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An Online Marketplace Serving Those Who Serve

September 13, 2010
By planetrussell

Blake Hall is a man on a mission: to help U.S. military personnel use "Web 2.0" Internet 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." And 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 last week in Washington, D.C.

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 membership exclusive to 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 works 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. "Each 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 in individual Adobe .pdf files," says Hall. "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," he continued. "Their most active groups are comprised of stay-at-home moms. Now, in the military, which is [predominantly] 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 very 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 in the social interaction 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 what are the best options and ways to serve the community, moving forward, although we honestly do think we provide a lot of right now." That said, continues Hall, "Basically, until we can prove that we are creating value and not capturing it, we're not taking anything from anyone. Integrity-particularly since three of us come from the military community-is our watchword. Part of that is signing a strategic partner agreement with the Wounded Warrior Project that gives them 10 percent of our profits. As we grow, we hope to become a sustainable funding source for them, as well. 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.

Hall 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 e-commerce transactions. Ultimately, though, he sees insurer USAA as a natural, potential transaction-processing partner, and proof point that a military-specific web venture can succeed, as the site grows rapidly towards a goal of 10,000 service members by Jan 1, 2011.

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 in the same sense of purpose I felt when I put on the uniform. I sense there is a terrific opportunity to make military life easier by allowing the community to do what it does best - to help one another out in time of need."

TroopSwap.com membership is free for all service members. For more information:

Website: TroopSwap.com
Founders' blog: http://blog.troopswap.com
Facebook page: Facebook.com/troopswap
Twitter: @TroopSwap

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

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