Consumers Find Swap Happiness with TriBarter: Interview with Green Entrepreneur Hedi Katz


TriBarter is a fun, easy web platform dedicated to helping people dispose of excess possessions in an environmentally-friendly way, by turning stuff into needed goods and services, helping people save money, and living a green life. We all have too much stuff – just think of how many TV shows are dedicated to helping people de-clutter their homes! At the same time, people are trying harder than ever to be more earth-friendly.  Green awareness is the highest it’s been in decades. Finally, the economy is still weak and millions of Americans can’t afford the things they need. Being able to trade unwanted or extra possessions for needed ones is a great way to save money and live more frugally.

That’s where Tribarter comes in. We talked to green entrepreneur Hedi Katz to hear how she’s turned junk into green gold.

What’s the big idea behind TriBarter?

Although bartering is a great way to save money and be green, traditional barter has some limitations.  We built TriBarter to eliminate or mitigate these limitations through the use of modern technology.  For example, one of the primary limitations of bartering is timing, where you have to have what I want at the same time that I have to have what you want.  In fact, most of the current online options where people can barter goods and services require users to find this type of barter match in order to trade.

TriBarter circumvents this issue through the use of a community currency, called community points or cPoints for short.  cPoints allow members to trade with anyone at anytime and they also provide extra security, a growing concern for many folks when trading online.

We wanted to create the most secure trading experience possible for our members.  To accomplish this, we began by implementing industry best practices including encryption, proper information storage procedures, and the ability to rate your trading partner.  Then we created additional features to truly enhance the safety of trading on TriBarter.  One example is the cPoints transfer system where cPoints are held in a separate account, like an escrow arrangement, until a valid shipping tracking number or delivery code is entered into the system.  Another safety feature is that we have the ability to revoke or refund cPoints should something go wrong.

Finally, TriBarter gives members the opportunity to create and trade with their own exclusive communities of family and friends.  This provides even more peace of mind when trading, and members have the ability to offer particularly valuable or sentimental items to family and friends first.

The idea first came to me during the financial crisis while I was working in the industry.  I remember sitting on the trading floor with my colleagues glued to the constant stream of financial catastrophes being broadcast on our overhead televisions all day long.  We anticipated that many of us would probably lose our jobs or at least be cash-flow challenged for a while.  I started to think about all the things I had in my house that had value such as clothing, appliances and furniture and realized that it would be difficult to turn those things into cash.  Then I thought, what if there were a centralized, efficient, mechanism for people to trade their goods and services directly, thereby eliminating the “middleman” or the premium associated with cash?

Furthermore, over the last few years, I’ve had a growing awareness of environmental issues and a mounting concern for the planet.  I saw a fantastic documentary called Addicted to Plastic that clearly showed the devastating effects of our disposable lifestyle.  Plastic takes up to 1,000 years to degrade in a landfill and when the small particles from photo-degraded plastic get into our waters, they are ingested by marine animals and passed up the food chain.  In addition, Americans throw away enough garbage every day to fill 63,000 garbage trucks and a 2008 survey of landfills found that 82% of surveyed landfill cells had leaks.  These are frightening statistics and highlight the need for us to do a better job in re-using what we already have.  I realized that bartering represents a great way to re-use, recycle, and re-purpose those things.

I have personally thrown out many things over the years, including things that would have value to someone, and wanted to do something that would make a difference in reversing some of these troubling environmental trends.  People want to do better and have begun to barter through a host of fragmented swap meets and local groups.  Our goal for TriBarter is to centralize the process and make bartering easy, safe, and fun.

How is TriBarter different from other online swap platforms?

Although options are still relatively limited, people do have a choice in ways to dispose of things and maximize their value.  Except for TriBarter, virtually all of these options require that users find a match in order to trade.  As I mentioned earlier, we solve this problem through cPoints that allow members to bank their earnings from the sale of an item, and use their cPoints for a different item from another member at a later date.  While other sites may use match-based technologies to trade items, we allow our members to find what they are looking for and trade immediately.  In this way, cPoints allow tremendous flexibility in the trading process.  They also provide a common unit of valuation along with the security features described earlier.

TriBarter’s private trading communities are also unique.  The ability to trade with family and friends gives greater peace of mind and provides a new twist on the social media concept.

Another great feature of TriBarter is the variety of items, as well as the ability to trade services.  Many sites offer a specific category of items such as books & music thereby limiting the potential trades.  On TriBarter, you can trade an ice cream maker for a massage or designer shoes for an hour of office planning, the list goes on and on!

How did you get the first people to swap their goods?

The first trades happened organically while developing our working prototype.  We enlisted family and friends to post items and try out the site.  We were fortunate in that we had a great support network, and everyone had items they were happy to offer up for trade.

Once people understood the concept and became comfortable navigating the site, trades began to occur.  For example, Jennifer, a friend of one of our co-founders and a mom who had just moved from the city to the country, was looking for an outdoor toy for her son.  At the same time, my dad posted a red see saw in great condition that he had found in his basement.  Jennifer bid on the see saw, and her son now has his first outdoor toy.  Since then we’ve had a number of trades, some through friends and family, and some through other TriBarter members.

What marketing methods have you found to be the most effective for gaining a larger following?

The most effective way of growing the site to date has been word of mouth through friends and family.  We also began utilizing social media tools, and are working on partnering with similarly-aligned communities.

Declutter and recycle with TriBarter

What kind of growth patterns have you seen since the site launched? Has there been a significant increase since the economic downturn?

Although the TriBarter model is beneficial to people in any environment, the variables that exist in the current environment make TriBarter especially appealing.  Although the economy is slowly recovering, there has been a marked shift in the way people think about and spend money.

The financial crisis forced millions of people, including those who were not directly affected by the downturn, to re-think their spending habits.  People are actively seeking new ways of saving money.

They have also never been more aware of the damage to the planet caused by hyper-consumption including the manufacturing, packaging and shipping of new items.  We strongly believe that once people experience the joy of using what they have to get what they need, they will continue to do so especially if it can be done in an efficient, fun, and relatively safe way.

Are you using an ecommerce website platforms or checkout platform for the site? Do you have any advice on how to evaluate these technology platforms for online business?

Since TriBarter is effectively its own ecommerce system, we needed to create our own customized platform.  We built it using industry standard frameworks, and made it modular so we can be agile in responding to customer and industry shifts.

The best advice for someone looking to create a web-based business is to determine which elements of your business model are truly unique.  The last thing you want to do is to re-invent the wheel.  If it makes sense, you can save a great deal of money and time by leveraging existing platforms.  In our case, we had to start from scratch but that’s not necessarily true for many websites that may only need some minor customization.

Are there any mistakes that you made on this entrepreneurial journey that you would like to share with other green entrepreneurs?

Don’t get overwhelmed by challenges.  Always think of a challenge as a potential opportunity.  It is difficult to get a startup off the ground and it is very easy to get caught up in all of the things that have or could go wrong.  Our best ideas often arose from being faced with an obstacle and being creative in ways to get around that obstacle.

Furthermore, while there are no guarantees that what worked in the past will work again, drawing on experience will help you to better understand potential pitfalls.  The advice and guidance of other successful entrepreneurs and business people went a long way for us in avoiding mistakes. We were selected to participate in the ASTIA (www.astia.org) program which has connected us with some of the most experienced people in the industry.  The advice, guidance, and access they have provided have been invaluable.

How is TriBarter funded? Did you receive any VC or outside funding?

TriBarter has been self-funded to date by the co-founders.  With a shoestring budget, we were able to produce a working prototype and establish initial market validation.  We have just begun the process of seeking outside investment to help grow the site.

What advice would you have for other aspiring green and social entrepreneurs?

Be true to what you are doing and believe in yourself and your idea.  Although it’s important to be aware of trends and adapt your business where appropriate, remember your core mission and stick to it.  Also, make sure that the business model makes sense along with your social mission.  The combination of being able to make money while doing something good is very empowering and more sustainable in the long run.  Profitability is a great way of ensuring the future of your social mission and should underscore the success of your model.  So as you think about green issues and social responsibility, think about how they should be woven into the fabric of doing business and not something outside of the world of business.

You can connect with Heidi via Facebook and Twitter.

This post was written by:

Maryruth Belsey Priebe

Maryruth has been seeking the keys to environmental justice - both at home and at work - for over a decade. Growing up adjacent to wild spaces, Maryruth developed a healthy respect (and whimsical appreciation) for things non-human, but her practical mind constantly draws her down to earth to ponder tangible solutions to complex eco-problems.

With interests that range from green living to green business, sustainable building designs to organic gardening practices, ecosystem restoration to environmental health, Maryruth has been exploring and writing about earth-matters for most of her life. Of special interest is the subject of ecopsychology and the role the natural world plays in the long-term health and well-being of humanity. You can learn more about Maryruth's work at www.JadeCreative.ca.


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