Beyond Vassar

Let's Make A Deal

By Micah Buis ’02

Starting a business wasn’t something new for Billy Bloom ’80. In 1993 he co-founded the Big City Volleyball League in New York City, putting to good use the years he ran Vassar’s men’s intramural basketball league. But for this psychology major and former advertising copywriter with no technical background, founding an Internet startup was more of a stretch.

That technical inexperience, though, was precisely what captured the attention of Michel Marriott, a “Circuits” reporter for The New York Times who in April profiled the website, which Bloom( pictured left) co-founded with longtime friend Dan Elias (pictured right), a television news anchor in Massachusetts. “Neither of us had a lick of background in this area, and I think that’s what got us in the Times’ “Circuits” section,” said Bloom. “Marriott seemed to be charmed by that fact.”

Operating publicly since January 2006, Zunafish, a media-swapping site, was in many ways “born with the New York Times article,” Bloom said. What had been a fairly limited number of users grew rapidly after the Times article, which also “led to an avalanche of other media coverage, including mention in hundreds of blogs.” The site’s greatest success came when Time named Zunafish one of the “50 Coolest Websites of 2006” in August, followed by PC Magazine naming Zunafish one of its top websites of the year and O, The Oprah Magazine recommending the site in its “O to Go” section.

On Zunafish, users pick a screen name and post the media items they’d like to swap—CDs, DVDs, paperbacks, audio books, video games, or VHS tapes—and create a list of ones they’d like to have. Traders then communicate directly with one another and determine if they want to swap. Likes must be traded for likes (a CD for a CD, for example), and traders must pay Zunafish $1 through debit or credit card for each trade. Traders are then responsible for paying postage (the exact amount is calculated by the site) and mailing the item, using labels generated by the system that can be downloaded and printed out.

“We tried to make trading as simple for the user as possible,” said Bloom. “We also tried to make the trading experience emulate a human interaction as much as possible. This is like two kids in the schoolyard putting out all their baseball cards and deciding which ones each wants. Users have the opportunity to peer into someone else’s collection, a little voyeuristically, which is a very human and fun way to make a trade.”

The site grew out of a fairly simple question: what are people doing with their stuff when they’re done with it? Bloom and Elias logged onto Amazon Marketplace, the branch of that deals in used goods, and searched for The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s bestselling novel. “Of the millions of copies of this novel that were purchased, only 140 used copies were available on the site,” said Bloom. “Where are the other millions?” The pair quickly realized that “billions of dollars of this stuff is sitting idle on people’s shelves” after an initial reading or listening or viewing. “Some of these media items are near and dear to us; most are just gathering dust. If we lived across the hall from one another, we’d say, ‘Give me this one, and I’ll give you that one.’ And with Zunafish, across the hall can be across the country.”

Users are consistently surprised that their junk is desirable to some other user. “What we hear a lot from people is, ‘I can’t believe I got this for that,’” said Bloom. “Everybody thinks they are getting a good deal. Both parties are getting something they want for something they are done with.” Bloom himself has become interested in trading audio books on the site. “They are really expensive, so when I get one in the mail for a dollar I feel like I’ve gotten away with murder.”

As for the name, it does have a connection to tuna fish, but not because the kid with the tuna sandwich always tried to trade it for a better one at school lunchtime, as one Zunafish user speculated. “The site had a working title,, for about two months. We got attached to it but found out that the domain name was already spoken for—and that Zork was the name of a video game Dan had played for hours as a teenager. We liked the ‘z,’ though, and started making up names that began with z. One day on the phone with Dan, I suggested we take the z and stick it in front of common household items till we came up with a name we liked.” Opening the cupboard, Bloom saw a can of tuna fish and blurted out, “‘Like zuna fish.’”