is important, such as syncing it to LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter to see news happening around their contacts. “We like to think of this as the Google Waze of news because the community gets to validate or complement the news with local facts from the ground,” says Kwabena, noting the platform’s customizability and responsiveness as some of its greatest strengths.
Alirtify joined FITCI in June 2021 and is already seeking to expand its footprint. The emerging company has a 5-member team that includes a dedicated software developer and its free app launched on Google Play and Apple App stores in early 2021, making it available worldwide.
When asked what brought Alirtify to FITCI, Kwabena reaches back to the idea of community. “When you work for a company, you have a lot of resources; marketing, sales, product development, research. When you’re an entrepreneur, it’s just you and your team. The more time you spend experimenting and making mistakes in the dark, the more money you lose without making progress. Coming into a community of entrepreneurial people, they can share best practices and point you in the right direction. They allow you to be in a space where you have people on your side to help you solve those problems. It’s nice to be in a group that understands your challenges.”
Fans of the concept can find Alirtify listed on Wefunder for easy, accessible investing. They have already raised about two-thirds of their goal to tackle the $200 billion total addressable market.
“We are very open to input on how to make this better,” says Kwabena. “Ultimately, the intention is to build the community of users and find a value that makes more people interested in using the platform. Then the community can pretty much become anything.” For Alirtify, the opportunity is as big as the world.