The concept of Zaarly, a not-yet-year-old startup, is pretty cool and simple. You login and either post, “I’m looking for X product and will pay Y price,” or you post, “I have X product and will sell it for Y price.” The system then helps you match up a peer-to-peer purchase and sales opportunity with people in your local area. It’s kind of a cross between the old radio swap shops and eBay.
The idea is catching on around the U.S. with about 230 cities having active posts and several dozen with large user bases posting everything from items they want to sell, to those they’d like to borrow. The hypotheticals mentioned by Zaarly staffers include opportunities like posting, “I’ll pay $20 for someone to deliver a Big Mac to my office for lunch,” or “I need a pickup truck for the weekend to move furniture and will pay $100 for it.” So it can serve as a convenience shopping service or an ad-hoc barter system, too.
The site doesn’t make money on transactions if you pay outside the website, CEO Bo Fishback told me last week. If you pay through Zaarly, a fee of roughly 10 percent is charged, but the site insures both parties are satisfied with the transaction and will even refund money if the buyer isn’t.
But the unexpected shift for Zaarly just caught on recently. Small businesses are discovering they can get in on the action and get new customers without having to really do anything. Since there’s no charge to list what you have to sell, a plumber can login, post they they’ll do plumbing work in a certain geographic area for $50 per hour and make their settings notify them should anyone in that area post a need that matches certain keywords.
“We learned that small businesses were like, ‘Oh, my goodness!’ and wanted to know how they could harness the demand we were creating. Many of them have a very unfair advantage because they have track records in this stuff,” Fishback said, referring to the fact an independent moving company that is bonded and insured is more trustworthy than some random user with a truck who will move your stuff for you.
The small business bonanza Zaarly is seeing has caused the company to pivot a bit with their product. New features coming in quarter one of 2012 include allowing sellers to identify themselves to build trust and be recognized as participants in the community. As of right now, all users are mostly anonymous unless or until you reach out to them with a transaction. Fishback says the original peer-to-peer model (which isn’t going away) dictated that anonymity be included. He said, “Commerce is a weird thing to attach identity to. You can verify your account, but we don’t reveal the identity.”
The new addition will allow a seller to reveal themselves if they choose. Otherwise, the site will function as it always has.
Fishback told me Zaarly will also invest time and energy into helping small businesses understand what it means to go mobile with their business. While Zaarly isn’t exclusively a mobile platform, it’s certainly powerful for the person on the go who’s just looking for a little help from someone nearby who can solve their problem.
Fishback is on his fifth startup and has backers like Ashton Kutcher and Ron Conway. They also have a round of funding from Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers. So the business has some legs.
More importantly, though, with this shift toward making it easier for small businesses to get customers without having to spend thousands on websites and SEO and digital marketing, Zaarly might just give them legs. And that could be a game-changer.
“We could wind up building a company that changes the way the economy works,” Fishback told me. “That’s a neat opportunity.”
Ambitious goal, that. But certainly not clearly out of the realm of possibility.
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