Christmas is fast approaching and so is the subsequent holiday gift-buying rush. To make the process easier, a startup website called “Elfster” has been launched. The site makes exchanging gifts easy and less time-consuming. To date, the free online service boasts more than 5.5 million users across 228 countries. Companies can even use the website to set up events and/or gift exchanges for corporate employees. Another one is Elfster’s specialties is arranging “Secret Santa” exchanges.

Despite the holiday feel of the site, it can be used all year round and it even features a blog where people can exchange ideas for gifts and events.

You can also create a “wish list” so people know what kinds of items you would most prefer.

Elfster is the brainchild of entrepreneur Peter Imburg who created the organization in 2001 after his family had difficulty setting up a “Secret Santa” exchange for relatives across three states. Recently, Peter granted an exclusive interview where he discussed his experiences creating and running this company.

Presents, websites, and startups

Meagan Meehan (MM): How did you get interested in developing websites and when did you establish Elfster?

Peter Imburg (PI): I was lucky to be part of the 1990s tech bubble and am proud to say that my bubble didn’t burst! Elfster was invented in the early 2000s and the website has been going strong ever since.

MM: The name is suggestive of Christmas, but what other times of year are especially busy?

PI: Surprisingly, we are busy in the fall, back to school time frame. There are actually a bunch of colleges that coordinate a freshman class gift exchange through Elfster as an ice breaker. There’s actually a group that is still exchanging presents every year since their freshman exchange in 2007!

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MM: As an entrepreneur, what were the challenges of starting the company and up-keeping it?

PI: We operate a 100% virtual business so that brings challenges with communication and rallying the troops. Luckily, I have found amazingly motivated and dedicated people to keep the gears turning and moving forward.

MM: What aspects of Elfster are you most proud of?

PI: We are proud that Elfster has hosted over forty-million exchanges in every country in the world since it began as a startup in the early 2000s. We are founded in generosity and helping people feel good about giving gifts without spending a ton or stressing out. How can I not be proud of that?!

MM: What kinds of events have people used Elfster to arrange?

PI: One unique way that Elfster has been used is by gamers who may never have actually met in person but have spent countless hours playing online. They arrange real gift exchanges to give real gifts to their virtual friends. It brings a little bit of reality back to their lives. I think that’s really cool.

Blogs, celebrations, and ponies

MM: Why did you decide to start the blog and has it been an essential part of your success?

PI: The blog has been great for us to cover topics important to our users in more detail.

MM: What are some of the most surprising items that pop up on “wish lists”?

PI: A pony!

MM: How do you hope Elfster will evolve over the coming years?

PI: I hope that Elfster will grow to become an even bigger part of the world’s celebrations to put an end to spending too much on too many bad and cheap gifts. I want to help the world be more thoughtful, more generous and more organized about their gift shopping.

MM: Are you currently planning anything exciting and would you like to mention or discuss anything further?

PI: I am really excited about how our “Shop” section is shaping up. We help our users create wish lists where they can wish for anything available on the internet (and sometimes beyond that, too).

Our gift guides allow users to add to their list and then share it with their friends and families participating in their gift exchange or not. This way, people get what they want but it will still be a surprise…unless they only put one thing on their list. This is really helpful for kids and grandchildren who may not see their family that much. People don’t all live in the same town anymore but we want to help it feel like they do!