Note: This article is also published as a guest blog post on the AFCEA (Armed Forces Communications & Electronics Association) official SignalScape blog.
Blake Hall is a man on a mission: to help U.S. military personnel use Web 2.0 technologies to help one another and themselves. Hall’s no stranger to demanding missions. A decorated former U.S. Army Captain and Airborne Ranger who led a scout platoon in Iraq, he relates how the first time he ever led a combat mission, his battalion commander laid his hand on his shoulder and said ominously, “Hall – don’t screw it up.”
Based on the overwhelmingly positive, initial response to his and his co-founders’ new, veteran-owned web venture, TroopSwap.com, an online community and marketplace for active duty U.S. military, reservists, veterans and their families, that battalion commander would be more than proud.
Fresh from his powerful and moving Washington Post article that has attracted international attention, Blake Hall sat down with me to discuss TroopSwap.com at O’Reilly Media’s Government 2.0 Summit, the inspiring, two-day mind-meld of technology and public policy innovators just concluded in Washington, DC.
TroopSwap.com is intended to be a kind of Craigslist in Camo: a “gated online community” and marketplace exclusively for U.S. military personnel and the businesses who serve them. Members can buy, sell and advertise almost anything related to military life, and connect socially with others posted to locations around the world in a safe and secure setting, with well-defined, consistently-enforced membership criteria.
Hall and his co-founders also believe the military-only, gated community business model enables them to eliminate much of the fraud, abuse and predatory business practices that target service members. TroopSwap.com’s application process for prospective business advertisers on the site is intended to work hand-in-glove with a socially-enabled feedback system that’s accessible only to the service members themselves. So, advertisers can’t artificially boost their own star-based ratings, or post derogatory comments about competitors.
Initially, the core buy-and-sell section of the site is focused on four, selected categories: real estate, cars, tactical gear, and household goods.
Growth plans potentially include a multi-service MWR (Morale, Welfare and Recreation) and FFR (Fleet and Family Readiness) section of the community. Says Hall:
Despite the military-only requirement for actual membership, TroopSwap.com is also looking at ways to enable the general public to donate items to military families and individuals.
So, who’s got the smarts to run TroopSwap.com day-to-day and quarter-to-quarter as a business? Hall himself earned his MBA from Harvard Business School while a reservist with the Army’s European Command, and did a stint with McKinsey and Company, for starters. His co-founders and key other stakeholders are similarly well-qualified.
Blake Hall and I also discussed site security as key to building trust as well as equity in the Troopswap.com brand. The site presently uses PayPal for all transaction payment processing. Ultimately, though, he sees insurer USAA as a natural e-commerce partner, and a proof point that a military-only web venture based on social media marketing principles can succeed.
Service members, veterans and their families can join TroopSwap.com free of charge. Hall and his co-founders have set a goal of 10,000 members by January 1, 2011.
The TroopSwap.com site was built using Ruby on Rails. An API (Application Programming Interface) for third-party developers to build applications that interface with the site is planned for the near future.
One of things Hall says makes transition from military to civilian life most challenging for many veterans is the sudden loss of a sense of purpose. For him, though, the TroopSwap venture helps him “feel the sense of belonging that comes with being a part of a team, and the same sense of purpose I felt when I put on the uniform. There is a terrific opportunity here to make military life easier by allowing the community to do what it does best – to help one another out in time of need.”