, ,

TroopSwap.com: An Online Marketplace Serving Those Who Serve

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.

“The military is a very insular community. It has its own language, schools and culture. It’s tightly-knit, because it’s based on shared values” says Hall. “By making site the site exclusively for military service members, veterans and their families as they transition, you’re able to serve them in a way a site like Craigslist.com, that’s oriented towards the general public, simply can’t.”

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:

“Each base presently hosts its own website. Some of them are very good, but others are outdated and difficult to use, forcing you to download event calendars as individual Adobe .pdf files. TroopSwap.com could potentially consolidate and host all of this information in a single, searchable location that service members anywhere could easily access, to improve their quality of life.”

“We’re also looking at a Meetup.com type model. Their most active groups are comprised of stay-at-home moms. Now, in the military, which is over 90% male, you’ve got folks in the active duty component deploying for one year for every two they’re at home, and a lot service members’ spouses are quite young. So, they need to connect with one another, whether around shared interests, or just for support. The Army’s answer is the Family Readiness Group. It’s a good support network, but the social interaction in many units tends to parallel the formal command structure. This alternative would democratize social interaction somewhat through events, at which you could potentially interact with whomever you want.”

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.

“Right now, we’re listening closely and sifting through our options, to determine the best ways to serve the community, moving forward, although we honestly do think we provide a lot of value right now.” That said, continues Hall, “Basically, until we can prove that we are creating value and not just capturing it, we’re not taking anything from anyone. Integrity – particularly since three of us come from the military community – is our watchword. We’ve signed a strategic partner agreement with the Wounded Warrior Project that gives them 10% of our profits. As we grow, we hope to become a sustainable funding source for them, as well. Personally, that’s something I can be passionate about.”

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.”

Making Contact:

Website: http://TroopSwap.com
Founders’ blog: http://blog.troopswap.com
Facebook page: http://facebook.com/troopswap
Twitter: troopswap

—Mike Russell is an Internet technology analyst, AFCEA and InfraGard member based in State College, PA and Frederick, MD. He blogs at http://TranscendingTech.com and is planetrussell on Twitter.

Leave a Comment


Leave a Reply

Michael J. Russell

@Andrew, you’re more than welcome. I’m hopeful that many service members, vets and their families will benefit greatly from this venture.