The three buddies behind SwapSimple, Inc.--Elliot Hirsch, David Goldblatt, and Eric Haszlakiewicz--have been tossing around business ideas since they were students at New Trier High School in the mid-90s. Hirsch would dream up a plan, and the trio would bat it back and forth until the fatal flaws inevitably popped out. But in 2003, on the way home from a camping trip, Hirsch and Goldblatt came up with the germ of an idea so workable, so full of promise, they couldn't kill it. As college students they'd bitched about how campus bookstores ripped them off: selling brand-new textbooks at hideously high prices, buying them back for a pittance, then reselling them for a handsome profit. What if students all over the country could cut out the middleman and trade textbooks directly with each other?
"It seemed like such a no-brainer," Hirsch says. Even Haszlakiewicz, the tech expert and devil's advocate of the group, thought they could have it up in six months or so. They spent two years working out the kinks and in 2005 launched a fledgling version of swapsimple.com. After a year of user feedback and further refinements the site was expanded to include DVDs, video games, and all kinds of books. The peer-to-peer trading service offers free membership, integrated shipping, and, as of this month, a social network complete with user profiles and messaging capability. It has just 2,000 members so far and has logged only about 400 trades, but Haszlakiewicz says it's reaching a tipping point. "We're thinking pretty soon now it's going to explode and we're going to have a million users on there."
That's a nice round number and, coincidentally, just the amount the owners are looking to get from investors. The trio have put in about $45,000 so far; with $1 million, Hirsch says, they'd be able to advertise, add more features, hire some full-time staff (themselves), and take this low-overhead business to the max. Goldblatt says they could conceivably offer a marketplace as varied as eBay, but for trade instead of sale. Earlier this summer they trekked out to a west-coast venture forum, where Hirsch says an Amazon official confided that he "hates to see young entrepreneurs spinning their wheels" (while asking "900 questions about our business") and potential backers said they'd love to invest after the company meets certain milestones--say, 10,000 members for starters.
The three returned empty-handed to their headquarters--the basement of a Ravenswood apartment--and their day jobs. Until recently, when Goldblatt took a position at Loyola University (running the lab at the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Policy), both he and Hirsch were waiting tables at Pete Miller's Seafood & Prime Steak in Evanston, where they met and recruited SwapSimple's newest unpaid employee, barkeep and marketing maven Lakshmi Rengarajan. Haszlakiewicz, a consultant for TransUnion, is SwapSimple's system architect; Hirsch, tethered to his BlackBerry, provides its 24-7 customer service; Goldblatt handles the books; and Rengarajan, when she's not tending bar, is responsible for getting the word out.
"Use what you have to get what you need" is the company's motto, and the formula is attractive: it's recycling enhanced by nearly instant acquisition. The software determines the market value for any book, DVD, or video game and immediately establishes trade credits based on that amount. This allows for cross-platform trading--the ability to swap books for DVDs, for instance. Shipping is cheap and almost effortless: if someone requests an item you've listed for trade, SwapSimple e-mails you a fully addressed, postage-paid label. All you have to do is print the label out, pop the item into a mailer, and drop it in the nearest mailbox. The total charge for a single DVD (in addition to the credits) is $3.72, which includes SwapSimple's $2 transaction fee.
I used the site last week and ran into a couple minor stumbling blocks--for instance, I couldn't get past a page that wanted to know what school I was attending (an e-mail to customer service took care of that). But one look at the inventory (about 7,000 different titles, Haszlakiewicz says) had me rummaging through my office for neglected tomes that someone else might treasure. SwapSimple offers instant full credit for video games and DVDs (the hot commodities) but only 20 percent instant credit for books (you get the rest when someone actually places a request). Even so, I only had to put three books on the block to rack up the five instant credits that would snag the object of my desire, spotted on the very first page of listings: a DVD of the 1958 sci-fi thriller The Blob. The $3.72 charge will appear on my credit card; The Blob's owner had three days to send it off.
The partners are talking to lawyers about patenting aspects of their business as other Internet trading services pop up, but they also believe SwapSimple is in a unique position: according to Hirsch, the big companies don't really want customers to circumvent them by directly trading with one another, and most small companies can't provide the guarantees, support, and flexibility SwapSimple offers. "Ninety-eight percent are going to fall by the wayside and one or two are going to push through," he says. "This is our make-or-break year. The challenge is taking an idea that's very delicate right now and getting it out there to everybody as soon as possible, so that when you think of eBay, you think of auctions; when you think of SwapSimple, you think of trading."
100 Actors in Search of a Voice
The first regional session of the National Actors Congress, dedicated to giving "the actor a voice," will convene--by invitation only--August 7 at the American Theater Company. "We only have a 100-seat theater," explained actor and organizer Kate Buddeke, who currently bunks in New York, as does co-organizer Carmen Roman. "We went to all the theaters around town and asked them to pick two actors [as delegates]." (She says some unaffiliated actors who are "vocal in the community" were also invited.) The Actors Congress was created by J. Michael Miller of the Actors Center, a New York City nonprofit, and its first national meeting was held there in January. This session, also hosted by Miller and the Actors Center, will focus on the "role of the actor in society," drawing attention to "increasing marginalization" onstage and off. Buddeke says "collaboration [in the theater] is fading--everything is done practically before we're even called to audition. We're the last ones to have a voice, even though we're the ones who are doing it." The event will include panels of actors and critics (including the Reader's Albert Williams and Kerry Reid); a few additional seats may be available, for actors only, by reservation. Call Buddeke at 917-776-4122.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Rob Warner.