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How we turned a simple idea into a marketplace startup projecting $14 billion in sales



By Nick Huzar


When we launched OfferUp in 2011, it was with a goal that surprised a lot of people: reimagine  how people buy and sell locally. After all, weren’t there already some well-established players leveraging the power of the internet to do just that?

There were, but the truth is that OfferUp was born from an experience my co-founder Arean and I craved, but we couldn’t find. We wanted a platform for selling to and buying from people in our area that was simple, secure and fast. We wanted the user experience to be fun and beautiful to look at. And we wanted it all to happen first on the device that everyone we knew had recently started carrying around in their pockets: the smartphone.

I know this doesn’t sound revolutionary, let alone particularly smart. So what? Everyone has a smartphone app. But there’s a reason OfferUp is on track to surpass $14 billion in sales this year in our marketplace (that’s almost equal to what eBay had after eight years. We’re there in about five).

Here are our key lessons for success:

  1. We didn’t look at e-commerce competitors – If there’s one thing I believe, it’s this: if we had worked at an e-commerce company like eBay, there would be no OfferUp. We’d be way too focused on what we knew to be the hurdles, stuck in our own ideas about what an e-commerce platform ought to be. That’s not to say it’s impossible to build a winning company out of a related one. But what has made OfferUp work is that we started right at square one. We were exclusively focused on the experience we wanted and didn’t look to anyone else in the peer-to-peer sales market to see how to build it. We weren’t improving someone else’s marketplace — we were building our own. That enabled us to ask the tough questions – what do people really want out of an e-commerce experience? What should it look like? What are the key components? Too many companies start out from a place of “we want to be x, but for x,” without asking first if that’s really what the world needs.
  2. We did look at other kinds of companies – Trends exist for a reason. It does you no good to only look inside at your competitors without paying attention to what people love about other kinds of experiences. Look at the most popular apps and experiences in technology. Why are they so popular? What do people love about them? At OfferUp, we knew we wanted a beautiful user experience that would make shopping for items feel like an experience akin to looking at pictures on Pinterest or browsing for movies on Netflix. And as texting increasingly becomes the dominant form of personal communication, we integrated a messaging component into our app. The result is an experience that builds on what feels familiar, but is totally unique when applied to local buying and selling.
  3. We looked really far forward – We launched OfferUp on a smartphone. That doesn’t feel like a big deal today, but the iPhone had only launched a few years before we started and people were still trying to figure it out. Marketplaces were certainly not on smartphones. But while it’s cool to be first, that’s not why it matters. It matters because when you’re the first, you’re not beholden to any previous notion. We weren’t bound by the historical sense of “how things should be done.” There was no historical sense. We had no constraints. In order for you to succeed as any kind of company, let alone a new player in the e-commerce space, you have to look at what’s next. What’s new? What can you leverage? Where is the undiscovered territory? It’s still early days at OfferUp and there is still so much we can do to reimagine local e-commerce.

Being a leader in a crowded field can be both exciting and intense. But just because you’re among the crowd doesn’t mean you have to be one with it. There’s only one way to carve out success, whether you’re an e-commerce company or not:  start with a clean slate.