Toyswap founder and her children
M. Spencer Green  /  AP
Toyswap.com founder Michelle Maxia says such a site "was long overdue in a society that is overflowing with toys."
updated 12/14/2005 5:41:03 PM ET 2005-12-14T22:41:03

Eight-year-old Jacob Maxia may know more about monster models than business models, but he knows what he likes. And a new online toy exchange that brings him giant mutant beasts in return for his unwanted playthings seems pretty darn awesome.

"You get rid of things you don't play with any more and you can get new stuff, like Godzillas and Dragon Ball Z," he said of Toyswap. "Especially Godzillas."

The fact that his mom is the founder and chief toy-swapping executive doesn't hurt, either.

Launched in October in time for the holidays, the fledgling business operates through a Web site that lets shoppers swap, buy and sell used or unwanted toys or donate them to a needy organization. Swappers register at toyswap.com to post information and photos of their toys or view others, then mail them to each other using PayPal transfers for payment.

While other sites exist for reselling toys, Michelle Maxia said she developed hers after discovering none that dealt with toys exclusively. Such a site, the mother of two said, was "long overdue in a society that is overflowing with toys. If you have children, you know."

The 42-year-old Maxia, a stay-at-home mom since Jacob and his 5-year-old sister Makena were born, tripped across the idea for Toyswap almost by accident, the way she might trip over the buckets of unused toys in her house in the southwestern Chicago suburbs.

A veteran bargain hunter and online seller, she drew her inspiration from a mixture of sources: eBay, the need to return to work and all those excess toys. But it took a visit to a doctor's office earlier this year to produce her "Aha!" moment.

While waiting to see her chiropractor, the gregarious Maxia struck up a conversation with a boy who was playing with Lego Bionicles. Her son had three of those at home but never played with them, she told him; what he really wanted was Godzilla.

Match made: The boy had an unwanted Godzilla, so the two mothers arranged a swap.

"I brought the Godzilla home and my son lit up like a Christmas tree," she said. "I traded his Bionicles and he said, 'What else can we trade?' All of a sudden, it came into my head: 'Toyswap dot-com.' I clearly heard those words in my head."

Finding the domain name unclaimed, she and her husband Michael, who works as a food distributor, bought it. A few months later, with help from friends who developed the Web site and designed a logo, she was in business in a job worlds away from her previous one as a Cook County sheriff's police officer.

Maxia, who gets a fee of $1 per swapper for each transaction, said Toyswap has just over 1,000 registered members. About 270 toys were displayed on the site on a recent day — from Barbies to Bob the Builder to, yes, Godzillas — their dollar values selected by those putting them up for sale or exchange.

The numbers were fast growing as the holidays approached, but Toyswap had yet to turn profitable, in keeping with the tradition of startup dot-coms. There were 500,000 hits but just 80 swaps in the first two months. Still, she remained optimistic the business will flourish after the holidays, at spring-cleaning time and for kids' birthdays.

"A couple of weeks after Christmas, I'm going to be looking at the toys that my children had to have and they'll be sitting in the corner," she said. "Kids will grow bored of their toys. That's going to open up the door for a lot of newer toys getting into the swap process."

The potential is high, if for no other reason than how much parents and grandparents love to spend on their kids — the U.S. toy industry racks up more than $20 billion in sales annually.

Raman Chadha, executive director of the Coleman Entrepreneurship Center at DePaul University, looked over Toyswap.com and said it should help that not only registering but posting items there is free, unlike eBay which charges a fee for each listing. He also liked that toys can be viewed by category, such as action figures, puzzles, radio control and special needs, although he found the Web site a bit "homespun."

"I think the idea has some merit, but like many ideas it's in the execution that will determine whether it's successful or not," said Chadha, who also teaches entrepreneurship at the Chicago-based school. "The success of this is going to be based on national reach, and the challenge is how do you reach people by virtual means."

Maxia so far has gotten word out via classified ads on Craigslist, word of mouth and some media coverage.

Regardless how the business fares, however, she figures it is providing a worthwhile service for the recycling and donations aspects alone.

"I feel it's going to go somewhere," she said. "But whether it succeeds financially or not, if even a few people instead of throwing things out in the garbage recycle them, then it will have all been worth it."

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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