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Had a great conversation with Jeff Beaver, co-founder of Zazzle, who was in Toronto yesterday promoting Zazzle.ca, a sort of retail site. I say "sort of" because it's pretty unique and seems like an online business model that's working. Operating since 2003 in the U.S., the company is establishing a Canadian site to cater to a growing audience here.

Zazzle, in twenty words or less, is a mix between eBay and China.

It's a buying site: you can log in and purchase merchandise just like you can at eBay or something.

It's a creating site: if you want to design a single mouse pad or 30 t-shirts to hand out at a family reunion you can use Zazzle's online tools to do so.

It's a selling site: The creative entrepreneur can design a line of shoes or ties or coffee mugs, upload their own artwork or use Zazzle's partner art work from famous brands like Star Wars or Disney and set up their own store front on Zazzle to sell the merchandise.

And most of the merchandise on the site, they print, press, embroider and stitch themselves.

Okay, so more than 20 words, but WTH.

While most of the paraphernalia you can buy, create or sell on the site is somewhat limited - t-shirts, mouse pads, coffee mugs and business cards have all been done before - but some of the products, such as designing your own shoes, are new (to me, at least).

But the thing that struck me as interesting is that Zazzle does the vast majority of the manufacturing themselves. They don't serve as middle man and redirect orders to other manufacturers, part of their original business plan back in 2000 when Jeff, his brother Bobby and father Robert got the Zazzle ball rolling out of (you guessed it) a converted garage in Silicon Valley. The advantage, for the buyer and seller at least, is that means product turnaround can be really, really fast. And when it comes to today's online culture and its effects on existing business models, something like speed is pretty important.

Zazzle also encourages - nay, rewards - user self promotion. It's savvy in so many ways. Say you're a seller and have just designed your new like of KuteKittenShooz (spur of the moment thing, don't ask. I'm not even a cat lover, I have a dog), obviously you want people to come to your storefront and peruse and buy. They can find you on the Zazzle home page or through a site search, but that relies on customers already being in the store and wandering past your stall. What Zazzle does is pays you more for outside traffic. So you Tweet your storefront URL mercilessly, link to it on blogs, forums and Facebook and basically teleport people directly to your stall.

Sellers make a royalty on everything that they sell. They get a higher royalty if the traffic comes from outside the site. That's brilliant in a few different ways, the least of which is new users are introduced to the site indirectly through the marketing efforts of their many established clients.

And the online design tools are pretty good, too. I spent a few minutes designing my own baseball hat and found the tools and options are easy to use and can configure or shape your product pretty much any way you want. Making shoes is even more fun. I kept thinking I wish I'd known about this a few weeks ago before my eldest's birthday because I'd have made her a pair of shoes with family pictures printed all over them.

Actually, who am I kidding. I'm about as artistic as communist-era apartment complex. Or maybe a stick.

Anyway, I highly recommend at least checking it out. It's worth a look and, according to Jeff, quite a few enterprising types are actually making a living off what they're creating and selling, even here in Canada.

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