Long ago, I promised an interview component to Ask a Brokeass. I’ve talked to some badass brokeasses since then, but I haven’t gotten around to transcribing all of those interviews. The intern needs an intern.
Then last week I received an email from Mark Hexamer, co-founder of the innovative new media trading site Swaptree.com, who saw my posts on the greening of Harry Potter and the virtues of sharing and wanted to talk up his project. What’s greener than an eco-edition of Harry Potter? Well, the edition of Harry Potter that never had to be printed, argues Hexamer. Lucky for
me us, he agreed to do an email interview on Swaptree, which allows users to post books, DVDs, CDs, and video games that they’re done with and exchange them for the things they’re looking for. Essentially, Hexamer’s great idea helps you get tons of new-to-you things for free, without using more natural resources. Since I have no inside information about his personal finances, I can’t straight-up call him a Brokeass, but I will give him the Brokeass Seal of Approval for coming up with a great idea that all of us can benefit from.
Without further ado, Mark Hexamer:
So, when/how did you start Swaptree?
Greg Boesel and I started Swaptree back in 2004. It took us two years from the genesis of the idea and initial prototype until we were ready to start having the system generate trades for “real” users.
What was the inspiration for the site?
The inspiration for the site was really a whole bunch of things, as opposed to one “a-ha” moment. For example, I don’t think it was a coincidence that the idea came about at the same time where it seemed everyone had a copy of The DaVinci Code. Greg and I, when pitching the idea, would ask potential investors, “How many copies of The DaVinci Code are in a square block radius in NYC?” You could always see the light go on when we asked that question. At the same time you had community-driven sites like Craigslist and Freecycle really taking off, not to mention Netflix. Furthermore, we noticed that we frequently traded books with our friends, that our nephews played a new $55 video game for a week or so and then never again, and that our shelves were full of CDs and DVDs that we would never play again. All of these factor contributed to the genesis of the idea.
What kind of resources are behind this (staff, funding, etc.)?
Currently we have a staff of five people, in addition to some off-shore development in India. We have done two angel rounds and have raised around $2 million.
What is the benefit of having a program like this?
Well, the obvious benefit is that it allows you to recycle the books, textbooks, CDs, DVDs, and video games that you have, but are finished with, for the ones you want, for free. Our users only pay for shipping. So if you have a bestselling book you just finished, put it up on Swaptree and trade it for another bestseller. When you are done with that book, put it up for trade and get another. And on and on, for just the cost of shipping, which with media mail can cost just a couple of dollars. So there is a tremendous cost savings.
In addition, using Swaptree saves a significant amount of natural resources. How many copies of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows are going to be printed? 20 million? 50 million? Do we really need to print 20 million copies of the latest Harry Potter? Can’t we just share, say a million, and leave the trees in the forest? So there is both an economical and environmental benefit.
Do you have aspirations for Swaptree having some sort of wider effect on community or consumption habits?
We do. We started off with these items because people have lots of these items laying around collecting dust and are already comfortable trading these offline. Once our users get comfortable trading these items online, we will begin to introduce other categories, like baby gear and clothes, women’s clothing, collectibles, etc.
Furthermore, we really want to foster the notion of sharing as much as trading. One benefit of being free is that we can really create a great sense of community on the site. Since we are free we can encourage our users to trade informally, without trying to figure out how Swaptree can collect a transaction fee. So if you log onto Swaptree and see that your neighbor or co-worker has a DVD you want to watch, we don’t care if you simply call them up and ask them if you can borrow it. In the future maybe you will be able to log on to Swaptree and see that your neighbor has a ladder or lawn mower that you can borrow.
How have people reacted to the project so far?
The feedback so far has been fantastic. People are amazed that they can offer, say the book Freakonomics for trade, and we instantly show them the thousands of items they can receive in trade for it right now. So there definitely is this “wow” factor with the site. The other feedback we get a lot is that it’s fun and easy. It’s like the trading you did on the playground as a child — I give you this, and you give me that.
This is important to us because when we designed the site, one of the guiding principles we had was to make the site so simple that our mothers could understand it and use it. When people tell us it’s “easy and fun,” we know we passed that test. Lastly, people tell us all the time that they are amazed this idea hasn’t been done before. We like hearing that because it’s a sure sign that you have good idea that’s well implemented.
Have you used Swaptree yet? What did you trade, and what did you get in return?
I use Swaptree every day. My most recent trade I shipped out the Amy Winehouse CD, “Back to Black,” and received a brand new Peter Pan DVD for my daughter.
What’s one book or film you don’t think you’ll ever be able to swap?
You will be shocked by what some people want. A co-worker actually got rid of a Milli Vanilli CD. Bad enough he owned it, but shocking that someone wanted it.
Concerned about the environment but don’t have the economic means to buy your way to carbon neutrality? Need some ideas on how to be savvy about the earth and your dollar? Direct your questions, comments, and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. And remember, as the old saying goes, it’s better to be broke than to further the break-up of the Arctic ice shelf.