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This ‘mob’ was armed with cash

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Bike Works owner Tom Eskan thought it was a

little odd when 20 customers descended upon his Fredericksburg store on April 3.

The small shop at 104 William St. usually gets just a handful at noon on Tuesdays, and it was starting to get crowded.

“I knew something was up because people were asking me questions and steering me around,” said Eskan, who briefly worried that they were thieves.

Unbeknownst to him, the “customers”—who spent a total of $500 on clothing, tires and other small items—were actually there to film a promotional video for Neustar’s new Kickstart America program. Developed in partnership with the U.S. Department of Commerce, it encourages small American businesses to go online and add “.us” to the end of their Web address.

The big reveal came when a film crew walked into Bike Works bearing bright blue balloons and wearing T-shirts emblazoned with a big “.US” over a heart symbol and the name “Bike Works.” They unfolded two banners with the same wording and a four-member a cappella choir burst into song.

“It was actually a lot of fun,” said Eskan.

Bike Works is one of two small businesses that Neustar, a provider of real-time information and analysis to the Internet and related industries, chose to highlight in Kickstart America. The other is Park Florist in Tacoma Park, Md.

Short videos of the cash mob-style events at each business recently were posted on YouTube.

(Similar to so-called flash mobs—groups that assemble in public to sing or dance—the purpose of real cash mobs is to give locally owned businesses a quick injection of cash.)

Jim Rogers, Neustar’s vice president of marketing for enterprise services, said he and his staff came up with the idea for the videos about a month ago, and decided to feature businesses in the Washington metro area and Maryland because they’d be near the company’s headquarters in Sterling.

“We looked online at folks who had website addresses with ‘.us’ and found places like Tom’s,” Rogers said.

“We visited several locations. When we walked into Bike Works, we thought it represented the heart of small-business America,” he said. “It’s right on main street in a small town. It really represented small U.S. business owners.”

Neustar sent some of its marketing staff, along with hired singers and videographers, to Bike Works to film the surprise. Some of the “customers” had tiny cameras hidden in their glasses. The film crew spent about three hours after the reveal to shoot additional footage.

“The video is put together to show that process of having some folks walk into the store and interact with Tom in the normal way a business owner interacts with customers,” Rogers said. “We added a few others to add the excitement of having a full store, and then to thank him for being [a .us] customer.”

Eskan began using the .us domain in Bike Works’ Web address when the first website for the business was launched nine years ago. Using made it easier for customers to find him among competitors in the dot-com world.

“Much better choices were available [using .us] without having to compromise my name,” he said, adding that also hadn’t been snatched up by anyone looking to resell the name at a profit.

According to the Kickstart American website,, websites ending in .us also tend to rank higher in Google searches, which makes it easier for customers to find them and spread their name through social media.

Besides the videos featuring Bike Works and Park Florist, the Kickstart America website outlines the benefits small businesses can reap by having an online presence, walks them through the steps of creating a website and shares stories of other businesses that have included .us in their Web addresses.

The program also has a contest for small business owners that runs through May 11. Two winners will receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington to attend a national small business conference, consultation with an industry professional, a complete website design by a top Washington advertising agency and a customized, local online advertising campaign.

For details, see

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407