Zaarly doesn't have a garage.
So many huge tech companies have origin myths centered on guys tuning up their dreams in California garages. Hewlett-Packard ran commercials that touted its launch in a Palo Alto garage. Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak started their company in a Los Altos garage. Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the Web goliath's story goes, rented a woman's garage in Menlo Park. Later, they bought her home to preserve the piece of company lore.
Zaarly, a new tech-industry darling, has no similarly humble origin story. And its founder still lives in Kansas City.
The idea crystallized on a plane in February 2011. CEO and co-founder Bo Fishback was on his way to an event called Startup Weekend, in Los Angeles. The conference assembles volunteers to help entrepreneurs flesh out their ideas. Fishback, then the vice president of Entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation and president of Kauffman Labs for Enterprise Creation, had been planning to chip in his expertise for other participants' ideas, not propose his own.
"On the airplane out there, I was just thinking, 'God, I wonder if I were to pitch something, what I would pitch out there.' You know, I keep a little file on my phone of just company ideas I'd like to be involved with or help people get going, whatever," Fishback says. "Really, we were going to party in L.A. It was NBA All-Star weekend."
Friday night at Startup Weekend, people give no-frills, one-minute pitches for their business ideas. Then people voted and formed teams of volunteers to work on 10 of the ideas over the rest of the weekend. Fishback listened to more than 30 startup ideas but couldn't, he says, get "geeked" over any of them. So he threw out his own.
"I was just like, 'Fuck it, I'm going to pitch something,' " he says. His presentation was an unpolished kernel of an idea: a hyper-localized version of a commerce site similar to eBay or Craigslist, but faster and more versatile.
Fishback, 33, admits that what he suggested — "a real-time, proximity-based, buyer-powered marketplace" — must have come across as a jumble of buzzwords. "It sounds like the nerdiest pitch garbage ever," he says. But he found enough supporters after his 60-second talk to put together a team and refine the idea.
By Saturday afternoon, Fishback says, he was sure he'd created something good.
"I was like, 'Holy shit, if this works, this could be massive,' " he says. In a hushed voice fit for telling an origin story, he adds, "This could be, like, Google massive."
By the end of Startup Weekend, Fishback had found two lieutenants: Eric Koester, who would become the new company's chief operating officer, and Ian Hunter, now Zaarly's chief technology officer. Together, they raised $1 million in seed money from A-list tech celebrities, including Lightbank, a fund started by the founders of Groupon; actor Ashton Kutcher; and Paul Buchheit, Google's 23rd employee and the creator of Gmail.
In March, Zaarly rolled into the South By Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, and attracted droves of app-hungry hipsters. "Hungover at SXSW? Use Zaarly to get your Gatorade and Advil," one blog headline read. The site brokered $10,000 in transactions in 24 hours. (More later on how they did it.)
So Zaarly's creation myth had taken shape, and it wasn't a story of dreamers bent over soldering irons in a California shed. These were professionals running with an idea of unknown potential, even if the national media didn't see them that way.
A Wall Street Journal article from April suggested that Zaarly was merely cashing in on what many experts are calling the second coming of the tech bubble: "After the brief presentation, actress Demi Moore tweeted about the company. She noted that 'everything has a price!' — a reference to her role in the film Indecent Proposal, about a man's $1 million offer to borrow a stranger's wife for a night. Within 48 hours, Zaarly had raised its first seed round of $1 million."