Okanjo aims to create better online shopping mousetrap

A Milwaukee-based startup is looking to shake up the world of online shopping.

Okanjo (oh-kahn-jo), named after the Japanese word meaning “checkout” or “check, please,” is a commerce website that allows its users to buy, sell and give. It aims to combine elements of existing shopping sites and incorporate charitable giving to create a simplified social shopping platform.

Founded in 2011 and launched on Feb. 1, 2013, the website is still in “beta,” but the company is thinking big.

Mike Drescher, Okanjo co-founder and chief executive officer, said he and fellow co-founder, company president Jeff Rowe, saw an opportunity when looking at the trajectories of online buy-and-sell giants eBay and Craigslist. Drescher said that eBay is “going new” and “never attempted to get social” and has “never been able to break local,” that Craigslist is “uber-local,” but has some security issues and lacks a transactional platform, and that neither incorporates the ever-rising social aspect of today’s Internet.

“We feel, on a local level, you can create a platform where people can communicate with each other,” said Drescher. “I think part of eBay’s wisdom is that they didn’t want people communicating to do their own side deals – you had to kind of go through eBay – and we really promote that. In fact, we say if you hook up with someone and you trust them, or you know somebody that knows them and you want to do your deal, then you do your deal.”

A wide variety of products are available on Okanjo, from art to electronics to toys to collectibles to clothing, which is the biggest sector thus far, said Drescher. More than 200,000 products at a value of roughly $5 million are now available for purchase.

Currently, the most expensive items for sale on Okanjo are a 2000 GMC C3500 HD Box Truck 14 (listed in Houston) and an antique, hand-made tapestry (listed in Earling, Iowa). Both are priced at $7,500. On the other end of the spectrum, hundreds of items are available for $1.

In addition to traditional shipping options, sellers can select “Local Pickup” as an option when listing an item for sale and buyers can search for products on a local basis as well.

A large part of Okanjo’s goal is to simplify the buy-and-sell process by charging a flat 7 percent fee for sellers.

“A lot of sites – and they’re nice sites, the Etsy’s of the world and others – they tend to charge a per-picture fee, a posting fee, and they charge a fee when you get sold,” said Drescher. “We don’t charge any up-front fees. We don’t charge any posting, just a 7 percent flat fee when it sells.”

Another major component of the site is the ability to add an element of charitable giving to the equation. Currently, said Dresher, 13 percent of the products available on Okanjo have a donation factor to them.

“We have a partnership with GuideStar in Washington D.C.,” he said. “They’re the nonprofit of nonprofits, so they have the database of the 1.6 million 501(c)3s. You can go into our GuideStar box and you can find the charity you want to give to.”

Not only does this give sellers the option to donate a portion of the sale, it also allows for buyers to look for items that would benefit their favorite charity. For example, if you were looking to make a purchase that would also benefit the MACC Fund, you can visit okanjo.com/maccfund (or, in the coming months, maccfund.okanjo.com, a change being made so places can brand it as their own URL), and search for products there.

“People, I think, find our DNA in that “Buy-Sell-Give,”” said Drescher.

Milwaukee is also a part of Okanjo’s DNA. Of the $5 million worth of products currently listed on Okanjo, roughly $200,000 is from Milwaukee, said Drescher. He said he is committed to being in Milwaukee and is inspired by the local community.

“I always quote Steven Stills in (the 1967 Buffalo Springfield song) “For What It’s Worth”: “There’s something happening here.” And there genuinely is. It’s been really neat. It’s been a lot of fun getting engaged (in the community),” he said.

Locally speaking, the goal for Okanjo is to create a Milwaukee stronghold to be used as a model to be replicated in other locations.

“The revisionist history of some of the (Internet companies) is that they’re overnight successes and that’s not true. But what is pretty true is that there’s a local flashpoint somewhere. You just can’t boil the ocean,” said Drescher, who named Facebook with Ivy League colleges, Groupon in Chicago, and Pinterest in Iowa as examples of these “local flashpoints” that Okanjo is aiming for in Milwaukee.

Since the site is still in beta, improvements will continue to be made and new features will continue to be added. One recent add was an auction feature, which was used to auction two tickets to see Kenny Chesney at Miller Park, the proceeds of which went to benefit Hunger Task Force.

Other features planned for the coming months include a mobile app and a new shipping feature. Users can also visit Okanjo’s fairly unique support page, which is closely followed by Okanjo employees, to offer feedback and suggestions. The page shows which suggestions are in progress, which are completed, and which are under staff review.

Co-founders Drescher and Rowe worked together previously on television entertainment website UltimateTV.com, which was sold to the Tribune Company. Rowe was also an executive at VH1, NBC and AOL.

Okanjo currently has nine employees, including the two co-founders. Drescher said they’ve raised $1.5 million for the company, largely through business connections in the area. Okanjo also received Qualified New Business Venture (QNBV) certifications from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. (WEDC), in 2011. QNBV status makes investors in the company eligible for a 25 percent tax credit on the amount they invest in the business.

“We were able to offer each of our Wisconsin-based investors a 25 percent tax credit,” said Drescher. “Anytime you can take 25 percent off the table, that’s a big benefit. We’ve enjoyed working with the WEDC. They’ve been very helpful.”

Dan Shafer covers innovation and technology for BizTimes Milwaukee. Send news to him at dan.shafer@biztimes.com or follow him on Twitter @danshaferMKE.

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