How the 100 largest marketplaces solved the chicken and egg problem

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This is the first in a series of essays on the findings from a six month marketplace research project. My co-founders and I sold our last company to OpenTable and spent three years working on products to grow the supply side of OpenTable’s marketplace. There has been a lot written about online marketplaces and our goal was to test these theories by exploring data from a broader set of companies. We started by making a list of every marketplace founded, identifying 4,500 companies in total, then collected public data to classify and compare these companies (read more about the approach).

Company success can be measured in many ways, but in the context of this project, we focused on two key metrics: revenue and capital efficiency (measured as the ratio of revenue to capital raised).1

This post focuses on how the top 100 most successful marketplaces created value for their first users and which of the top three most popular “seeding” strategies has been the most effective. We discovered that one specific marketplace seeding strategy helped companies achieve higher revenue with less capital than other marketplaces.

The chicken and egg problem

A marketplace connects many suppliers to many buyers, typically enabling them to transact with one another and taking a fee for enabling the connection. But since marketplaces create value by aggregating supply and demand this creates the “chicken and egg” problem. What is the value to supply and demand when the marketplace is just getting started and doesn’t yet have many buyers or suppliers? The marketplace’s seeding strategy is how it solves the chicken and egg problem.

OpenTable’s seeding strategy is what Sangeet Paul Choudary calls Standalone Mode and Chris Dixon calls “Single Player Mode.” OpenTable sold software to restaurants that created value for them without requiring any diners on the “buyer” side of the marketplace. They built a unique table management and CRM product (the “Electronic Reservation Book”) and charged a subscription fee for the service. The initial benefit to restaurant customers was the software. Once OpenTable acquired hundreds of restaurants in a city, they started to have a compelling diner value proposition.

From studying the top 100 largest marketplaces (see here for methodology and list of marketplaces) we found that OpenTable’s strategy was actually the most common.  This is also the most capital efficient strategy. Marketplaces that use this approach to seed the marketplace were 10x as capital efficient as marketplaces that used the second most popular strategy.

Top strategy: Overcoming the chicken & egg problem with Single Player Mode

34% of the top 100 marketplaces have some type of Single Player Mode as an initial value proposition. OpenTable employed this strategy to acquire restaurants (supply) before it had diners (demand).

Amazon is an example of a marketplace that used a Single Player Mode to acquire buyers before suppliers. Amazon was a successful retailer before a marketplace. It bought books from other bookstores and publishers and resold them to buyers. This allowed them to create value for buyers without having any sellers participate in the marketplace directly. Once Amazon aggregated a lot of buyers, it allowed other sellers to participate in the marketplace directly by listing their products and setting prices themselves.

2nd strategy: Offering to Fill Empty Seats for suppliers

33% of the top 100 marketplaces seeded supply with the promise of filling empty seats (either literally or metaphorically — selling underutilized inventory) and providing incremental income to existing businesses.

For example, Groupon approached merchants and asked if they would be willing to sell a gift card at a discount as a way to attract new customers and fill slow periods. The service was free and Groupon only took a cut of the sales, which limited the risk to the supplier. Early Groupon employee Shawn Bercuson says:

Many of the merchants expected that we were trying to get them to pay for something upfront, so when we said we only took a percentage of what we were able to sell and they’d never have to pay us out of pocket, they were pleasantly surprised. – Quora

Groupon launched a single deal every day and marketed it aggressively on Google and Facebook. They were able to acquire supply without having any traction with demand, but they only needed a small amount of supply to get started. They attracted that supply with the promise of risk-free incremental income.

Uber had a similar strategy. They started with existing black car drivers and gave them an iPhone running the Uber app so they could accept rides during their down time. Before Uber these limo companies worked primarily on pre-set appointments and their drivers spent much of the day waiting for the next appointment. With Uber, now when they had downtime they could make themselves available in Uber’s app and get some extra business.

Both Uber and Groupon focused on existing businesses that already provided a similar service, convincing them to make their service available to Uber or Groupon’s customers. They did this without having buyers, simply by promising that would fill the empty seats once they attracted users to the platform.

3rd strategy: Create a marketplace where Buyers are Sellers

Peer to peer shopping services OLX and Letgo both use TV advertising to attract users

The third most common strategy is to focus on buyers that would also be sellers on the marketplace, therefore acquiring demand and supply simultaneously. Of the 14 marketplaces that employed this “Buyers are Sellers” strategy, 10 of them are peer to peer shopping apps like Craigslist or eBay. For this strategy to work, there needs to be high overlap between buyers and sellers.

Marketplaces with this approach to creating value for initial users have had very different early user acquisition strategies. OLX and Letgo used TV advertising to attract initial users:

We began with aggressive marketing on Oct. 17, 2015… and back then very few people were aware of Letgo,” he said. “Today, we have surpassed the 45 million downloads milestone a couple weeks ago and a third of all listings are sold. — Letgo founder Alec Oxenford to Forbes

Clothing marketplace Poshmark focused on a small group of active fashion-focused users for 6 months and got them to use the service frequently as both buyers and sellers:

The first phase was what I call the incubation phase… At the end of six months, we only had five hundred users. But three hundred of those users were actually active. They had a closet, they were selling, many of them had bought something and our early-stage thing was really to get a whole architecture of participation going. – Interview with Menlo Ventures

With all of these examples the marketplace was able to recruit buyers and suppliers from the same population and often use one strategy to acquire both supply and demand. 

Which strategy works best?2

Marketplaces seeded with a Single Player Mode have 10x the capital efficiency3 of marketplaces promising to Fill Empty Seats for suppliers:

Seeding Strategy # Companies4 Mean Revenue Mean Funding Mean Revenue / Funding
1. Single Player Mode 19 7,734,114,488 771,136,317 10.03
2. Fill Empty Seats 14 2,567,125,111 2,547,728,090 1.01
3. Buyers are Sellers 9 1,530,477,778 882,583,567 1.73

We believe there are three drivers of Single Player Mode’s capital efficiency:

Less competition – Marketplaces whose initial value proposition is to Fill Empty Seats compete aggressively with other marketplaces for supply. This strategy is designed to make it easy and low risk for suppliers to try out the service, but that also makes it easy and low risk to try out a competitor. Car sharing services, delivery services, and daily deal sites all engage in an expensive battle for supply against competing marketplaces. In many cases the Single Player Mode locks out competitors from working with the same suppliers, giving the first-mover exclusive access to suppliers.

Lower churn – These services are often higher friction to adopt, but they also create extra friction to leave a marketplace (lock in) if the tool is critical to the operation of a business.

Cash flow funds growth – Other types of marketplaces need to spend more aggressively to acquire demand and supply because they need liquidity on both sides of the marketplaces to generate revenue. By comparison OpenTable and MindBody were able to generate subscription revenue from software tools before the marketplace had any liquidity (OpenTable still made a majority of revenue from subscription fees when it went public 10 years after founding). Amazon was able to start as just a book retailer, selling books at a profit and using its cash flow to fund growth. By comparison, Uber and Lyft needed thousands of drivers and hundreds of thousands of consumers to create a compelling value proposition before they could generate significant gross margin.

None of these strategies is objectively better and the best seeding strategy is different for every marketplace opportunity. Car sharing marketplaces have become incredibly successful, impactful business with very different seeding strategies (Lyft used “Buyers are suppliers”, Uber used “Fill Empty Seats”) but none of them used a Single Player Mode.

The reason we separate the seeding strategy from scaling strategy is because once a marketplace achieves sufficient demand and supply, a flywheel helps them rapidly acquire more buyers and sellers. How each of these marketplaces scaled is very different than how they attracted their first buyers or sellers. Despite this shift in value proposition as a marketplace grows, the early seeding strategy can have a significant effect on the marketplaces’ competitive position as they scale and influences the capital requirements of the business.

Investors and founding teams should consider the impact of their company’s initial seeding strategy on future competition. The challenges scaling and capitalizing a company like Lyft or DoorDash in a hyper-competitive market are greater than for a marketplace like OpenTable, whose Single Player Mode locked in suppliers. Founding teams leveraging the “Fill Empty Seats” or “Buyers are Seller” strategies need to be prepared to both out-execute and out-raise their competitors to win.

Thank you to Elaine Hsu, Adam Wagner, Nima Wedlake, Miles Skorpen for reading drafts of this post and providing feedback.

Footnotes

  1. We would have liked to use measures of profitability as well, but these are difficult to find for private companies
  2. One of the major disadvantages with our approach to evaluating marketplace scaling strategies is that it ignores the marketplaces that have failed. It’s harder to get data on these, especially if they were started & failed years ago. I would guess that the failure rate for marketplaces that employ the last strategy (Buyers are Suppliers) is the highest, but I am not able to find much data to support that conclusion.
  3. The biggest marketplaces companies (Amazon, Alibaba, Didi, Uber) skew each of these metrics, but we get similar but less extreme results looking at Median Revenue and Funding:
    Seeding Strategy # Companies Median Revenue Median Funding Median Revenue / Funding
    Single Player Mode 19 350,000,000 114,469,760 2.97
    Fill Empty seats 14 431,089,738 893,911,221 0.77
    Buyers are Sellers 9 210,000,000 146,920,000 0.68
  4. This only includes companies where we had data on both revenue and funding.

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