Maybe Mark Zuckerberg Should Listen to These Canadian Hipsters
When Facebook rebooted its buy-and-sell Marketplace earlier this month, miscreants lost no time circumventing the company’s algorithmic filters and posting banned merchandise, from used underwear and weed to baby hedgehogs. It was just the latest setback for the social network’s longstanding effort to turn its community of 2 billion souls into a giant shopping bazaar.
Maybe Mark Zuckerberg should take a cue from the Canadian hipsters who created the Bunz Trading Zone.
Centered on Toronto, the invite-only Facebook group has become a gathering place for the downtown crowd to barter goods and services. Much of the inventory is what you’d expect young urbanites to trade—furniture, books, massages—although there’s weirder stuff, too, including human teeth, second-hand sex toys and, um, dreadlocks.
What started three years ago as a group for a few friends, has mushroomed into a community of almost 60,000 people. (At first it was called “Bumz,” as in “Can I bum a cigarette?” But that was deemed politically incorrect so the group was rechristened Bunz.) The phenomenon became sufficiently large and chaotic that the brains behind Bunz—a vintage-clothing saleswoman and a banking tech whiz—decided to create an app that would make the community and its various sub-groups easier to navigate and search. The founders have raised several million dollars from angel investors and hope to replicate the experiment in Brooklyn, Portland and other precincts of hipness.
With its endless stream of off-the-wall trades, heated arguments and camaraderie, Bunz is a quirky mash-up of the classifieds vibe of Craigslist, the sociability of Meetup and the neighborliness of NextDoor. Dozens of groups have spun off to focus on a variety of categories, from housing and jobs to health tips. The rules are simple. Don’t be a jerk and don’t use cash.
Habitues—known as Buns—are fiercely loyal to the community. “Curb alerts” pop up whenever something of potential value is seen on the street, a rare albino squirrel for taxidermy hobbyists, say, or (more prosaically) a used mini-fridge. One Bun has been known to warn commuting cyclists of a particularly ornery police officer prone to handing out tickets to those who blow through the red light.
It’s the grassroots, community-minded ethos that makes Bunz so successful, creating online spaces for people to find friends, advice, places to live and a sense of being connected to the rest of the city, says Kohji Nagata, a 32-year-old Torontonian who spent an entire month this fall living completely off Bunz trades. He worked through his possessions, trading a guitar pedal for milk, meat and toilet paper and was surprised by how many people wanted to help him for free just because of the Bunz association. “There’s an inherent trust between people that use Bunz,” says Nagata, who works for a software company. “They’re not exactly strangers, because they’re on Bunz. It’s hard to explain.”
It’s the kind of engagement any number of social media and e-commerce startups have tried and failed to bottle. For example, the Toronto startup VarageSale raised $34 million from investors including Sequoia in the hopes of building an e-commerce experience that sorts people based on neighborhood. Last year, the company was forced to cut costs and fire staff when growth atrophied. Nextdoor, a social network for neighborhoods, has grown rapidly in the U.S. but has struggled to stamp out racial profiling. “A lot of the time people try to manufacture buzz or people try to manufacture a community,” says Brian O’Malley, a venture capitalist at Accel Partners, which invested in e-commerce site Etsy. “People can see right through it if it’s not authentic.”
Emily Bitze, 32, started Bunz in June 2013. She was new to Toronto, having moved from Montreal after finishing university. She was working at a used-clothing store, struggling to pay off her student loans and meet the rent. One day she couldn’t afford the ingredients for a pasta dinner. So she started a Facebook group for friends, many in similar positions. Turns out lots of friends had stuff they didn’t need and skills they weren’t using. They posted on Bunz, invited their friends, and bit by bit the community grew.
Before long, Bunz users were starting their own sub-groups. Kevin Douglas, 33, founded Bunz Home Zone, an apartment-hunting spinoff where members look for roommates or people to take over their leases. The Facebook connection makes it seem more intimate than the anonymity of Craigslist and it’s largely free of pushy brokers or real estate agents. Douglas, a tattooed freelance photographer who sings in a band called Sailboats are White, rules Home Zone with an iron fist, banning real estate agents trying to poach clients or men who question why a woman would put “seeking female only” on posts for a new roommate. “Jerks get booted out,” says Douglas, who spends as much as 10 hours a day policing the group, helping people word their posts and keeping it interesting with polls and jokes. Douglas doesn’t charge a dime. “I’ve got a lot of time,” he says. “And I love drama.”
With the main Bunz group adding thousands of new members a month, Bitze found herself losing control of her life. She’d be out for dinner, moderating among thousands of users and unable to look up from her phone. Her friends considered this anti-social. Eventually Bitze recruited moderators from the community to help keep it under control. Bunz was also straining the limitations of Facebook itself. “The group was growing so big, and Facebook was unable to accommodate us in the way we wanted it to,” she says. “Posts would get lost in the feed, you couldn’t search for specific items.”
Bitze began working with two people she met on Bunz to build an app and standalone website when she met Sascha Mojtahedi, 33, at a mutual friend’s app-design studio. He was designing anti-fraud software for TD, Canada’s second-largest bank, and working on an e-commerce app called Shuffle on the side. Bitze was still working at the vintage clothing store. This was June 2015.
They joined forces. Mojtahedi brought funding from an angel investor and a deep software design experience. Bitze brought her knowledge of the community’s needs and character and her quirky design sensibilities. Now Bunz has eight full-time employees working on the app and website including a marketing lead, iOS and Android designers, and an artificial intelligence expert. They’re crowded into a small brick and beam office in Toronto’s Queen Street West neighborhood, home to the city’s growing startup scene.
The app, which now boasts about 75,000 users, solves some of the deficiencies of the Facebook group. You can rate other users, so if they’re late or don’t bring what they said they would to the trade or if they’re just rude, other users will be able to see. Like Uber drivers, if you want to do business in the future, you better show up on time. The app is more organized than the Facebook groups. It’s easier to trade and search through available items.
Inevitably, the emergence of a professional app leads to an existential question: Can an online marketplace founded on the ancient concept of barter be turned into a money-making enterprise?
“People look at Bunz and say, ’It’s a trading-only app, you’ll never make any money unless you scale to massive numbers and you put advertisements all over,’” Mojtahedi says. “That’s really far from what’s accurate.” He notes that Bunz’s sub-groups generate plenty of real-world transactions and points to the Home Zone, now one of Canada’s largest groups for prospective renters, and the Employment and Entrepreneurial Zone, which features everything from odd-jobs to recruitment fairs for Canada’s spy agency. There’s plenty of money to made by connecting people with places to live and work, says Mojtahedi, who says the app has just as many users as the original group and that raising more money will not be a problem.
Members acknowledge that the app has made it easier to carry out Bunz’s original function, finding treasure in someone else’s trash and trading for it. But some say the app is also a more sanitized and focused place, lacking the camaraderie of the Facebook group. “The key thing, is how do you scale and maintain that trust?” asks Janet Bannister, a Toronto-based venture capitalist who focuses on e-commerce and was an early executive at eBay, which once flirted with and abandoned a barter system. O’Malley, the Accel investor, says that if Bunz is to become a bona fide business, they’ll have to “pull the bandaid off and shut down the Facebook group because otherwise it’s just going to inhibit the app growth.” But he warns: “It’s hard to get a community to migrate from one platform to another.”