Going Big By Going Small: Building a Community

Tami Zuckerman, Founder of VarageSale, shares how she created a safe, personal, and affordable option for shopping moms and in turn built a new community.

I’ve always taken great pleasure in making the most of my neighbourhood community: taking my child to the park, walking around my favourite streets, chatting with the family holding the local garage sale, or simply sitting on the porch sipping on coffee, watching the world go by.

A strong community evokes a feeling of belonging and in turn, stirs all the best emotions – those associated with home: love, food, shelter, safety, comfort and life itself.

As a kindergarten teacher, I was acutely aware that social interaction is critical in child development because it is the foundation of community. Back in 2012, however, I had no idea this deeply rooted instinct would lead me to launch an online business which now spans across Canada, the United States and beyond.

What I did know though, even back then, was that while social media creates virtual communities unfettered by geography, something was missing.

That void became more apparent when I was pregnant with my first child.

I started purging things in the house and selling them online – mostly to make space because I found myself stocking up on baby items I would need. I tried my hand at selling some items on social sites like Facebook, but they were disorganized and it was clear they weren’t originally designed for buying and selling.

I really wasn’t comfortable with traditional classifieds either. They weren’t geared towards moms – or moms to be like me – who were looking for baby stuff or just cleaning out their closets, selling the purses they never used or shoes they never wore.

Sites like Craigslist or Kijiji were obviously designed around impersonal and anonymous transactions. I also found them impractical because the buyer and the seller could live miles apart, even though they’re in the same city – and I could only list items when I was at a computer. All this made the lesser value items I wanted to sell more hassle than they were worth. Inevitably things would be tossed in the trash or given away.

On top of that, and most importantly, I didn’t feel safe. It made me uncomfortable to meet someone I only knew from an exchange of emails, so I would only schedule meetings when I knew my husband would be around, which created another barrier. I finally stopped using buy and sell sites completely when, time and time again, I would receive countless replies from someone trying to scam me, asking for my bank account number – it was beyond frustrating.

I kept coming back to this feeling that there was something missing – all those anonymous transactions left me feeling disconnected. The meetings were fleeting, and void of any real meaningful interaction. My connection to the neighbourhood and our neighbours was lost with less and less local garage sales being held and more and more items being sold online. The neighbours, like me, were all selling things online too but we were all doing it in silo.

What was missing, I realized, was a local buy and sell site geared towards supporting neighbourhoods – and one that was specifically designed to ensure safety and ease of use.

For most people the thought would have ended there, but it just so happens my husband, Carl Mercier, is a serial entrepreneur and developer, so I thought he might be able to come up with something I could use in our community. To my disappointment, my busy husband didn’t have extra time to work on projects for me on top of everything else he had on his plate. It made me think, “Actually, I bet other moms would like this too!”

However, Carl did provide some insights. Craigslist, Kijiji and others were already entrenched in the buy/sell space and had their firm grasp on large advertisers. These existing buy and sell sites were designed to be stripped down, basic forums which cost almost nothing to launch or maintain and they did that job well. In a similar vein, social media sites like Facebook were disorganized and not meant for buying and selling, but people hacked the “groups” function to create buy and sell groups.

My goal quickly came to light: I wanted to create something different – a platform that merged the sense of community inherent from social media, but was actually functional, with dedicated buy and sell features. However, I was also motivated by the idea of added security to make sure me and the other people using it felt safe doing so. It just made so much sense to me, I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t see it. The last thing I wanted was to build another Craigslist, I wanted to build the exact opposite.

So that was the first hurdle: getting Carl onboard. He’s no easy sell but if he sees an opportunity, he’s on it like a toddler on chocolate cake.

I put my kindergarten teacher hat back on and went for the sure thing: “Show and Tell.” I started selling stuff online through social media and arranged for buyers to come when Carl was home, after supper. The steady flow of customers wasn’t what impressed him initially; it was the lengthy conversations at my doorstep.

Women love to chat. We chat about shopping and babies, and shopping for our babies! So, I would set up meetings at our home when I was selling something and make sure Carl was home to see me in action. I’d give him a front-row seat to let my idea present itself.

The level of engagement with the women coming to our door was unrelenting – I’m talking almost every evening, meeting new person after new person. It wasn’t all, here’s the money, give me the purse like with other classified sites – instead, we were interacting. Of course, there were conversations about the purse, jewelry, or the outgrown baby stroller I was selling. But there were also conversations about the neighbourhood, friends we might have in common, and parenting tips and tricks.

This was the tipping point for Carl. He recognized that the idea could have legs because every successful internet model is based around engagement. In other words, if people cluster around a site they like enough, they’ll stick around, share it with their friends and keep coming back. Plus, he was a bit annoyed – he lost his dining room (thanks to all the little piles marked with post-it notes I had ready for my next sale) and of course, he missed his TV buddy (me!) – could you blame him?  

Within weeks he’d built the first prototype of VarageSale. I knew what we needed to build, he knew how to build it. And just like that our second child was born.

Carl initially designed the site for our own community, just outside Montreal, with a visual feed of items for sale, a private chat feature, categories and personal “stores” to bring organization to what was missing in Facebook buy and sell groups. That and a vetting process to ensure those who signed up were real people – an added a layer of safety, which we agreed was essential for differentiation from traditional classifieds.

From the start, we wanted to recreate the vibe of a neighbourhood garage sale, hence the name, VarageSale–a virtual garage sale. So, we purposely built in opportunities for engagement, such as a comment field under each item and a discussions forum that encouraged people to connect, even if the conversation wasn’t about a specific sale item.

This is important because women shop differently than men. Men walk into a store or go online, know what they want, find the item and a price and buy. Women browse; they go shopping in pairs or as a group. It’s recreational, it’s social. We walk, we talk, we laugh and we buy, often based on each other’s approvals of items.

What we wanted for VarageSale was to capture that essence and bottle it. It was going to be about the relationship and the feeling of community, not just about a transaction.

Not surprisingly, right after the site went up it sort of fell off the radar for a few months. I was a new mom and swamped with my baby boy; Carl had work. We were both just busy parents.

One day, Carl checked in on the site and was shocked. It was a rough frame, not polished at all, yet there were thousands of people using it. Most impressively, my instincts were bang on.

About a quarter of the people on the site were repeat visitors. This meant we had captured the Holy Grail of online experiences – engagement! This is when things started getting serious. By 2013, Carl called in a few friends from the tech investment community and they redesigned and reengineered the site to kick it up a notch, expanding to other areas.

People kept coming. What’s more, the feedback we were getting was wonderful. People really loved the site! They loved the social aspect, of getting to know people in their neighbourhood and making new friends.

And, of course, they loved the deals.

In 2015, we’d spread to all Canadian provinces, 42 U.S. states, Europe, Asia, and Australia. We had millions of users; half of whom were using VarageSale’s mobile app every day. We went ‘viral,’ as they say, and we were a smash success but, and here’s the cautionary tale, be careful what you wish for.

While VarageSale brought success far beyond my dreams, it brought a heaping helping of new realities.

I had a baby boy who was growing up fast and I was trying to manage a startup growing even faster on zero sleep.

Neither of us were sleeping, in fact, and it made everyone a little stressed and cranky. I was exhausted as new moms are, but with the added stress of the startup, I was getting close to zombie territory.

I’ve since learned that as a mom and entrepreneur, I can’t do it all alone. No, ladies, I am not Supermom. We need to ask for help once in a while and there’s no shame in it.

People say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Well, it takes a village to raise a startup too. From my family who never hesitated to extend their help in times of need – whether it was dropping off dinner or stepping in to take care of Noah when I had to take an unexpected trip – to the focus group of my closest friends whose honesty helped us make VarageSale a better product, work life balance starts when we ask for and accept help from those around us. Whether large or small, the contributions of every one of those people – including my sleep training consultant who made sure I was getting enough fuel to hit the ground running in the mornings, helped me do my job better, and in turn, helped us get VarageSale off its feet and into the hands of every one of its users.

I also learned from my personal experience that there are many similarities between managing a classroom and an office. In both environments, you work with all types of personalities. It all comes down to people: children and adults learn and are motivated in more ways than one. It’s a parallel that really stuck with me all through the start of VarageSale. I was influenced to build a culture around caring for our people and making sure we addressed their needs by learning how they are motivated, how they best communicate, how they learn, what their wants and concerns are. I’ve always believed that the best outcome comes from people who feel cared for, organized and structured. At the core, that’s what VarageSale is all about.

It’s also all too easy to immerse yourself with your child or your work. VarageSale is my baby too, after all. That said, I believe it’s really important to have a “sustainable” strategy and that means some serious “me” time. In fact, I think all parents need some down time for personal recharging – it’s all about balance after all. I’ve come to realize you really are no good to anyone else if you’re not good to yourself.

I have a strict no calls rule during my time with my son, which is Monday to Thursday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. On weekends, Noah gets a lot of family time, and Daddy time on Sunday mornings, which is when I sleep in.

I’m not just being overly fussy or controlling. It’s really a question of survival. The technology space is dominated by men and while there are some amazing women I’ve met in this sector, we face different challenges than our male counterparts.

Recognizing the differences and keeping them in mind is key. After all, I’ve always believed you go further when you celebrate and embrace the differences that make us unique. That’s why I am so proud of what we’ve accomplished with VarageSale. It’s a special place where online conversations turn into real live conversations and friendship. It also provides an opportunity for families to stretch their budgets and make life a little more affordable.

VarageSale was designed to be safe and friendly and there are some amazing deals to be had right in your own backyard. These are all things which are important to women like me and so in conceptualizing the site and through its many iterations, we’ve stayed true to that core value.

It’s all paid off, for both VarageSale – which is now one of the fastest growing online marketplaces – and for the members in our buy/sell communities who understand that a transaction is more than just an exchange of goods for money. It’s about the relationship and connections we make with one another.

From helping families stretch their budgets so they can better afford Christmas, treat themselves to a vacation, or save for things like retainers or braces for the kids, VarageSale has grown into something much larger than just Carl, Noah and I – it’s become a real community with people like you and me, from neighbourhoods all around the world.

 

Tami is the mom behind VarageSale. While on extended maternity leave in 2011, she came up with the idea for a better buy and sell site. With the help of her programmer husband, the VarageSale platform was born just months after the birth of her son in May of 2012.
As Co-Founder of an award-winning startup, Tami currently spends her time helping new communities launch, leading her ever-growing team and coming up with new ideas to improve user experience on the site/app. Previous to this, Tami spent 10 years teaching, molding and motivating the future stars of the world.
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