SXSW

From Business Idea to Successful Startup in Three Months

SXSW On the Scene - 2014

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Entrepreneur is on the ground in Austin for SXSW 2014. Feel as if you're there with us as we share the latest innovations and give you a sneak peek at the launches and ideas that will change how you connect to your world.

Bo Fishback, CEO of Zaarly
Bo Fishback, CEO of Zaarly

You can build a company pretty fast these days, but Zaarly took even the startup world by surprise.

Within six hours of the 54-hour Los Angeles Startup Weekend competition in February, Bo Fishback, former VP of entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation, along with early-stage startup veterans Ian Hunter and Eric Koester, had cooked up an idea for the world's first cash marketplace--something that could potentially change the future of commerce.

They called it Zaarly, a mobile platform that allows hyperlocal, person-to-person transactions at scale, in real time. "What you want, when you want it," the site's tagline boasts. Say you want to switch for better seats during a concert, or get someone to bring you beer after liquor stores have closed. Just name a price, post your request with time and location filters and see if there are any takers. With enough people onboard, the theory goes, someone should bite.

Investors already have. In fact, it took Zaarly's co-founders all of two days to close a seed round of $1 million from the investing world's elite: Ashton Kutcher, Felicis Ventures, AngelList, Lightbank. Fast-forward a month and the crew had launched a successful test run out of an RV parked near the ruckus of Austin's SXSW festival (it was too late to get official credentials). By mid-May, Zaarly had opened up to the first of hundreds of thousands of eager early adopters.

"By August, we could be on our way to becoming a global brand or a serious disaster," Fishback confided to Entrepreneur on the eve of the initial seven-city rollout. We took a few of his pre-boarding minutes to ask about life in the startup fast lane.

Your timeline is nuts, even for a hot startup. How are you surviving?
I've never been so grateful for co-founders. We're all experienced in early-stage startups, and it's barely possible to do it with three of us. We've been working our asses off, none of us sleep much, our diets have pretty much gone to s***, but it's amazing and fun when you're excited, working with amazing people.

So you're just rolling with it?
This is very fast, very ambitious. But the mode is to drive it, not let it drive us. Our strategy was to find the most talented people we've worked with and convince them to put it all on the line for us. They have, and it's going to be our competitive advantage.

How do you handle hype?
We probably have more hype than we would want, but at the end of the day, this isn't a company that stays in stealth mode. There are still a lot of ifs to deliver: if you have a good product, if you have a great team, if you can deal with scalability. Then to achieve ubiquity, we need millions of people to know about our company, to prep the market. So if the hype manifests itself in a robust community, I'll take it all day long.

Leaving a steady job for a crazy startup life--tough choice?
I love the Kauffman Foundation, but I've worked with thousands of founding teams, and I knew this was special and I had to build it. The opportunity would have been impossible two, three years ago, but the timing is right. The real challenge is that even if it doesn't feel like sacrifice professionally, we've had to put a lot of personal life on hold.

But worth it?
If we're right about this--and I sound like a crazy entrepreneur here--but if we're right, Zaarly will fundamentally change the world.

Jennifer Wang is a staff writer at Entrepreneur magazine in Southern California.

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This article was originally published in the August 2011 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Speed to Market.

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