Just don't call it a pivot: Zaarly shifts again, now taking on Angie's List, Thumbtack, and Homejoy

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on March 20, 2014

From The News Desk

If Zaarly were an animal, it would be an exhausted chameleon.

The company started out as a Task Rabbit-like marketplace, where users could post jobs they'd pay someone to do, like bringing them a slushie from 7-11. That didn't take off as the co-founders had hoped. CEO Bo Fishback later told me, “It’s just not that appealing to do something with a stranger if there are better alternatives. If you’re going to hire someone, you want them to care about what they do and have a unique ability to carry that out.”

So the company did what any good startup might do: It pivoted to find a better market fit. In March 2013 Zaarly transitioned from an errand marketplace to an online storefront creator for local businesses. It helped companies set up an e-commerce presence by sending professional photographers to take pictures of their wares, paying for shipping costs, and giving editorial advice on storefront copy.

After a gorgeous redesign, the website was flush with lush, rich, beautifully photographed artisan goods and products, like bespoke bow-ties, fresh juice from a local organics company, or wooden journals handcrafted from recycled materials. With Meg Whitman on the board, this was like eBay on Web 2.0 modern UI steroids.

That also didn't resonate.

Over the last few months, Zaarly has quietly removed all those artisanal crafty vendors and is looking a lot more like Angie's List, with a focus on three very different types of (less sexy) local businesses: Housecleaners, handymen, and gardeners.

Comb the website, and the bougie tastemakers are suddenly nowhere to be found. You'll be hard pressed to find someone who can put a bird on anything. Sure, those individual storefronts still exist, but there's no portal to them on Zaarly's homepage, aside from searching "craft" or "artisan" or "food." There's artisan category pages, but they aren't linked to on the homepage. Looking for handcrafted cupcakes made with bacon and real Vermont maple syrup? It's a lot harder to find. What you can find is someone to unceremoniously weed your garden.

The redesign suggests that Zaarly has pivoted once again. It has moved into a space occupied by the Thumbtacks, Homejoys, and Angie's Lists of the world: Home service providers instead of product makers.

The change was made quietly, without telling anyone. There's barely a peep about the pivot online-- and this from a company that launched to a flood of blog press, thanks to high profile investors like Michael Arrington of Crunchfund (also an investor in Pando), Ashton Kutcher, and, later, Kleiner Perkins.

When Pando reached out to CEO Bo Fishback he denied that the change was a "pivot." "Just an experiment we're running around homepage focus," Fishback said in his initial email.

After comparing both versions of the site, I have to disagree. The entire point of Zaarly 2.0 was featuring these artisanal stores. That they are all but invisible speaks to more than an "experiment"-- particularly given Zaarly's age and how much money it has raised, some $15.2 million.

This is another substantial shift in the business-- one made based on data. When pushed further, Fishback gave more information about the thinking behind the change:

Time and time again home services has been the major driving force for our business even when we made it much more difficult to find them -- it's been over 50% of our business for a long time. So over the past few months we've made it a priority to make these local service providers who have committed their careers to doing exceptional work more accessible.
In other words, the cleaners and the handymen provided the bulk of Zaarly's business, and so the company decided to start featuring them on the homepage. The artisan local providers are still on Zaarly's platform but they're buried. Users have to look harder to find them, by searching food or crafts.

Fishback doesn't think that will be a problem for the artisans, because he said the local providers were getting most of their traffic from Google searches, not from Zaarly's homepage. That's fine. It fits what Zaarly said at the time of the last relaunch: "[O]ur mission is to enable local commerce. That means people starting businesses. Creating new jobs. Ultimately, a new economy."

Zaarly has just changed its mind on what the key to local commerce is. Home service providers generate more demand than the artisans.

The benefit for Zaarly's shift in focus is that customers won't be overwhelmed with options when they come to the homepage. Here's how Fishback explained it:

We've seen repeatedly that focus, both internally and on behalf of our customers, makes us better and creates better user experiences -- so we'll keep learning and doing everything we can to make the people building businesses on Zaarly as successful as possible. We have been on a mission to help people make money doing what they love from the very start -- and that's where we are today. We've just learned a lot along the way about how best to focus and execute on that mission.
So the homepage focuses on a very different type of provider than before, but the craftsmen still have their e-commerce sites through Zaarly.

So, is it a pivot? It depends on your definition, and obsessing about the question is a bit of a sideshow. Let's face it: "Pivot" is an overused buzzword and a euphemism that's been stretched so much in recent years, it's lost all meaning.

While Zaarly would argue that it's still servicing all the professionals it has since 2013, the core of its business has certainly shifted once again. And ironically, this puts them back in competition with more established companies along with its old nemesis: Task Rabbit.

That's not necessarily a great place to be. As we've written before horizontal sharing economy plays like TaskRabbit and Zaarly have struggled next to highly focused, vertical ones like Uber, Airbnb, and Lyft-- a huge shift from the history of the consumer Internet.

If all Zaarly does is another version of what early Web 2.0 companies like Angie's List and Yelp set out to do, what does that say about the sharing economy's bullish promises of unlocking entire new sectors of local economies? It may be what users want, but is it exciting?

Put even more bluntly: Is this a company the world really needs?

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]