Bunz, Canadian Facebook swap group, draws fans, investors
The once-private group for trading goods and services now has more than 40,000 members and exists in 8 cities
A once-private Canadian Facebook group where members trade items ranging from old furniture to an "unfortunately used" diamond engagement ring has grown to more than 40,000 members, developed its own app and recently got a cash infusion from an angel investor.
But Bunz, officially known as the Bunz Trading Zone, now faces the tricky proposition of dealing with its astounding growth.
It also must find a way to monetize a business model that began with a small, community-based group of mostly millennials who found a way to get value out of things they no longer needed instead of throwing them away.
"It's tough," said Bunz founder Emily Bitze. "We really believe in this project, and we really want to make it work. But we need the money to continue the project."
Ironic, considering money is banned on Bunz.
Funding from the angel investment is paying for a downtown Toronto office, three app developers and seven employees, but there is no business model as yet.
Bitze, 32, a musician who also worked in a clothing store in Toronto's hip Queen West neighbourhood, started the group about three years ago, essentially because she was broke and hungry.
"I wasn't able to make ends meet, which meant that I couldn't always buy food," said Bitze.
"So, I figured that my friends nearby would have something I needed if I could provide what they needed."
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Bitze started a private Facebook group where she and a few friends would trade, say, books or records for food or perhaps booze.
Those few friends told a few other friends, and they told a few other friends, and the numbers exploded.
Within about 18 months, there were more than 12,000 members.
The original name, Bumz (think "bum a smoke") morphed into Bunz after some members objected to the negative connotations of the former, and the items being traded became more and more varied.
Just about anything goes
"Bunz who are into bums" read one recent post from a member looking to trade two sex toys. "Got these two glass sceptres from two different girlfriends (what are the chances?)," wrote the user.
"Well, I can guarantee these have never been used," he added. "Not that there's anything wrong with people who are into that sort of thing."
The user was ISO (in search of) "an office chair/computer chair or random weird things like militaria."
Another member was offering a $50 gift card for Mountain Equipment Co-op ("bought this for my ex, but turns out he sucks").
Someone else was looking to trade one "unfortunately used" white gold, 1.0 carat, brilliant-cut diamond engagement ring for a motorcycle. "Toss in a few beers (or a helmet)," he wrote, "I'll throw in the whole story."
It gets (very) personal
Between its app, which is available for both iOS and Android, and on the Bunz.com website, Bunz is now seeing an average of 250 trades per day.
There are now Bunz groups in Montreal, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Vancouver, London, Ont., San Francisco and Los Angeles, although the largest is still in Toronto.
Anyone can join by entering the code 777777 into the app or on the home page of Bunz.com and signing into Facebook.
While there's no money allowed, many Bunz members ask for transit tokens or tall boys of beer, which have become sort of unofficial currencies for Bunz members. Some traders are ISO "420," a euphemism for marijuana.
Many of the trades are simply a way to get rid of old junk, but other posts are much more personal and heartfelt
"ISO a real adult (30+)," read a recent post, "to listen to my problems and tell me its (sic) gonna be OK [because] my real parents are emotionally unavailable, and I'm broke and failing all my classes. Will trade — a painting."
The comments on this post were, nearly to a person, encouraging and supportive. Many offered advice. One even provided a link to a resource that offers free psychotherapy.
Will trade booze for body art
Sara Spears, who works at a Toronto advertising firm, heard about Bunz a few months ago from a colleague who was running out on her lunch hour to make a trade.
"I think I've done about six or seven [trades]," Spears said.
"It's kind of addicting. And also, I'm moving soon, so I find myself looking through everything and thinking, 'Oh, I don't need this' and 'I wonder what I could trade for this.'"
In her very first trade, she swapped a bottle of gin and half a kilo of coffee for a tattoo.
Yes, a real, permanent tattoo.
"I really liked the idea of it," said Spears, who sports the palm-sized tattoo of a bouquet of lavender on her forearm.
"And I've actually become good friends with the artist."
Community first or cash?
It's that human connection, Bitze says, that is the key to Bunz's popularity.
Because you take money out of the equation, there's more room for goodwill.- Emily Bitze, Bunz founder
"That's why it's so special. Because you take money out of the equation, there's more room for goodwill," she said.
"You might do a trade with someone and sit down and have a coffee with them. And that's really cool. I think a lot of people really lack that sense of belonging in a community."
But how does Bunz, which is no longer a private, invite-only group, maintain that sense of community now that there are tens of thousands of members and more joining every day?
And how do you monetize that?
"We're not bringing in any money at the moment (other than the angel investor funding). That's something we need to figure out," said Bitze.
Bitze's dilemma is a familiar one, says Tim Jackson, a venture capitalist and executive vice-president with MaRS, a Toronto organization that provides support for startups and entrepreneurs.
Charging a processing fee for every transaction might be one way for Bunz to monetize, says Jackson. But that seems to go against the original idea of Bunz. There is also inherent value in the access Bunz has to its tens of thousands of members, many of whom are millennials, an attractive and notoriously fickle demographic for marketers.
However they do it, Jackson says, Bunz might be on to something.
"Think about when Pierre Omidyar founded AuctionWeb. He started off a website where people could sell things that they no longer wanted ... there were no economics that were transacted," Jackson said.
"Fast forward to today. That company is eBay."