Sites like eBay, Craigslist and Etsy have been popping up around the country for the past 20 years. Now Milwaukee has one of its own: Okanjo.
Characterized by its simplicity and transparency, Okanjo is a locally-focused commerce platform. Media experts Mike Drescher and Jeff Rowe, Okanjo’s CEO and President, began to conceptualize the site in 2010 after connecting with a frustrated eBay seller.
“EBay, while successful, is complicated,” Rowe said. “Initially, we didn’t set out to create a new site, but we wondered if there was a simpler way to operate on a similar platform.”
Drescher and Rowe described Okanjo as a website with the locality of Craigslist and the power of eBay.
“We wanted to create an opportunity for people to transact safely and locally,” Drescher said.
Okanjo, with a name that means “checkout” in Japanese, provides Milwaukee residents with the opportunity to list and sell items to people in the area. Since the site launched on Feb. 1, 2013, users have uploaded and listed more than 200,000 products that have a total value of more than $4 million. Okanjo boasts a wide variety of products with everything from autographed Packers helmets and upscale furniture to vintage dresses and vinyl records. The site also attracts some more unique, quirky products. For the low price of $1,350, for example, you can purchase 720 servings of assorted freeze-dried meats.
To those who work there, Okanjo is more than an ecommerce platform; it’s a group of proud Milwaukeeans dedicated to supporting and interacting with their community. Rowe and Drescher, both Midwest natives, began to develop Okanjo in the Los Angeles area but decided to move the company back to Milwaukee.
“We’re a Wisconsin-based, Milwaukee-headquartered company, and that’s very important to us,” Drescher said.
Okanjo makes it easy for customers to give back to communities throughout the country with GuideStar, an online service that connects businesses to 1.4 million national nonprofit organizations.
“We want to connect people and communities to things they care about,” Rowe said. “It should be easy to give to the things that are important to you.”
Customers who choose to use this feature are able to donate anywhere between 5 to 100 percent of their profit to an organization of their choice.
“If you don’t have the right people with the same shared vision, you’re not going anywhere,” Drescher said. “You’re going to burn through a lot of money and never get to where you want to be. We were fortunate to be blessed with a great team.”
The Okanjo team includes many Wisconsin natives and Marquette graduates, including Molly Cary and Jeff Sherman.
For Cary, one of the most intriguing and exciting parts of being a part of Okanjo has been watching the site’s growth since its launch.
“Every time a new store is opened, whether it’s a shop in the Third Ward or a bookstore in Brookfield, it’s exciting to see Okanjo grow and connect to new people,” Cary said.
Sherman, co-founder of OnMilwaukee.com, joined the Okanjo team late last year.
“When we started OnMilwaukee, we had this collective Milwaukee chip on our shoulders,” Sherman said. “We thought Milwaukee needed a place to tell all of its great stories and talk about stuff happening in and around town. It seemed like a natural thing for me to help Okanjo because it’s also very community centered.”
Sherman now runs the site’s marketing and is confident in Okanjo’s success.
“Milwaukee is on the move,” Sherman said. “It’s changing in such a dynamic and innovative way that Okanjo can be a part of.”