Last year, after about 7 years in the Database Administration world, I decided to transition to a Software Engineer role. I needed a project to dive into to help get up to speed and ready for that transition. I decided to tackle a pain point in one of my hobbies.
I’ve been involved with paintball on and off since I was in my teens. One thing has always been consistent – a strong used equipment market where players buy, sell, and trade gear. Back when I first got into the sport most of that activity took place on forums. Over the years that community has mostly moved over to Facebook groups. Both have some strengths, but I felt both were lacking pretty significantly.
Honestly, I still prefer the forums to Facebook. The most popular forum has a feedback system that, for the most part, helped users confidently do business with each other. I view that as the most valuable feature of that platform and it is what always keeps me coming back.
Unfortunately the forums haven’t changed much since the early 2000’s. Images require third party hosting and BBCode to share. Chat functionality is pretty primitive. Facebook wins by a landslide in the usability category and that has resulted in a shrinking user base on the forums.
Facebook’s biggest flaw is that it actually doesn’t even allow for paintball markers to be sold on their platform as it categorizes them as firearms (eyeroll). Because of that, users don’t actually use the marketplace features of Facebook. Instead they meet in groups and arrange deals privately over Messenger. Groups and posts get flagged/removed all the time and it’s hard to keep up with the current relevant groups and their rules. This also circumvents the feedback system which makes scamming even easier.
Ebay isn’t much of a contender here. Their fee structure scares most users away and a lot of the gear you find is overpriced to compensate. There’s also no real way to trade. I’ll use it from time to time, but it’s always my last option.
I set out to build a platform that combines the strengths of all the above while keeping fees minimal. A modern platform with a simple UI that drives a transaction workflow capable of facilitating all types of deals. By building workflows around the various transaction types, it removes all doubt about what is expected of a user and eliminates the need to figure it out deal by deal.
High level feature overview:
- Offer/counter offer system
- Ability to handle standard purchases, purchases from cash offers, straight trades, trades adding cash, trades including multiple items.
- Feedback system
- Modern chat functionality
- Ability for sellers to offer free, fixed, or estimated shipping (USPS/FedEx/UPS)
- Admin panel to simplify moderation
- Closely integrated with PayPal to mirror current user experience
Hosting/maintaining this wouldn’t be free and I’d need to monetize this somehow. I decided a minimal flat fee is how I would tackle that. While it’s possible that users could reject the idea of an additional fee, I believe the value add is there.
I already mentioned that Snakefifty uses PayPal, but I did consider other options. I would have loved to use Stripe Connect (their marketplace offering) but the pricing was just unrealistic for this niche. Fees would have ended up being similar to eBay and that would be a non starter. I ultimately stuck with PayPal as that is what the vast majority of the community uses and is already familiar with. I simply leveraged PayPal’s parallel payments to collect a fee.
I am pretty proud of the platform and I believe it has the potential to provide significant benefit for the paintball community. That said, I’ve decided to stop work on it for now to focus on other projects/interests.
Taking a quick pulse of the community it seems that while many acknowledge the pain points in the current channels, most seem tolerant of them. Acquiring enough users to make the platform viable is a significant challenge and one that I am not entirely confident I would succeed in. Even though I aim to keep fees minimal, I can’t get around the fact that I am adding a fee that doesn’t exist on Facebook and the forums.
There have also been some legal/tax changes that complicate running a platform like this. In 2018 the Supreme Court ruled that states could charge sales tax on out of state purchases even if the seller doesn’t have a physical presence in the state. That in itself wasn’t news to me. What I didn’t realize, however, is that over the last year or so most states have shifted the burden of collecting/remitting taxes to “marketplace facilitators.” The benefit is that an individual seller, for the most part, no longer has to worry about paying taxes to every single state their customers reside in. States also save on resources as they don’t have to try to collect from individual sellers.
Putting that burden on the marketplace seems reasonable in the cases of Amazon and eBay, but it makes it significantly more difficult to run a small marketplace like this. While most states do carve out exceptions for marketplaces with limited volume, if I ever cross those thresholds it will turn into a full time job to keep up. Keeping fees minimal is a hard requirement for this platform to be viable and even with the volume to cross those thresholds it wouldn’t be worth the effort required. Even if I could find a way to keep up, users would likely perceive the tax as just another fee that they don’t have to deal with when they deal privately in other channels.
Ultimately I went into this project knowing that it would be a pretty big challenge for it to succeed as a business. That was a secondary goal to building something that let me get up to speed in my new role. This project was absolutely a success on that front.
Here’s a quick tour of the project in it’s current state: