Hastings native launches eBay, Craigslist alternative
Hastings native Jeff Rowe just might have the next big thing. On Feb. 1, he launched Okanjo Partners Inc., (okanjo.com) a website that combines the local side of Craigslist with the instant purchase power of eBay and adds to it a way to be charitable.
The 1975 Hastings High School graduate didn't start his career in the online marketplace. He started in radio. After leaving Hastings, he worked in Wisconsin, Chicago and Washington, D.C. He joined Journal Communications in Milwaukee, Wis., as a radio programmer and general manager. His goal then, as it had been in high school, was to work his way onto the television scene, but he didn't have the contacts.
In the 1980s, Rowe watched the birth of MTV and VH1. The early teams for both channels were ex-radio guys, he said, so in 1986 he left the radio business and joined VH1 in New York. He was in his late 20s then, he said, and his three years there were a lot of fun. He even got to hire Rosie O'Donnell. But he wasn't quite where he wanted to be.
"My real plan was to go from music radio to music TV ... to episodic television," he said.
In 1990 he left his position as head of programming at VH1 to do late night programming for NBC. There, he was in charge of shows like Saturday Night Live and Late Night With David Letterman (now the Jimmy Fallon Show). In less than a year, he was transferred from NBC New York to NBC Burbank and became a prime time programming executive.
Rowe's work made a difference for the network. NBC had fallen in the rankings to third place, and in the six years Rowe worked there he helped bring NBC back to the top spot.
Then, in 1995, the internet movement was starting to take hold. Things like Yahoo!, Netscape, Excite and Lycos were rising up. To Rowe, it was a new opportunity.
"I've always been really interested in innovation and new things," he said.
The NBC New York development team started recruiting executives from each of the network's divisions to launch nbc.com, and Rowe was one of those who got to help. From there, he's turned his career completely to the internet.
"I just got bit by the bug," he said. "It just became very all-consuming for me."
In 1996, Rowe left NBC to start his own company with Michael Drescher, who had a publishing company in Milwaukee. Together, they launched zap2it.com, a site all about television and entertainment. At that time, there wasn't a site where people could go to for interactive television program guides.
"It was the first time that I had really stepped out on my own with a business partner to start my own business," Rowe said. "It was incredibly exciting."
In 2002, he took a position with AOL and moved with his wife and two children to Washington, D.C., where he helped develop TMZ as a network producer. He moved back to California in 2006 to work for a new AOL start-up, but AOL pulled the plug on the project and left Rowe without work. He picked up another job with Vuze for a couple more years, until that company downsized and led Rowe to make the decision that led to Okanjo.
"I've done a lot of things," he said. "I'm going to do my own thing."
In 2010, he came across a frustrated eBay seller who believed the fees on that site were too high. Rowe, who had roots in localized media, was familiar with Craigslist, which allows sellers to connect with local buyers. The idea was to create a place where local communities could connect while still being able to conduct a secure financial transaction. He teamed up with Drescher again, and they made Okanjo.com, named after the Japanese word meaning "check please" or "check-out."
Rowe and Drescher also incorporated a way for buyers and sellers to donate funds to their charity of choice, if they wish, making the site a mechanism for non-profits to fundraise. Sellers can allocate a percentage of their sale to a charity, and buyers can search for sellers supporting a particular charity.
"We're a for profit company, but we don't have to take every nickel off the table," Rowe said.
Okanjo launched Feb. 1 in Milwaukee, but Rowe expects the site to grow, much like Google, Tumblr and Twitter did. Milwaukee offered a familiar starting point and gives Okanjo a foothold in the upper Midwest. But the location isn't as important as the quality.
"Regardless of where we are, we have to be good," Rowe said.
His goal is to create buying and selling communities and getting people to communicate with each other, he said. The site focuses on products from individuals, collectors or small retailers, not the big-box store products eBay has turned to.
Okanjo isn't huge yet, but it's showing strong potential. Since launching Feb. 1, sellers have uploaded almost $3 million worth of merchandise and more than 100,000 products, even though Rowe and Drescher are still working out the bugs.
"But we feel we've got huge potential and we're incredibly excited about being a social platform," Rowe said.
His goal is to turn Okanjo into a global brand.
"We want to go big," he said.
Along the way, Hastings has its own part to play. As a Hastings native, Rowe often thinks about how his relatives would use the site. His mother, sister, brother, aunt, uncle and nephews still live in Hastings, and have already influenced the development of Okanjo.
"I have often thought... how would this play in Hastings," he said.