Zaarly: Toll Taker on a ‘Buyer-Powered Commerce’ Highway?

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Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every Wednesday.

Zaarly – it’s not a new verb expressing something extra cool. Not yet, anyway. But it’s got a pretty good start if you’re judging by its remarkable first two months alone. In that time they’ve pitched and launched the product, wowed celebrity judges at a startup competition in LA and accepted a million bucks in seed funding from, among others, Ashton Kutcher and venture fund Lightbank created by Groupon’s founders. And that’s all before the semi-official launch at SXSW or making a single dime.

Street Fight recently caught up with with the 32-year-old CEO behind this i-need-it-you-got-it service, Bo Fishback.

Just prior to Zaarly’s whirlwind start Fishback was leading the Kauffman Foundation’s Kauffman Labs where they offer programs to support entrepreneurs – good place to pick up prep for launching a startup from scratch. While still there Fishback was invited by a friend (his soon-to-be COO Eric Koester) to a pitch event in LA (Startup Weekend); he flew out from Kansas City to meet up with Koester, who came down from Seattle, neither with a product in mind: “We weren’t really planning on working on a specific company, mostly we just went to help other teams and have fun,” he said. “But I ended up pitching something and that ended up leading to Zaarly.”

CEO Bo Fishback

After Startup Weekend in February in LA, where they built the first prototype of Zaarly (derivation of bazaar), Fishback said he, Koester and co-founder and CTO Ian Hunter “recognized that there was a potentially massive opportunity in buyer-driven local commerce. One week later, all three of us began working on Zaarly full-time.”

With such all-star funding, and with lightning speed, it could be forgiven had they pressed for more: “Our seed round was raised within days of Startup Weekend… we could have raised much more money very quickly but opted to close our seed round quickly with an incredible group of investors. Ashton Kutcher, Aydin Senkut, Naval Ravikant, Bill Lee, Lightbank, Paul Buchheit, the Kushners, and SV Angels have all been super star angel investors for quite a while and they’ve all been really helpful already. The entire roster of investors, Ashton included, was able to act super quickly because the market we’re going after is enormous and we’ve got the beginnings of an amazingly talented team.”

Great, but that glosses over a most important detail and useful lesson for any budding entrepreneur. Did you catch it? The idea they emerged with at the startup event was something completely different just hours before.

“The underlying concept of Zaarly was really officially born on Friday night of Startup Weekend in a conversation that took place at about three in the morning between Eric and I,” said Fishback. “Our entire Startup Weekend team had been collaborating on the idea of building better local marketplaces, but the real focus came when we honed in on building a buyer-driven economy.”

Buyer-driven local commerce. Ok, let’s back up just a bit for those not RSS’d into every hyperlocal and location story emerging from SXSW or elsewhere, even those that read like star-studded fairytales. For that crowd, the, er, Luddites, what exactly will Zaarly do for them?

“Zaarly is a proximity-based, real-time, buyer-powered market. In short, if you’ve ever said ‘I’d pay X for Y,’ then Zaarly is the place where you go to make that happen,” Fishback says. “Buyers list what they want, how much they are willing to pay for it, and how quickly they want it, and people nearby make it happen.”

Check out this video for an overview:

On the other side of the transaction, Zaarly functions like a marketplace for cash, Fishback says.

“People who want money can see what people around them are willing to pay for things that they might already have or can make happen,” he says.

The use cases for Zaarly are “pretty much unlimited.” In the later testing they performed, people paid for cheeseburgers, suitcases, for people to bring them coffee, for tickets to events, backstage passes, and introductions.

“Really, if you’ve ever thought that you’d pay for something if you could get it when you wanted it from someone near you then the use cases become clear,” says Fishback.

I can certainly think of a few things I would pay a pence for right now. For instance, can someone bring me lunch?

After the initial pitch and success in LA came what’s become the Big Show for location service launches, SXSW, just over a month ago. As Fishback tells it:

“Immediately following Startup Weekend we started toying with the idea of doing some customer development and maybe a small experiment at SXSW. We weren’t actually planning on any kind of an official launch. In hindsight I’d say it was much more execution around getting a minimum viable product defined and built than anything else. The week of SXSW we did a couple days of planning, rented an RV and a parking spot, spent a lot of hours at Kinko’s, and put together a small team on the ground in Austin to help us get the word out.

“The Startup Weekend community, our families, friends, and even just people who heard about what we were working on all made it possible to get a huge amount done in a really tight timeframe. Literally, we were all staying at my aunt’s house, my father-in-law was bringing supplies to our RV daily, my brother was cooking for us, our wives were out on the town in Austin talking to everyone they met about Zaarly, our friends were calling in their friends to help us… it was just a super fun team effort.”

But even with all the grassroots help when SXSW began the team was not ready to test the product.

“Sunday (three days into SXSW) was the first time we were confident in releasing it into the wild,” said Fishback. “Between designing and building the product, closing our seed round, and putting together the beginnings or our team, there wasn’t much time for sleep… but other than that it was really a blast.”

Ahh, the life of a startup CEO.

Overall at SXSW there were around $10,000 in transactions successfully completed, including a $100 cheeseburger, lots of tickets to concerts, Starbucks runs, and a keg. But currently Zaarly gets none of that cash. The transactions happen outside of the application (which is in HTML5 but soon to be on iPhone and Android) but in upcoming releases Fishback says “we’ll have integrated payment options that allow for a much better user experience and on these transactions we’ll charge a small transaction fee.”

If Zaarly’s value prop sounds a tad familiar that’s because it probably is. Sites like fiverr and others have been allowing regular folks with everyday needs go direct to providers and people with sometimes odd offers to find a paying audience. And Localmind has helped pioneer the real-time location-based connections movement. So what is at least one key element that makes Zaarly stand out from the crowd?

“Buyer-powered commerce,” says Fishback, going back to the core of the pitch. “Zaarly is all about enabling buyers to get whatever they want, when they want it. On flip side, it has the potential to enable an entirely new job economy.”

If nothing else, he’s got the necessities of hope and ambition.

“If you’ve ever wanted something that you couldn’t get as quickly as you wanted it then Zaarly makes life better.”

“The use cases for Zaarly are pretty much unlimited. In the testing people have paid for cheeseburgers, suitcases, people to bring them coffee, tickets to events, backstage passes, introductions… Really, if you’ve ever thought that you’d pay for something if you could get it when you wanted it from someone near you then the use cases become clear.”

Fishback said “thousands” of people used the services it during the first set of experiments and based on learnings from that he and the team are heads-down getting Zaarly ready for much broader availability next month.

And since the Austin event he says the company has not slowed down, making some “phenomenally talented” additions to the team (nine and counting) in development and marketing, opening an office and San Francisco, making “huge strides on the product and rollout plan.” Fishback says overall they are just having fun building a company at hyper-speed.

But he’s also not immune to Internet cliches: “We continue to be laser-focused on building a team of rockstars and executing on the vision of enabling a powerful new form of buyer-powered commerce.”

Executing the vision includes rolling the product out in a number of cities next month. Which ones? Fishback would only offer that he was targeting the cities that have “shown the most excitement and engagement around Zaarly coming their way.”

You can petition for your city on the Zaarly web site and follow the city on Twitter. Currently it looks like NY, LA and SF are battling it out … no surprise.

So what else is coming with the release that we should care about?

“The product that we’re rolling out in May is going to be significantly more robust… we’re pretty excited,” says Fishback.

Beyond the iPhone and Android apps, they’ll have a much improved Web version for May… in terms of features beyond integrated payments, “I’d just say that what we released at SXSW was the ultimate minimum viable product — just really intended to test the concept… since then we’ve been hard at work putting together a significantly more robust product, even after release though the possibilities and opportunities to continue improving Zaarly will be huge.”

Question is will the money be huge or will it be the ultimate minimum viable sum. We’ll be watching, and perhaps Zaarlying.