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Behind the scenes of Zaarly’s SXSW launch

Inside the Zaarly Mobile HQ, from left to right: Allison Koester of Seattle, Adam Coomes of Kansas City, Eric Koester (Zaarly) of Seattle, and George Brooks and Bo Fishback (Zaarly) of Kansas City. Photo by Danny Schreiber.

As I prepared for the trip down to Austin, Texas for South by Southwest Interactive earlier this month, I kept a close eye on the Silicon Prairie attendee Twitter stream to see what folks from the region were up to in Austin. The expected tweets about panels and parties raised my anticipation as usual, but a tweet from Nick Seguin of Kansas City really caught my attention. “Panorama – 360 view: of @getzaarly mobile HQ http://occip.it/pt48bnww http://twitpic.com/48bnww #fb,” Seguin tweeted (screenshot below).

A Zaarly Mobile HQ? What are these Zaarly guys up to now, I thought. In less than a month they had pitched their idea at Startup Weekend Los Angeles, quit their day jobs and raised $1 million from a group of notable investors. Next up, as I learned, was a trip to Texas for a product launch at SXSW.

“We actually didn’t decide we were going to come to Southby until [eight days before the conference],” Zaarly CEO Bo Fishback said in a March 15 interview. “We made a call to get the RV and to see if we could get this thing ready in time. I mean, frankly, we launched two days into Southby because we were actually getting it ready to launch at Southby.”

The Zaarly Mobile HQ was parked next to the main venue of the conference, Austin Convention Center, and across the street from Iron Works BBQ (100 Red River Street). Photo by Danny Schreiber.

On Sunday, March 13, Zaarly launched to users in Austin, giving them access to the first iteration of the product billed as a proximity-based, real-time, buyer-powered market. To accommodate the quick launch and rapid iteration that followed, it was released as an HTML 5 app on austin.zaarly.com.

While Fishback and Zaarly’s COO Eric Koester arrived in Austin on March 10, Zaarly’s CTO, Ian Hunter, didn’t join the team until the day before the launch. Up until then, he was hunkered down in a Los Angeles coworking space finishing development.

“It’s been an epic programming battle,” Hunter said, “I think I set the record at the Coloft for the most number of hours ever spent there – it was a 46-hour streak of non-stop programming.”

It wasn’t until March 12 at 6 p.m., 12 hours before the launch, that Zaarly conducted its first user tests. And after some initial users came back with “I don’t understand this,” the Zaarly team re-did the app’s interface. “I think HTML 5 only allowed us to do this in this way,” Koester said, “because we took a product at 6 o’clock and spent four or five hours iterating on how to use it.”

Fishback estimated that at the time of our interview they had done 10 code pushes, and he joked that they would possibly be doing another one by the time the interview was over.

“At 5 a.m. [the day of the launch], we were making the wording changes to this because some people had asked, ‘Is this like Craigslist? Is this like hyper-local eBay?'” Fishback said. “But really what Zaarly is, is the opposite.”

“It created a last-minute real push … to say, ‘Hey, we need to be crisp, and it’s OK for us to invent some terms.'” Fishback said. “And people are, in Austin, using the term, ‘Just Zaarly it.’ That’s 24 hours after launch people have taken this word and made it a verb. What [Zaarly] basically means is to pay blank for blank in a certain amount of time. In one day, that became a meaningful saying, which is a pretty awesome thing to watch.”

Fishback said that 24 hours after launch there was in the “low thousands” of users and hundreds of transactions that totaled close to $10,000.

“What [Zaarly] basically means is, to pay blank for blank in a certain amount of time. In one day, that became a meaningful saying, which is a pretty awesome thing to watch,” said Fishback.

Beyond the core team of four that accomplished this feat, Fishback said giving everyone credit for the launch would take “the kind of Grammy-style thank yous for an hour.” From Fishback’s father-in-law who found the RV to a designer in Kansas City who flew down to a street team of 20 people, Zaarly’s launch required a community effort.

“I had a friend who was in Austin that we called in,” Hunter said, “and he ended up programming until about 6 in the morning to help us finish off some designs.”

After launching, the team hit the streets of Austin and the circuit of SXSW parties to engage with the growing local Zaarly community. They also posted an offer of their own: $250 for a keg delivered to the Zaarly RV in the next 24 hours. Just before I conducted my interview with the team, the woman who had taken them up on their offer delivered the keg. Fishback said it gave him chills to see Zaarly work.

“People say ‘we launched,’ at South by Southwest,” Koester said. “It’s never been our goal to launch at South by Southwest, but what it was was to come up with a product that we could get in peoples’ hands to see if what we thought was an interesting model.

“The number of people that signed up and the number of people that used it, the dollars of the transactions just that first 24-hour window kind of told all of us, like, ‘Yep, there’s something here.'”

As I left, the team began to enjoy the keg of beer that they had Zaarlied, and they made plans for their final day of SXSW Interactive events. But unlike the conference’s 19,000 paid attendees, the Zaarly team would be doing so without badges around their necks. The three team members had launched a startup that grabbed the attention of thousands of users and drew international press, but not one of them had bought a SXSW badge.

“But we did see some people trading badges using Zaarly,” Fishback said. “We had no time for [SXSW].”

Here are more photos I took inside the Zaarly Mobile HQ at SXSW:

A view down the front half of the RV where Zaarly team members and friends worked and hung out.

The team was well-stocked on snack food and beverages to make it through the long days and late nights.

Koester, Brooks and Fishback discuss design changes.

While Fishback speaks with the woman who redeemed the $250 keg offer, users of Zaarly tap into the keg.

The Zaarly promotional team used these signs on the streets of Austin to capture SXSW attendees’ ideas about what they’d be willing to pay for a good or service.

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