Kashless Is Hiring, Expanding, and Pioneering “Recommerce,” Says Founder Martin Tobias

This morning, I had a good chat with Seattle entrepreneur and investor Martin Tobias, in advance of tomorrow’s holiday open house at his new startup, Kashless. Known to get around on his Segway, Tobias said he trudged down the hill on foot today to his new office, which is in Lower Queen Anne. All of his meetings were canceled because of the snowstorm, he says.

Tobias is the former CEO of Imperium Renewables, the troubled Seattle biodiesel refiner, and a venture capitalist with Bellevue, WA-based Ignition Partners. I wanted to hear more about Kashless, whose green-tech software has been in private alpha trials since Tobias raised $5 million from RRE Ventures in October. (Tobias is an investor in two RRE funds, so in part, he funded himself.) “Stuart Ellman [RRE’s co-founder and managing partner] has taken a pretty thoughtful look at how a tech fund can play in the green space. He’s focused on doing software deals that relate to green,” Tobias says. He adds that other tech investors have tried to get into cleantech in areas that don’t relate to software—like solar and biofuels—and they got burned.

The concept of Kashless, as I understand it, is to provide an online service whereby people can efficiently acquire and give away stuff for free—equipment, furniture, whiteboards, and the like. It’s a combination of social network, community message board, and Web service, all with a green environmental theme. Kashless calls it “recommerce.”

Kashless currently has five employees and is looking to hire four more senior software engineers, Tobias says. They have moved into a 1,200-square-foot office, which will be on display tomorrow evening. (Tobias says he expects around 100 guests, so it might get crowded.) Not surprisingly, Tobias used Kashless to furnish the new office. “Every piece of furniture was free,” he says, from tables and chairs to whiteboards, and even some computer monitors. “Kashless could be an interesting tool for startups to reduce their expenses.”

Tobias says he even got some of the beer for the holiday party for free. He was looking for a beer fridge, and instead found several people trying to give away unopened cans and bottles. “We’ve been amazed what you can find for free in the community,” he says.

As for his product, Tobias says there are now 13,000 items in the Kashless system. The software searches community sites like Craigslist and Freecycle.org for all free stuff, and posts it. So far, Kashless users can’t post their own items yet, but that will come in January. Tobias says the service will move into beta trials in March or April—when the site will be “feature-complete but you’re working on scalability and usability” for a large number of users.

“Our idea here is to get more of this stuff actually moving around the community,” Tobias says. The longer you can use something, the better.” Recycling is great in principle, he says, but e-waste recyclers are not always reputable. “We prefer to extend the lifespan of an item as an alternative.”

So what will Kashless provide that isn’t already covered by community e-mail lists and websites? “We’re trying to hook into lots of different marketplaces and lots of different lists, to get the largest potential distribution for free stuff,” Tobias says. “You can see stuff from all over region. We certainly want to partner with STS [the Seattle Tech Startups list] and the whole startup community…We want to make it extremely valuable for people in Seattle first, before we pour gas on the fire.” But the eventual plan is to go national, and then global.

Tobias points to some expansion lessons from Craigslist, including the site’s ease of use, simplicity, and being lightweight. The key is to build a high-traffic website without a big staff, he says. “A lot of startups make the mistake of hiring a lot of people. I’ve done that myself…We’re focusing right now on building a valuable service. We’ll figure out how to make money later.”

In the meantime, he says, “We’re funded, we’re expanding, and we’re hiring.”

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