Zaarly’s Wild Ride: Winning a Weekend, Quitting a Job, and the $100 Midnight Cheeseburger

3/24/11Follow @curtwoodward

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new customers every week. That creates a lot of logistics work for a staff of about 25, but it was also clear that Koester felt he had to take the unusual opportunity that Zaarly presented.

“The good news on all that was, Eric was our counsel before coming on board,” Shahani says. “In many ways, this was almost like an internship for him. He was able come on, be there for about six months, and get the framework in place. So it kind of worked out.”

With Fishback, Koester and Hunter in place as co-founders, Zaarly began a dead run toward one of the biggest tech events of the year: South By Southwest. The team decided on March 7 that the conference would be the ideal spot for a public debut of Zaarly’s service, Koester says, and planned to roll it out the following Sunday. They didn’t even have a fully functioning app yet, much less credentials to access the event itself, so the Zaarly team went with an approach that sounds vaguely meth-lab inspired: They got their hands on an RV, parked it across from the convention center, plastered a big banner on the side, and got to work cranking out the product.

“At 2 p.m. on Saturday before it’s supposed to launch, we basically have a functioning prototype that actually works,” Koester says. But then they passed it along to some friends to field-test, and it didn’t work on the user end. “We realized that we needed to totally redesign the way a consumer uses this thing. So basically, we started over.”

The clock was also ticking, because TechCrunch was readying a story for Sunday complete with a video interview, telling the SXSW crowd that the much-hyped app was going live in Austin.

By about 10 pm on Saturday, Koester recalls, the team had sketched out how the redesign would work. But their designer, who is also in a band, was actually playing a show at the time. So the crew basically spammed their contacts with an all-points bulletin searching for a designer to carry the product across the finish line. They wound up finding Matt Constantine in Austin, who got to the RV at about 11 pm, Koester says, and pulled an all-nighter to get the project finished by about 6:30 am. “It was frightening,” Koester says.

That version was sent out for more testing, and things seemed to be working. At around noon, Koester says, the TechCrunch post went up and people started logging in. “And our server starts filling up. Then Ashton sees it and starts trying it out, and it works great and Ashton tweets about it. And it shuts our server down.” Kutcher has almost 6.5 million followers on Twitter.

Once the servers recovered, Koester and the rest of Zaarly sat back and watched a marketplace take shape. They initially thought that souvenirs and restaurant reservations might be big items. That didn’t happen. “But other things that we really didn’t anticipate at all became big,” Koester says.

Soon enough, people were angling for all kinds of things: T-shirts. Hats. Tickets to upcoming concerts and passes for the convention. Someone paid $100 to have a very specific cheeseburger delivered to their room in the middle of the night. Luggage was procured to help get home, and rides to the airport … Next Page »

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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