Four Questions Every Marketplace Startup Should Be Able to Answer
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Simplistically, a marketplace is a place where buyers and sellers meet to conduct commerce. In the online setting, that definition still holds true — online marketplaces give buyers a choice in what they would like to buy and sellers a variety of people to sell to. I classify Airbnb as a search marketplace, where the guest selects where they will stay, choosing what to “purchase” in the marketplace.
In recent years, the definition of a marketplace has stretched to include on-demand models that are considered marketplaces because of the independent contractor relationship on the seller side.
There are two broad incentives to keep transactions on the platform: trust and convenience.
Technology can bridge trust by offering:
Technology can offer greater convenience by facilitating:
There are four key factors that shape every marketplace:
Understanding those factors — and structuring your platform accordingly — can make the difference between a wildly successful marketplace and one that never gets off the ground.
All marketplaces exhibit a form of network effects, where each additional user on either the demand side or the supply side enhances the utility of the network for all users.
Airbnb has global network effects because travel is global. Companies like DoorDash and TaskRabbit have root density network effects - each market grows independently of another. Supply gains little value from demand growth in another market, and demand gains little from supply developing in another market. These businesses grew from being the first mover in each market, then aggressively building supply, city by city.
Another factor that dictates the dynamics of the marketplace tremendously is the uniqueness of your supply.
Airbnb offers heterogeneous supply, meaning that each listing is unique. This creates a competitive moat — it is hard to replicate that supply — and an inherent advantage to Airbnb. Heterogenous supply generates cognitive load. Many other marketplaces offer homogeneous supply, meaning that one supplier’s goods are roughly indistinguishable from another’s. Unfortunately, that makes it easier to replicate the business, as the supply is not unique and can be quickly copied (think Uber)
The size and frequency of interaction in a marketplace are paramount to its health. Frequency of interaction determines how much liquidity there is on the platform. . Larger-dollar transactions are better for the platform because they generate more economic activity. Some businesses are high dollar but low frequency. Airbnb fits squarely in this category. Every marketplace should strive to drive higher-frequency usage.
Liquidity is key. Making sure that transaction volume is thriving is more important to a new marketplace than getting the largest revenue per transaction.
Heterogeneous - search marketplaces, guests are responsible for finding their desired listing. Once you have unique supply, it is up to the product team to build a compelling demand-side product experience that simplifies search, creating as much of a one-click purchasing experience as possible.
Homogeneous - matching marketplaces, where demand doesn’t care which supply they receive as long as it is above the standard.
Homogeneous marketplaces compete on other aspects of the product offering, like price, greater loyalty, brand distinction, or what values the marketplace ultimately stands for
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Deb led the team that pitched, built, launched, and scaled Facebook Marketplace from just an idea to what it is today. During her 11 years at Facebook/Meta, she also led teams that built Facebook Login, Facebook Pay, Facebook Commerce Manager, and dozens of other foundational Facebook products.