Today startup ShelfLife is launching its platform, which aims to be the Etsy for collectors, at startup accelerator JOLT’s demo day in Toronto. It’s aimed at anyone with a collection, whether action figures, video games, sports memorabilia, records, or anything else, and wants to be a one-stop-shop for collectors, letting them curate their collections, buy, sell and trade their items, and connect with fellow collectors.
According to the company’s research, there are 30 million collectors in the U.S. and Canada, who spend $100 billion annually. Right now they use everything from fan forums, manufacturer’s sites, Craigslist and eBay to research and bolster their collections, or sell items they no longer want or need. ShelfLife co-founder James Chillcott formerly ran a design and development firm in Toronto, and started collecting action figures and other items several years ago. He used tools like eBay and Craigslist to hunt down items, and got the idea for ShelfLife based on his frustrations as a collector.
“I was always frustrated by the lack of coherence and the ability of the web to pull together background information on the things I was looking for, price aggregation, and the ability to socialize and connect with other collectors,” Chillcott said in an interview, adding that he wanted ShelfLife to be a social marketplace centered around permanent product listings. “The retail model has always been about what’s the latest thing on the shelf, but the internet has opened up a strong secondary and tertiary market system where users are constantly recycling products.”
ShelfLife takes a Wikipedia-like approach to indexing collectibles, with a team of curators who curate catalogs of similar items, for example Transformers action figures or limited-edition designer clothing. Anyone can apply to be a curator, and often if a collector joins the site and their area of expertise hasn’t been catalogued they’ll sign on to do it. Curators aim to provide a comprehensive database of any and all items associated with a certain area of interest, providing details like photos, the date it was released, product parts, and other details. The incentive for curators, beyond being seen as an expert in a certain area, is that they get 1.5 percent of sales made within a catalog they created.
As collectors sign up on the site, they can add items to the list of things they have, while also adding items to their wishlist, and indicating how much they’re willing to pay for the item. When sellers announce that they have that item for sale, the system automatically matches buyers with sellers, so Chillcott likens it more to a stock market bid and ask system, as opposed to a traditional ecommerce marketplace.
The company works with vendors and manufacturers to keep product information current, and to do custom sales (yesterday they held a flash sale of OMFG mini figures). One of the company’s most interesting planned features is its Get In Line feature, which will let users get notified about and pre-order items, either by indicating their interest, putting 20 percent of the purchase price down, or paying the entire amount up front, creating three tiered lines to give people first crack when collectibles are released.
The company beta tested the platform with 1,200 collectors this summer, and currently has over 500 catalogs on the site featuring over 50,000 items. They will be looking to debut native Android and iOS apps in early 2013, which will let collectors scan items in-store to add it to their shelf, with the option to see other collectors in the area, and offer to purchase the item for them. To date they’ve raised $125,000 via grants, JOLT’s accelerator and internal funding, and are planning to raise another $750,000.
While ShelfLife accounts are free, the company plans to add a six percent transaction fee for any seller who sells more than two items. Because they process payments via PayPal, Chillcott said buyers are protected against fake or damaged items, and they also feature a vendor rating system. The company is also planning to work on strategic partnerships with retailers, for example giving them data about heavy collectors who purchase items from their stores.
The company’s approach to documenting collectibles in addition to providing a marketplace and social features for collectors is an interesting one that goes beyond resale marketplaces like eBay. The big question is whether there are enough devoted collectors out there to build a thriving community, but as an avid collector himself, Chillcott believes the answer is yes. “The fact that Apple fans line up around the block for every new phone is just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “There are many brands with that level of devotion, and we wanted to give them a home where those shrines would be permanent.”