San Francisco Startup Tour: Zaarly

What would you pay for a cheeseburger from your favorite place – delivered to your door in 30 minutes or less? What about front-row tickets to the next Syracuse/Georgetown game? One company hopes to find out – and help you get the deal done!

“I’d Pay X for X”

Zaarly is a San Francisco-based startup that’s seeking to empower transactions exactly like this – all on your mobile device. Based on the simple premise of “I’d pay X for X,” Zaarly made a huge splash after it landed $1,000,000 in funding after this short pitch at a Los Angeles Startup Weekend event. What’s more, investors in this young company (less than 8 weeks old as I write this) include Ashton Kutcher, Felicis Ventures, and Lightbank (the Groupon founders).

Will Zaarly live up to its early hype – or is it simply a sign that we are truly in a startup bubble? I went down to their San Francisco headquarters to find out first-hand.

Hype or Hustle?

Many have wondered aloud wether Zaarly is the real deal, including New York Magazine. In the now infamous Startup Weekend pitch, founder Bo Fishback announced that they would be launching at South by Southwest – only a few short weeks away. To pull this off, the company had to work an incredible amount of hours, pull in resources from all of their various networks, and hope for a few (or many) things to fall their way.

The result?

A mobile HQ, a 46-hour coding binge, 10 code pushes in a week, and a successful launch, as detailed in Silicon Prairie news.

Zaarly Mobile HQ at SXSW 2011

The team has since graduated from the motorhome to a combined work-live loft space in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. They’ve been continuing at their torrid pace of growth since SXSW, including adding people from across the country – folks moving from Seattle to San Francisco, San Francisco to Kansas City, and all points in-between. What’s driving all this activity? “Hustlegy” – a phrase coined by Adam Hofman, Zaarly’s Director of Marketing and Community Development.


Defined as Strategy + Hustle, it truly does seem that “hustlegy” is the main driver behind Zaarly’s torrid pace and string of early wins (including more than $10,000 in transactions in their first day of live service at SXSW). But don’t let the funny name and made-up phrasing fool you. The founder is a Harvard MBA who previously worked as the VP of Entrepreneurship for the Kauffman Foundation. Core team members have multiple startup exists under their belts, and extensive networks across the startup hubs around the country.

Where the rubber meets the road, Zaarly is looking to combine four major elements into a single, easy-to-use platform:

1.  Mobile
2.  Hyper-local
3.  Social Graph
4.  E-Commerce

Mobile: at the core of the Zaarly strategy is the expanded level of connectivity and communication offered by today’s smart phones. Zaalry leverages nearly all of these capabilities in their aims of facilitating commerce, including location services like GPS, but also more traditional functionality like text messaging and even voice calls. By integrating a third-party provider for both text and voice services (Twilio), Zaarly allows users to connect directly to one another without having to expose or share personal data. While a web-based component will exist, Zaarly’s folks tell me that mobile – and the ability to drive proximally related content and transactions – will remain core to the service.

Hyper-local: with the option of having a Zaarly request expire in as little 15 minutes, Zaarly seems to be pushing the envelope of availability and opportunity. Seeking to engage both the immediacy we have become used to, and the impulsiveness of modern life, Zaarly wants to bring people together who are already close – but just don’t know it yet. Rather than seeking discovery through common interests, Zaarly’s model uses items (be they physical goods, experiences, services, or any other number of things). This process is designed to let people engage locally, ephemerally, and consistently – and all on their own terms.

Social graph: Growing in popularity since the release of Facebook Connect, the Social Graph is a term that describes ones social networking connections, reputation, and reach. This comes into play for Zaarly for several reasons, not the least of which is that engaging individual social graphs is likely the best way to both generate users and generate transactions between users. On top of that, issues like trust and reputation – through reviews, ratings, rankings, and other feedback mechanisms – are vitally important to Zaarly’s success. By capturing and leveraging data already present on other parts of user’s social graphs, Zaarly hopes to keep fraud and problems low, while keeping interesting opportunities and transaction traffic high.

E-commerce: Modern technology has allowed us to purchase items online for years. Recently, we have grown accustomed to buying software with the click of a button (think Apple’s App Store), and now we even have in-app purchases, and tools like the Square reader which allows anyone’s iOS or Android device to accept credit cards. Zaarly seeks to take this ability to leverage mobile devices as transaction platforms one step further, incorporating all of the above methods in a convenient platform that also contains the items, offers, and communications threads needed to get to the transaction point.

But Will It Blend?

To be clear, Zaarly’s road is long, and they have only just begun their journey. The team is trying to bring together four of the hottest technology sectors into a single platform that is entirely user-driven, and focused on buyers – not sellers. This is a massive amount of disruption in one single effort. It’s risky, to be sure. It’s also incredibly exciting and will be interesting to watch.

Though young, the Zaarly team has come amazingly far in the few short weeks that they’ve been in business, and I see no signs fo their hustle slowing or their strategy changing.

While I was visiting, the team was planning a seven-day, seven-city whirlwind tour to meet with on-the-ground street teams that had already been assembled. By leveraging local knowledge, the Zaarly crew hopes that they can both anticipate and meet user demands, eventually allowing local users to create and meet these demands themselves – all from within the Zaarly app.

So – is “hustlegy” enough to make it all happen?

“I’d pay X” to find out.

Shay Colson

A 2010 iSchool graduate, Shay Colson lives and works in Seattle, Washington. He uses technology to solve problems for government, organizations, and also real, actual people. You can find him on Twitter @shaycolson.

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  • I read this with interest a few weeks ago, but after hearing one of the founders of Zaarly speak at Tech Crunch Disrupt, I’m really excited to see how they progress and define this space. Exciting stuff!