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An online marketplace for the off-line world

With all the focus on social media, it is easy to sometimes forget that we live in the physical world, with real people (not avatars) and real-time communication that involves people speaking to each other (not texting or posting tweets).

For those of us immersed in the digital sphere, the launch last week of Uniiverse Collaborative Lifestyle Inc. was probably eye-catching because it is a person-to-person marketplace focused on non-digital activities. Imagine that, an online service focused on the off-line world. What a novelty. (Note: tongue firmly in cheek.)

Uniiverse, which has employees in Toronto and Montreal, is a service that lets people share services or activities. Some of these services and activities are free, while some are fee-based. For example, you could advertise your interest in babysitting, teaching a cooking course, shovelling snow, or finding people who share an interest in stamp collecting or playing pickup hockey.

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Ben Raffi, one of Uniiverse's co-founders, said the inspiration for the marketplace came from the desire to create a way for people to connect in the real world.

"People spend a lot of time in front of the TV and Internet, and we use a lot of social networks," he said during a recent interview. "There are a lot of things, however, that we are missing the real world."

Uniiverse may be going against the grain but since the launch, it has attracted a lot of blog and media coverage, and seen a flurry of Website visitors. Mr. Raffi said one of the reasons Uniiverse has resonated is that there is a void in the market for off-line interactions.

" Craigslist enables people to post things; it's good for buying and selling products but when it comes to off-line interactions, people don't like it because they don't trust it," he said. "People don't go to Craigslist to find a babysitter or take a cooking class."

While the enthusiastic reception to Uniiverse may be surprising, the concept attracted significant attention from investors long before. After Mr. Raffi and co-founders Craig Follett and Adam Meghji built a prototype in 10 weeks, they raised $750,000 in seed capital from private investors over the next six weeks last September. It is an impressive feat given how difficult it can be for Canadian startups to find growth capital.

"It happened very quickly," Mr. Raffi said. "We basically built a strong business plan and a prototype that was very impressive. We reached out to people we worked with, who had entrepreneur experience, and who believed in teams and strong ideas."

With the recent launch, Mr. Raffi said no strong themes have emerged but there have been some surprising developments. An example is the strong interest in the garden-sharing category, where people offer to share the fruits and vegetables they cultivate together.

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Mr. Raffi said the vision of Uniiverse, which generates revenue from taking a small commission on fee-based transaction within the marketplace, said is driven by two key elements – helping people share their passions, and enabling anyone to be an entrepreneur.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Evans is the principal with ME Consulting, a communications and marketing strategic consultancy that works with startups and fast-growing companies to create compelling and effective messaging to drive their sales and marketing activities. Mark has worked with four startups – Blanketware, b5Media, PlanetEye and Sysomos. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshmarketing and meshwest conferences.

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