Goodwill and Craigslist have long been the best options for anyone looking to clear out that corner of the garage reserved for unused junk. But Nick Huzar (right) and Arean van Veelen believe we deserve a better way to buy and sell locally. The cofounders of OfferUp reflect on how their photo-based smart phone app started as a risky venture between two expectant fathers who survived the dot-com crash and ended up raising $90 million to become the next Craiglist.
1998: A New Home
Arean van Veelen saw Seattle for the first time as a visitor, traveling west on I-90 with Mount Rainier glowing orange in the sunset. His interest in information systems had taken him from his home in the Netherlands to college in Michigan, followed by six years working in an emerging Silicon Valley. He finally returned to the Seattle area for good in 2004 to work with Paccar and Boeing. He was “eager to try it out” and dive into a new startup culture like the one he experienced in the Bay Area.
1999: Social Networks
Fresh out of Washington State University with a degree in management information systems, Nick Huzar helped start Tacoma Networks—a monthly event for the growing tide of tech professionals. Fueled by the explosion of tech companies, the meet-ups soon secured sponsorship from major names like Cisco and Oracle. But Huzar found the practice of networking in person inefficient. “Keep in mind this was pre–social media,” he says. “But back then I thought, What if we took this online?”
2003–09: Missing the Boat
After the Internet bubble burst in the early 2000s, Tacoma Networks fizzled and Huzar began working as a project manager for T-Mobile. But he still couldn’t shake his vision of connecting people online. Using dating sites as a model, he began moonlighting to “develop a platform that anyone could create for different kinds of groups.” He soon hired Van Veelen to help with information systems, and their team eventually secured funding for the networking platform Konnects. But it was too late. Konnects failed to gain traction amongst the growing social media giants like MySpace, Facebook, and LinkedIn.
2010–11: New Fatherhood
As Konnects wound down, both Huzar and Van Veelen became expectant fathers. This fueled Van Veelen’s drive to build something new for his family while helping his wife fulfill her dream of starting a restaurant (Pinto Bistro Thai and Sushi Bar in Seattle). For Huzar, impending fatherhood meant making space…literally. Standing in the doorway of what would soon be his daughter’s room, filled with unused stuff, Huzar figured it would take months to sell everything. There has to be a better way, he thought. How had no one successfully streamlined the process of selling online by browsing photos with a smart phone? And so he called Van Veelen.
2011–15: Taking On Craigslist
“I wasn’t convinced that taking pictures from a smart phone was enough to create a new experience,” says Van Veelen. But he set out with Huzar to experiment and prove himself wrong. The initial goal with OfferUp was to build a user base within a small area in Seattle, then expand. It was slow going for more than a year, and Huzar worried he had stumbled upon another new way to connect people digitally—this time a user-friendly classifieds app with its own photo sharing, communication, and user rating systems—only to fall through the cracks, as he had with Konnects. But after a big marketing push that included passing out OfferUp balloons in neighborhoods, followed by a few key product changes and $90 million in major investments, including a $73 million push in 2015, OfferUp is now in millions of households nationwide.