Developer Workshop: Zaarly

Developer Workshop is a series of profiles exploring the current state of the mobile marketplace from the point of view of the software developers mapping out its future. Each profile focuses on a developer with a compelling story to tell, and offers their perspective on what the industry's doing right, what it's doing wrong and how to make it better. Check out our previous workshops on Shazam, InfoMedia, Viigo, Meet Now Live, Shortcovers, Pint Sized Mobile, GeodelicSpark of Blue SoftwareTarver GamesPeople Operating TechnologyBooyahBolt CreativeThwaprMonkeyland IndustriesRocket Racing LeagueVlingoAdvanced Mobile Protection, PapayaMobile, Taptu, GameHouse, Avatron, aisle411, Crowdstory and Outfit7.

This month FierceDeveloper profiles peer-to-peer marketplace Zaarly.


Got a dirty deed you want done dirt-cheap? Look no further than Zaarly, a new cross-platform, peer-to-peer digital marketplace enabling users to buy and sell goods, services and experiences within their local community. Zaarly users post what they're looking for, when they'd like it and how much they're willing to pay for the privilege; the hyper-local service automatically connects the request with fellow users who bid for the right to facilitate the transaction. Since launching in mid-May, Zaarly has already brought together thousands of buyers and sellers, with fulfillments ranging from house cleaning to car repair to landscaping--Zaarly has also helped users land a wedding singer, fresh milk from a cow and even a bowl of Lucky Charms cereal consisting solely of marshmallows. (Safety and security are paramount: Zaarly conceals all phone numbers to guarantee user anonymity, and the list of prohibited transactions is here.)

Zaarly CEO and co-founder Bo Fishback left a plum gig as president of the Kauffman Laboratories for Enterprise Creation to run the company. Good call: In its first 30 days, Zaarly facilitated more than $1 million in listings and has also generated $1 million in seed funding from investors including Gmail creator Paul Bucheit and Hollywood star Ashton Kutcher. The Zaarly service is now live in eight U.S. cities; late last month, its iOS solution was selected as one of the featured applications in Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) App Store, and an Android version is close to completion. FierceDeveloper spoke to Fishback about the Zaarly concept, why mobile is so vital to its success and the importance of leveraging new technologies.  


Bo Fishback

            Bo Fishback

Bo Fishback on Zaarly's origins: When I was with the Kauffman Foundation, I worked with close to a thousand entrepreneurs. I've worked with as many startups as anybody on Planet Earth. I've never seen anything like [Zaarly]--it's the first thing I've seen that if it works, it could really change the landscape.

I pitched the idea at the [Kauffman Foundation event] L.A. Startup Weekend on a Friday night in February. I wrote it at the airport gate. I wanted someone to pitch me on an idea like this. I didn't hear anything I was super-psyched about, so I started flipping through the files on my phone and gave a one-minute pitch for a hyper-local, real-time, buyer-powered commerce network. Everyone thought we had a clever idea.

We've built the Zaarly platform from scratch three different times in 90 days. We built the first working version in two and a half weeks. We called in a lot of favors. We took it to South by Southwest, turned it on and had $10,000 in transactions go through the system in one day. We went there to experiment and ask questions--what better place to do an experiment? There were so many different volunteers to help us out. We had college kids quitting their booth jobs because they realized they could make more money volunteering to do jobs for us. The community just took it over.

After South by Southwest, we had 70 inbound calls from investors, all unsolicited. I've never seen anything like it. We also started realizing what it was going to take to build this thing. We were hoping to get one or 2,000 users in the first few months--in no time, we got tens of thousands. That's helped us learn and prioritize really fast. We're still figuring out what works and what doesn't.  

zaarly map

Zaarly is a hyper-local digital marketplace.

Fishback on mobile's role in Zaarly's growth: Mobile is going to huge, especially on the fulfiller and seller side. With buyers, we don't know how big it's going to be. We're seeing some use. But from the fulfiller side, when you've got people out doing stuff like picking up something from the store, it's so important that the service is mobile. All the location-based stuff is very important.

Mobile is also important to the logistics around getting together with someone. We can coordinate with SMS and launch anonymous voice calls. Even stuff like 'I'm outside your building--how do I get in?' If it's not mobile and not easy to use, people won't get what they want.  

Our founding team and our first hires are all iPhone users, so we started there. We're in a huge hurry to get on Android. I wish the Android app was already out, but it's coming out soon. You've got to have both [iPhone and Android apps]. If we'd done Android first, then we'd have all the urgency to get our iPhone app out. I'm a huge believer in getting people using this as quickly as possible. But we had to start somewhere--and developing across simultaneous platforms is twice as hard.


Zaarly users have sold everything from landscaping to cereal.

Fishback on what's next for Zaarly: There are a lot of moving pieces. It all boils down to helping buyers and sellers more easily transact with each other locally. We're looking at ways to create better feedback and to facilitate discovery, and we're developing tools to be smarter on both sides of the market. We're also looking at how to alert people and keep them dialed in.

We're going to spend this summer and most of the fall working on the feature set--we're running over 100 experiments to figure out what works the best. If we don't keep people loving what they're finding, nobody wins. We're going to make it a much richer experience.

Fishback's advice for aspiring mobile developers: We learned so much so fast by experimenting with HTML5 as a platform. We built a working version in two and a half weeks--we had a mobile-optimized version that totally worked. That let us learn so much faster than building a native app. So you have to learn to leverage new technologies.

You've also got to experiment with real users and do it aggressively. At South by Southwest, we had a private user group of 30 people in an RV we rented--if not for having them around, it's very likely we would have had one tenth the number of transactions we did. We also learned very quickly that people didn't understand all the terminology, and we were able to make changes very quickly. Now more than ever, you have to learn really, really fast. Until you can figure out what works, the rest of it doesn't matter.