When Bill Harding was creating the marketplace Bonanzle, he wanted it to be so simple that his grandparents could use it. In fact, his grandmother Audrey, who is in her 70s, was one of his first registered users; she and her friends regularly visit and shop on the site.
Since launching in June 2008 with virtually no fanfare, Bonanzle has quickly grown to about 3,000 users, thanks to word of mouth advertising from enthusiastic buyers and sellers who embrace its simple interface and interactive features like chat rooms, where sellers can greet and talk with visitors about their wares.
Harding, 28, said he came up with the idea for the site when he was moving and wanted to sell furniture and other possessions to make the job easier. But sites like eBay made the process of listing multiple items too time-consuming. "I wanted to post ten or twenty items in ten or twenty minutes, and I just couldn't do it on any site that existed at the time," he said. "If a buyer found one of my items, I wanted them to see the rest of my inventory. At a garage sale, you never buy one item; you buy other things you see on the table."
Harding started working on Bonanzle in early 2007. He still does much of the programming himself, adding features requested by customers on a "wish list." Currently, the number one item on the list is the ability to combine shipping costs for multiple items. When customers make such requests or report problems, they are likely to get personal responses from him. The site is still small enough that Harding, in turn, recognizes many of his members by their User ID or by name.
The garage sale analogy applies to other aspects of buying and selling on Bonanzle. It's a fixed-price marketplace rather than an auction site. However, buyers have ample opportunity to haggle or otherwise talk with sellers through an interactive chat feature. Each sales "booth" (a booth is the equivalent of a store on eBay) has a chat window built into it. The seller, if he or she chooses, can greet visitors and engage them in conversation.
The social networking aspect sets Bonanzle apart from other sites. Often, Harding will enter a booth and find long conversations having taken place between a seller and their buyers. It's the same kind of interaction eBay has thrived on with its own message boards and chat rooms; it keeps members on the site longer, and gives them more incentive to revisit frequently. The difference is that on Bonanzle (which also has discussion forms), much chatting also goes on right in the midst of sales descriptions. And because Bonanzle is positioning itself as a place where one-of-a-kind collectibles and other unique items are sold rather than new electronics equipment, DVDs, or other mainstream consumer goods, buyers tend to be collectors and enthusiasts who are eager to talk about a seller's selection of merchandise.
"Sellers are friendly enough to where they will talk to you," says Harding. "There are a lot of friendly people on the site, and they like each other's company. If you like one of the magazines that a site sells you will probably like ten or twenty of them. The seller and buyer have a good starting point for a conversation."
There's another advantage to sellers who actively engage in chatting up visitors: "When someone searches for something on our site, we prioritize search results so people who are online have their results shown first," says Harding.
Search results, in fact, are another important concern of Bonanzle's. The site sends feeds of its listings to Google and other search sites. Harding reports that fully one-third of visitors to the site come from shoppers who find listings in organic search results.
But perhaps the most distinctive feature of Bonanzle - the feature that has been Harding's strongest motivator - is the desire to keep the user experience as simple as possible. "There are a lot of sites out there that make it complicated," he says. "Sites like iOffer and eBay are great, but they to do too much. Our principle is to do less."
It's a principle that comes from Harding's previous experience in the video game industry. He helped develop games such as The Sims for the Game Boy Advance platform. That marketplace taught him the importance of keeping the user experience simple so people can learn quickly and want to return to the experience regularly. Video games are, in fact, one of the items Harding sells on Bonanzle himself. But he says the most popular and active categories are collectibles, shoes, jewelry, books, and records. They're all "things that aren't going to show up at Target," he comments.
The human component is the aspect of Bonanzle that sets it apart from other online marketplaces, in its creator's opinion. It's social networking that's truly social. "We're trying to avoid the MySpace paradigm where you build up a list of 1,000 friends you don't really know. It's a more natural social interaction; if you search for an item you like, you can make friends with the seller."