Zaarly at Mobile Madness: 2013 a Big Year for the ‘Peer Economy’

When local commerce startup Zaarly set out to create specialized home pages for people selling goods and services, the company had plenty of digital expertise to draw from. But part of its homework was decidely old school.

In San Mateo, CA, a city just south of San Francisco, the startup with high-profile venture capital backers joined the local chamber of commerce—and got an education in what small, local businesses really need.

That combination of old and new was key to Zaarly’s development of Storefronts, special sections of its site that highlight local bakers, music teachers, artists, and other small business owners looking to make a buck.

The addition was a big change for San Francisco-based Zaarly, one of the much-heralded startups attempting to claim some market share in small, local online sales from more established companies like Angie’s List and Craigslist.

Previously, Zaarly had led with the buyer—the first versions of its service allowed users to place bids for things they wanted, giving other individuals or mini-entrepreneurs a way to collect small jobs. Need someone to mow your lawn? Put up a price, and someone could come along and claim the cash.

By featuring sellers, however, the startup thought it could drive further toward its mission of helping people create their own local commerce network.


“You don’t want to be friends with your plumber or your house cleaner,” co-founder Eric Koester says. “But what happens in local communities is you’ll say, ‘I need a great plumber.’ And people will say, ‘Oh, here’s the name of a great plumber, a great handyman a great housecleaner.’”

Several weeks after getting its Storefronts seller profiles in place, Koester says Zaarly is seeing positive changes. People are spending more time on the site, business owners are spending time promoting their profile, and the volume of purchases per user is up. “We’re seeing higher numbers across the board,” Koester says.

“What this has proven to us is that local commerce is driven by local connections,” he adds.

And for any digital service that puts a premium on location, mobile networks have to play a big role. That’s why we’re excited to be bringing Koester to New York next week for Mobile Madness, our premier year-end conference examining the latest trends in mobile commerce, advertising, and much more. Tickets are available now, and they’re going fast.

Koester says that Zaarly’s experience with mobile devices and networks shows that we’re not yet uncovering all of the potential for supercharging local commerce. But he predicts that will change in 2013, as more people use smartphones, social networks, and next-generation apps to find local goods and services—particularly with small businesses or solo sellers, as opposed to big companies.

For example, across Zaarly’s multi-platform service, most users are still deploying their phones for the most basic of uses, communication. Browsing may be done on the Web, “but when it comes down to the logistics of contacting someone and meeting up … mobile becomes the thing,” Koester says.

“People are using it to say ‘I’ll meet you at this place,’ or ‘Here’s my phone number,’ whatever it might be. Mobile is the logistics and communications arm of many of our transactions,” he says.

So is it payments technology that’s holding back smartphones as an all-in-one commerce tool? Not necessarily so, Koester says. While much is made of the fragmented, unsettled race for who will come to dominate mobile payments (Zaarly uses a startup called Balanced), Koester says it may simply be a case of popular culture needing to catch up to the potential of the technology already in many people’s pockets.

“I don’t think that people recognize the power of their phone as a commerce tool. Really, that’s what the future will hold—people don’t even realize that they can buy stuff on their phone, that they can scan something,” he says. “I think we’re still just at the start of awareness of the power of these types of things.”

We’ll explore a lot more of these ideas at Mobile Madness New York on Dec. 4, hosted at the Microsoft Technology Center in Midtown. Get your tickets now, and we’ll see you next week.

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