wanted: looking for online classifieds site that helps me connect with my community and avoid anonymous transactions. will pay modest membership fee for premium features. Location: Twin Cities
A local Web start-up is out to prove that it can make a difference by connecting buyers and sellers.
BuyTheChange.com is among a crop of new “social classifieds” services. The sites integrate classified ads with elements of social networking such as user profiles and friend lists.
What makes BuyTheChange.com unique, its founders say, is its hyper-local focus. The site lets users share and browse ads in their own neighborhoods, schools and church congregations.
The website is the product of three entrepreneurs — Josh Becerra, Colin Hirdman and Zack Steven — who grew up together in St. Paul’s St. Anthony Park neighborhood. All three have experience starting and running companies. They reconnected four years ago, and decided to create a business that would do well by doing good.
A couple of trends helped shape what would eventually become their mission.
One was in the world of e-commerce. Websites such as Ebay and Craiglist were attracting millions of buyers and sellers to what was largely an anonymous bazaar. Users often know little about the person with whom they’re doing business; at most, they get an alias and a positive feedback rating.
The other trend, being experienced nationwide, was a sense of disconnection from one’s own neighbors, a trend outlined by Robert Putnam in his book, “Bowling Alone.” The book argues that television and other technology is causing a decline in community involvement. (A copy of the book stands on display in the trio’s sparse headquarters in a southeast Minneapolis office building.)
“We saw an opportunity to connect people through commerce,” Steven said.
Helping people buy and sell with others in their own community strengthens such connections, they reasoned, and it also removes some of the risk and anonymity of doing business online.
The website formally launched in November 2008.
When new users sign up, the only information they’re required to provide is a real name and their neighborhood. They can also choose to share a photo and a brief description of themselves and their interests.
After registering, users can begin browsing ads, either across the entire site or just those for a specific neighborhood. As with Facebook or Linked-In, they can also add connections. Users can join groups around a church, school or nonprofit, as well as add friends, neighbors and favorite sellers as connections to receive updates when they post ads. Each night, members receive an e-mail listing new ads from their connections and communities.
A basic account lets users post unlimited for-sale or want ads. Posting job or service ads requires a $24 annual membership upgrade, which also comes with premium ad placement on the site. A business membership is $120 per year, and nonprofits can join for free. One-third of the membership fees are donated to a nonprofit of the member’s choice.
As of last week the site had about 350 profiles. Of the roughly 250 individual memberships, approximately 80 were paid. Around 25 businesses and 75 nonprofits have also registered.
During the site’s first few months, BuyTheChange members have bought and sold everything from piano lessons to a cotton-candy machine (“The best five bucks I ever spent,” Hirdman said.)
They’ve retooled along the way. Initially, a paid membership was required to view or post any advertisements, but “I think we were going against too many Web standards,” Steven said. A month ago, the group created free, basic memberships – and they’re now seeing an uptick in registered users.
They believe people are coming to the site because it’s a safe and trusted environment centered around community. “If you wouldn’t post it on the coffee shop bulletin board with your name on it, you’re not going to find it on BuyTheChange,” Steven said.
Indeed, coffee shop bulletin boards and Google AdWords have been among the marketing tools the company has used to get the word out. They’re also networking with nonprofits, neighborhood groups and business associations, as well as working out partnerships with community news publications.
While giving to nonprofits is a core part of its mission, BuyTheChange is itself a for-profit company. Startup funding came from a mix of friends, family, angel investors and their own pockets. They’re hoping to prove the concept can be profitable in the Twin Cities before expanding to other markets. It’s a lean operation, but even so, breaking even will require six-digit membership numbers, they estimate.
The site experienced a spike in traffic earlier this year after it was mentioned on Twitter by tech guru Tim O’Reilly, whose O’Reilly Media company coined the term Web 2.0. Much of the traffic came from out of state, however, so there wasn’t a corresponding increase in membership. Still, it was energizing, Hirdman said, and a sign that as they expand, they’ll be well received elsewhere.
Locally, the site has had particular success in neighborhoods were one or two influential businesses joined and encouraged their customers. Two hot spots where it appears to be catching on are St. Anthony Park (85 members) and Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood (29 members).
More members means more postings, and more postings means more visits, with more accompanying word-of-mouth advertising.
“We think there is an opportunity to be a Minnesota success story,” Steven said. “Our vision is national and beyond, to be the default- conscientious commerce space online.”
Originally published April 7, 2009, in Finance & Commerce.