Connor Simpson, co-founder of the online Spokane venture Barters Closet LLC, collects what he describes as ugly sweaters he loves to wear.
"I like them with lots of color, lots of personality," he says. "I like a sweater that speaks for itself."
When his closet amassed more of the pullovers than he could stock, Simpson thought of creating a social online network for connecting to others who shared his taste in sweaters, so he could trade. He says that vision grew into an idea for a website to help people sell or trade a variety of clothing items.
Simpson, 22, and two partners started working last year on the concept of an online used clothing exchange offering a social networking platform. The co-founders are Philip Glenn and Marcus Ford.
Today, the group operates www.barterscloset.com from a leased 600-square-foot space near downtown Spokane, at 30 W. Third, in the Buchanan Building.
Dan Siddoway recently joined the group as lead website developer. Simpson is the company's president, and Glenn is vice president and graphic designer. Ford, though still part-owner of the business, currently isn't involved in daily operations.
Barters Closet, which has a sweater image on its business logo, offers for purchase or trade men's, women's, and children's clothing, including sweaters, shirts, jackets, dresses, pants, shoes, and accessories. The website enables users to create a free online profile called a closet, and they can post photos of apparel and write about the items to sell, barter, or donate.
Barters Closet currently has an inventory of nearly 700 apparel and accessory items, Glenn says. Customers also can visit Barters Closet and purchase items listed for sale without creating a closet.
About 500 people have created member profiles so far. Simpson says the website's users can follow activity posted on other members' profiles and send messages to participants who are included in personal networks.
"It's similar to Twitter in that your feed is filled with only postings from people you're following, but the site is similar to a Facebook layout in terms of our graphics, visuals, and user experience," Simpson says.
He adds, "We have a section where you can write about your style. We built the site with an activity feed so you can update your activity and give status updates. Maybe you raided your grandma's sweaters she didn't want, and you're announcing that you're loading the photos."
Barters Closet generates revenue through a 15 percent commission on paid transactions. The company doesn't charge a commission for items that website users donate or barter.
Customers order and pay for any items that are for sale via the website, and Barters Closet arranges shipping through the U.S. Postal Service. Recipients who purchase items pay the shipping fees. For donated or bartered items, the donor and the recipient decide who pays for shipping, Simpson says.
Once the company receives online confirmation that an item being sold is shipped, Barters Closet sends payment to the selling party via PayPal, Simpson says.
Simpson and Glenn were students together at Lewis & Clark High School and graduated in 2010.
Simpson previously was employed as a communications officer at GreenCupboards.com, a Spokane-based online retailer of eco-friendly products for homes and businesses. He is the son of Tom Simpson, president of the angel investor group Spokane Angel Alliance and co-owner in the GreenCupboards venture, now operating under the name Etailz Inc.
Prior to joining Barters Closet, Glenn did some freelance graphic design work while taking college courses here, and Connor Simpson asked him to join the new venture.
In April 2012, the founders introduced the idea that led to Barters Closet during Startup Weekend, a three-day event regularly held in Spokane that is focused on launching new ventures.
"Our idea was validated during Startup Weekend and won for best user interface and design category," Simpson says.
Simpson says that in July, Barters Closet launched what he calls a fully developed website that includes the social networking platform. Previously, the business garnered early sales beginning in May 2012 through a prototype website that was more like an online thrift shop with stocked inventory.
Glenn says now that members are selling and trading closets of clothes, the business won't restock its inventory of used clothes.
"It will just be user-generated content," he says.
Once someone signs up, Barters Closet provides an online tutorial that explains its features.
Simpson says the business is considering additional concepts to generate income, including advertisements and enabling members eventually to pay a fee to have a closet featured prominently on the Barters Closet website for a period of time.
Until moving to the Buchanan Building this past June, the group had operated the business out of Simpson's home.
The partners say they envision Barters Closet eventually opening up other categories for members to barter or sell, including books, electronics, tools, toys, sporting goods, tents, DVDs, and CDs.
"We envision that perhaps in about seven months," Simpson says. "Our big goal as a final category would be services. As an example, you're a writer, and I'm a graphic designer trying to start a blog. You'll write about me for a blog, and I'll design a logo for your blog."
Simpson says Barters Closet also is experimenting with the concept of working with thrift stores and currently is partnering with the nonprofit thrift store Discovery Shop, at 805 W. Garland, which sells clothes to generate income for the American Cancer Society. The store can post with Barters Closet extra clothing items that don't fit in that shop, or list higher-value items that likely will sell better on the website, he says.
"Thrift stores can sign up as a business," Simpson adds. "If the store supports a charity, we don't charge a commission to sell items."
In fact, the business's main goal is to encourage recycled use of items, so that apparel doesn't end up being thrown away or gathering dust on a rack or in a closet, Simpson says.
"We're helping people reuse, and we're keeping clothes out of the landfill," he says.
He adds, "I like your sweater, and you like mine, so let's swap. That's what we do differently than other websites. You know who is receiving your clothes. Style is social."
He says the website is attracting college students, parents wanting to swap clothes as their children grow out of them, and even some people involved in weight loss groups seeking to sell larger clothes that don't fit. Most current website members are based in Spokane, but about one in six of users are in the Pullman area, he says.
The business has raised nearly $150,000 from members of the Spokane Angel Alliance. However, since it still is in a startup phase after only four months with the new website design, it's too early to report expected revenues, Simpson says.
"We're obviously not cash flow positive yet; we're in the beta phase," Simpson says. "We hope to grow this not only nationally; we have the capacity to grow internationally."
Simpson has traded a few of his sweaters, but says he has yet to find someone who is a similar hoarder of styles that have vivid colors and designs, often with horizontal stripes or geometric patterns. Most of the sweaters in Simpson's closet on the website are posted for sale at around $8.
"I'm still searching for my sweater soul mate," he adds.
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