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Zaarly adds glitz to bolster merchant community

The peer-to-peer business transaction startup showcases its favorite sellers through virtual storefronts.

Screenshot by Donna Tam/CNET

Zaarly launched virtual storefronts for handpicked sellers in San Francisco today, showing a dedication to the merchants that seems unprecedented for a site of its kind.

Zaarly, which hosts listings for peer-to-peer goods and services, has taken the beauty of a site like AirBnB or Etsy and applied it to the Craigslist-like service. But the company takes it one step further -- hiring hundreds of photographers from across the country to shoot photos of each merchant and creating a professional-looking Web page for sellers to showcase their goods and services.

CEO Bo Fishback said he wants Zaarly to raise the bar for peer-to-peer transactions, particularly because it is a good way to meet people who are passionate about their craft, no matter what it is.

"We want this as the space where you will find the best people," he said. Zaarly makes a percentage off each transaction done directly through the site's payment platform, which takes credit cards.

Apparently, he's putting the company's ample funds -- the company raised more than $14 million from its first round of investments -- where his mouth is. The growing team at Zaarly has been combing through hundreds of merchants to find the best ones -- based on referrals, site recommendations and personal experience -- to feature on the site.

Fishback admitted that it sounds like a lot of investment into one aspect of the site, but if the company's rollout of this new feature to other cities is successful, he thinks that Zaarly can transform how small local business owners do, well, business. The company isn't afraid to try things out to figure out what works and what doesn't.

"It'll take some time to see what people love and what they don't love," Fishback said.

It's no wonder that the company is trying to shake up the market in a flashier way than other tech companies might: it's got a bit of Hollywood on its side with investors like actor Ashton Kutcher and fashion mogul Marc Ecko.

And with Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman on Zaarly's board, Fishback said the company has been able to get valuable insight.

The site's new showcase is certainly slicker than Craigslist's clunky interface, but only time will tell if Zaarly can move the masses.

Update, 12:03 p.m. PT: Updated with how Zaarly makes money off transactions.