I just realized that Bonanzle’s one year anniversary (since beta launch) passed by a month ago without me taking a minute to chronicle the madness of it all. But I’ve never been much of one for hazy-eyed generalities (e.g., “starting a business is hard work,” “business plans are useless,” etc.), which is most likely what this blog would become if written in free form.
I much prefer hard facts and examples, the sort of thing that gets drawn out through the efforts of a skilled interviewer. Unfortunately, since Brian Williams isn’t returning my calls, we’re going to have to settle for a purely fictional interviewer, who I will name Patsy Brown, on account of the fact that she’s a brownnosing patsy that tosses me softballs to make me sound as smart as possible. Thanks a bunch, Patsy. Mind if I call you Pat? Oh, you’d love it if I called you that? Well, great! Let’s great started.
Pat: So, Bill, it has been an incredible year one for Bonanzle. It’s really something how, with no investment money, this creation has garnered more traction than sites with far more money and far more experience. Even more improbably, it’s been done with a team of two full timers and an ever-changing legion of contractors when comparable sites field teams of 10+ employees. How has this first year compared to your expectations?
Bill: Well thank you, Pat. That’s really nice of you to say. It has been pretty wild, hasn’t it? To be honest, there were very few moments in the early evolution of Bonanzle where I thought I knew what would happen next in terms of traffic, sales, or revenues (early interview tangent: I firmly believe the founders of Twitter had no idea what they were building at first either. I still remember in 2007 when they were advertising it as a means to let your friends know what you were doing on a minute-by-minute basis, which was a pretty dumb premise for a business, if you asked me or the other 3 people that were using it at the time. I am already dreading the inevitable declarations of genius that revisionist historians will bestow upon those founders in the months to come. Anyway, we now return to your regularly scheduled interview. And yes, I have no business interrupting this interview before the first paragraph has been finished). I mean, we spent more than a year building Bonanzle as a site that would compete with Craigslist, and it wasn’t until a couple months after we launched (in beta) that we realized that there was simply no market for a better Craigslist.
Once we figured that out and re-geared ourselves as a utopia for small sellers, the first few months were pretty unreal — growing 10-15% larger with every passing week. That was incredibly tough to manage, because at the time we’re increasing the load on our servers by a factor of about 2x-3x monthly, and I was still only learning how to program web sites. If I had set expectations, these early months would have certainly blown them out of the water.
Pat: Can you give us a story to get a sense of just how hectic those early months were?
Bill: Sure, Pat. One memorable Bonanzle moment for me was a week back in October, when I was housesitting for some friends. This was at a time when our traffic was starting to push into the hundreds of thousands of unique users, and our servers were in what I think could best be termed “perpetual meltdown mode.” I remember one particular night where I was up until 4 AM, fiendishly working on some improvements to our search so that it wouldn’t crash. The Olympics were on TV in the room, and I felt like I had an intimate bond with the athletes — I mean, it takes a certain type of insanity to workout for thousands of hours to become the best athlete in the world, and it takes a similar type of insanity to lock oneself up in a room for 12-14 hours per day and try to scale a site up to hundreds of thousands of visitors with no prior experience. Generally, a team of many experienced programmers is going to be required for that amount of traffic, but, being on the brink of going broke, that wasn’t an option. So I pried my eyelids open until I finished the search upgrades, and wearily made my way back to bed to get up early and repeat.
It turned out that that “getting up early” in this case was about three hours after I went to sleep, when I received a then-common automated phone call from our server monitoring center that Bonanzle was down. I dragged myself out of bed, slogged down to the hot computer room, and spent another couple hours figuring out what had gone wrong. When it was fixed, I turned the Olympics back on and basked in our shared absurdity at 8 AM that morning.
Pat: What were some of the key lessons you learned during those months?
Bill: Well, other than technical lessons, the most salient lesson was that, when you find a way to solve a legitimate pain, amazing things can happen. In our case, by building a marketplace as easy as Craigslist with a featureset that rivaled eBay’s, we had what seemed like every seller online telling us how relieved & empowered they felt to have discovered us. Then they told their friends via blogs and forums. It was heady stuff. Our item count rocketed in a way that we were told had never been seen amongst online marketplace not named “eBay,” as we shot from 0 listings to one million within our first few months.
Pat: But with great success comes great responsibility, right? Tell me about how you dealt with managing the community you suddenly found at your (virtual) doorstep.
Bill: That was a real challenge, but something that was really important to us to get right. I have frequently said that, being a Northwest company, one of my foremost goals is for us to live up to the legacy of the great customer-centric companies that have come from this region, like Costco, Amazon, and Nordstrom. Customer service is a company’s best opportunity to get to know its users and develop meaningful trust. So as we started to appreciate the amount of time and effort that’s required to keep thousands of users satisfied, we knew that it was going to become a full time job, so that’s when Mark was anointed the full time Community Overseer.
Pat: Tell me about your relationship with Mark and what he has been to Bonanzle.
The pairing of Mark and I is the sort of thing you read about in “How to Build a Business”-books. Our personalities are in many ways diametrically opposed, but in a perfectly compatible way for a business that requires multiple unrelated skillsets. Mark is patient, I am impatient. Mark is happy dealing with people for hours on end, I am happy dealing with computers for hours on end. Mark is content to be on an amazing ride, I am neverever satisfied with what we have and constantly looking forward.
Fortunately for us, there are also a few qualities that we have in common. We are both OK with constant chaos around us, which is assured in any startup (though I’d say that goes doubly for any community-driven startup). We both enjoy what we do, so we don’t mind 10-12 hour days 6 days per week (right, Mark? :)). And I think we both are generally pretty good at seeing things in other people’s shoes, painful though that sometimes can be when we can’t get something exactly the way we want it due to resource constraints.
Pat: I hear “community” as a common theme amongst your answers. Tell me about the makeup of the Bonanzle community and what their role has been in the building of Bonanzle.
Bill: Well I think it’s pretty obvious within a click or two of visiting the site that Bonanzle is the community. Almost all of the key features that differentiate us from other marketplaces revolve around letting the many talents of our community shine through. It starts from the home page, which is comprised of catchy groups of items curated by our numerous users with an eye for art/uniformity. Real time interaction, another Bonanzle cornerstone, relies on our sellers’ communication talents. And the traffic growth of the site has been largely driven by the efforts of our sellers to find innovative ways to get people engaged with Bonanzle: from writing to editors about us (it was actually the efforts of a single user that got us a feature story in Business Week), to organizing numerous on-site sales (Christmas in July, etc.) that drive buyers from far and wide.
I think that, from a management standpoint, it’s our responsibility to strive to keep out of the way of our sellers. In so doing, the embarrassment of riches we have in member talent can continue to build Bonanzle in ways that we’d have never even considered.
Pat: If you’re just joining us, I’m talking with Bill Harding, Founder of Bonanzle.com, about the experience of his first year of running Bonanzle. Please stay tuned — when we return, I’m going to talk to Bill about what he sees in today’s Bonanzle, and what he predicts for the future of Bonanzle. With any luck, I’ll even get him to answer the eternal question of which is tastier between pizza, nachos, and pie. But for now, a word from our sponsor:
Nice find, Arlene!