Ottawa businessman says new online classified service a step above Kijiji, Craigslist

From his humble desk at Invest Ottawa, George Borovec is hoping to turn the online classifieds business on its head.

The 38-year-old entrepreneur is taking on industry giants such as Kijiji and Craigslist with his new website, Treasure Chest Marketplace. Billing it as “social commerce for the masses,” Mr. Borovec says his site, with its large, high-resolution photos of merchandise and features that allow for greater interaction between buyers and sellers, will have broader appeal than his California-based competitors.

“It’s hyperlocal, yet global,” he says of the site, which has been in the works for about 18 months.

One of Treasure Chest’s signature features is GroupSell, which allows vendors to allocate a “commission” to anyone in their social networks who helps them sell an item by sharing links on their Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn accounts, for example.

Mr. Borovec says tapping into social media to sell goods online provides more peace of mind for users than interacting with complete strangers via sites such as Kijiji.

“It makes it a heck of a lot safer,” he says. “We’re keeping it sort of in-house – the people that you know.”

Other features include HaggleIt, a real-time chat system that allows sellers and potential buyers to exchange offers back and forth via instant messaging. Everyone can see the latest best offer, and potential buyers are notified by e-mail of the latest offer if they’re not on the site. The two parties share contact information only after the final transaction price has been agreed to.

The site even integrates Skype so that potential buyers can get a live look at goods before making an offer or viewers can take a virtual tour of an apartment for rent, for example. The Renter’s Island feature allows registered users to rent out tools, cars or anything else potential customers might need.

Officially launched in late September, Treasure Island now has about 2,400 classified ads and 400 users in 200 communities. Registered users get a universal login that gives them access to all of Treasure Island’s sites across the country. Potential buyers hunting for merchandise will be shown search results in the order of closest proximity.

As with traditional online classified sites, users pay to post their ads. But Mr. Borovec also aims to generate significant revenue by partnering with local media outlets and other organizations such as universities in cities across the world, giving them instant access to his platform and exclusive rights to a specific territory – his staff can have a site up and running “anywhere in the world in an hour,” he says – in exchange for a flat fee based on that area’s population or a percentage of the total sales generated on that site.

He has had preliminary talks with a couple of major media players, including Bell, which currently operates a French online classified service in Quebec, and TorStar. Signing on with Treasure Chest gives partners a pipeline of new online revenue without the hassle and expense of setting up their own site, he explains.

“We do all the heavy lifting,” Mr. Borovec says, noting Treasure Chest has already established sites from Victoria to Prince Edward Island. “It’s almost like a turnkey solution for them.”

The site is also generating cash through embedded ads, video commercials and sponsored blog posts, and Mr. Borovec is already looking at other ideas to bring in more advertising dollars, such as attaching banner ads to e-mails responding to classifieds.

“There’s multiple, multiple revenue streams,” he says.

Mr. Borovec and his investors, who at the moment include mostly family and friends, have high hopes for his venture. He’s reluctant to make any revenue projections, but does say his goal is to capture five per cent of the multibillion-dollar online classified market within 18 months.

Going up against a corporate behemoth such as eBay, which owns Kijiji, has a large stake in Craigslist and generated revenues of more than $16 billion last year, might send chills down the spines of some entrepreneurs. But not Mr. Borovec.

“Am I worried about Craigslist or Kijiji? Absolutely not,” he says confidently. “They’re not going to change their model. They’re not going to start partnering with print and broadcast or colleges and universities. We will slowly choke them out. What they did to the print and broadcast partners hurt them. Each partner benefits from each other’s exposure. It’s extremely disruptive in that sense. It’s the only way that David can go up against Goliath.”