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Required reading for marketplace startups: The 20 best essays

The current generation of marketplace startups has been incredibly successful. Airbnb, Lime, Uber, Lyft, Instacart, etc. I’ve been doing a broad survey of the best writing on this topic and wanted to share my list of 20 best links I’ve seen.

Marketplaces at Andreessen Horowitz
We look at a lot of marketplace startups at Andreessen Horowitz @a16z – and we fund a lot of them! – so it’s great to compile all the best thinking.

To lead off this list, my colleague @jeff_jordan has an awesome preso that covers everything from the marketplace “wheel” – network effects, and how they’re different than ecommerce products. Amazing, thoughtful preso. Must watch.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n57UaE08h7A

Solving the Chicken and Egg problem of marketplaces
Now let’s get to the links. First, here’s a series of links on the “Chicken and Egg” problem of marketplaces. How to do you get the initial liquidity to get the flywheel turning? Here’s a few links on the topic.

1. Josh Breinlinger (early oDesk) on “Liquidity Hacking.” Couple ways to do it: Provide value to one side: offer portfolios, community, tools. Find aggregators: Physical aggregators (like campuses), enterprise clients, supply aggregators, or scrape listings. Narrow the problem: geo, niche, vertical. Curate one side. Read the whole thing here: https://pando.com/2012/11/20/liquidity-hacking-how-to-build-a-two-sided-marketplace/

2. Here’s a nice podcast from Casey Winters (ex-Pinterest/Grubhub/etc) and Brian Rothenberg @bmrothenberg (VP Growth at Eventbrite) who talk about: The “chicken and egg” problem for marketplaces. Horizontal vs vertical. Online to Offline. https://news.greylock.com/paving-the-way-to-marketplace-liquidity-76c8e7854cad

3. Eli Chait (ex-OpenTable) on all the ways to boostrap a chicken and egg problem. Single player, Fill seats for suppliers, Create a marketplace where the buyers are sellers. Read the whole thing here: https://blog.elichait.com/2018/04/09/how-the-100-largest-marketplaces-solve-the-chicken-and-egg-problem/

4. Anand Iyer (ex-Threadflip) writes about using trust throughout the product: Ratings, Curation, Customer service, Mobile first, Good onboarding, Frictionless Payment, Social proof. http://firstround.com/review/How-Modern-Marketplaces-Like-Uber-Airbnb-Build-Trust-to-Hit-Liquidity/

5. Jonathan Golden (ex-Airbnb) on bootstrapping liquidity, adding host guarantees, reacting to competition, user experience. https://medium.com/@jgolden/lessons-learned-scaling-airbnb-100x-b862364fb3a7

Current trends in marketplaces
Next topic, the current crop of marketplaces has gotten huge for a reason. They’re doing a lot different, but going more “full-stack,” building deeper tools, etc. One important label is the new “market network” concept

6) Another by Casey Winters (ex-Grubhub) on how new marketplace companies are evolving: 1) connect buyers and sellers, 2) own the delivery network, 3) own the supply (managed/verticalized). http://caseyaccidental.com/three-stages-online-marketplaces/

7. Anand Iyer (Trusted) again, talks about the evolution from leadgen/search-based marketplaces to full-stack where the platform helps manage: 1) customer UX, 2) supply software tools, 3) retention/frequency, 4) transactional model, 5) trust/safety/risk, 6) pricing mgmt + guidance. Read the whole thing here: https://medium.com/@ai/the-evolution-of-managed-marketplaces-3382290963b2

8. James Currier (of NFX) pens one of the classics of the last few years, defining the term “Market Network” – multiple participants, SaaS tools, with transactions at the center.

Key differences: 1) Market networks target more complex services. 2) People matter – complex services mean each client is unique and not interchangeable. 3) Collaboration happens around a project. 4) There’s unique profiles of people involved. 5) Long term relationships between participants. 6) Referrals flow freely. 7) Increases transaction velocity and satisfaction. Re-read the whole thing here: https://www.nfx.com/post/10-years-about-market-networks

9. Andrei Brasovean (Accel) gives a comprehensive list of Marketplace metrics. https://medium.com/@algovc/10-marketplace-kpis-that-matter-22e0fd2d2779

Here’s the list: GMV, net revenue, gross margin / contribution margin, MoM growth rate, Market share, Liquidity, AOV, Items per basket, Messages, NPS, User reviews, Cohort retention, Repeat orders, Whale curves, Sector/Geo/Product concentration, Fragmentation, CAC, Channel scalability, Channel mix, LTV, LTV/CAC, Unit economics, Burn rate. A lot more detail in the essay.

10. Borja Moreno de los Rios, ceo of Merlin, writes one of my favorite articles where he has a bunch of graphs/concepts on measuring liquidity: https://techcrunch.com/2017/07/11/marketplace-liquidity/

11. Angela Tran Kingyens (VersionOne) on a Marketplace metrics dashboard. GMV, revenue, Seller/supply metrics (engagement/overall), Buyer metrics (engagement/overall). https://versionone.vc/marketplace-kpi/

Product strategy for marketplaces
Finally, I wanted to add a section for overall marketplace strategy – how do you know you’re in the right vertical? What is a network effect exactly? How to think about frequency and retention?

12. Me! @andrewchen (ex-Uber). A few years back, I wrote this about Uber’s virtuous cycle around acquiring more drivers, keeping the marketplace in balance, and how to think about the hyperlocal nature of the product. http://andrewchen.co/ubers-virtuous-cycle-5-important-reads-about-uber/

13. My colleague Jeff Jordan again (a16z, on the Airbnb/Lime/Instacart boards) on how marketplaces must nurture and manage perfect competition. Gives a sense on why B2B marketplaces often don’t work: https://a16z.com/2015/01/22/online-marketplaces/

14. a16z has also put together two amazing resources on Network Effects. Defining them, case studies, strategies for building them, etc. https://a16z.com/2016/03/07/all-about-network-effects/

15. More from Jonathan (ex-Airbnb) on defining a marketplace, global network effects (versus root density), homogeneous/heterogeneous supply, two-sided incentives, size and frequency of interaction, unit economics: https://medium.com/@jgolden/four-questions-every-marketplace-startup-should-be-able-to-answer-defb0590e049

16. Another from Casey on 4 strategies to win on low frequency marketplaces: 1) SEO (expedia model), 2) Better/cheaper (Airbnb), 3) Insurance (HotelTonight), 4) Engagement (Houzz). http://caseyaccidental.com/low-frequency-marketplaces/

17. Two writeups on TaskRabbit which are worth reading. The first, from Leah (founder of TaskRabbit, now an investor at Fuel) visualizing the building blocks: https://www.fuelcapital.com/stories/2017/12/7/the-anatomy-of-a-marketplace

Also, the Reforge team collects key learnings from TaskRabbit as a case study: 1) Fixed pricing. 2) Faster txns, 3) Going vertical, 4) Raising enough VC , 5) Reputation systems, 6) Gig economy verticals are a power law. https://www.reforge.com/blog/taskrabbit-marketplace-growth

18. Bill Gurley (Benchmark) has a classic: 10 factors to evaluate with marketplaces: 1) New Experience vs. the Status Quo, 2) Economic Advantages vs. the Status Quo, 3) Opportunity for Technology to Add Value, 4) High fragmentation, 5) Friction of Supplier Sign-Up, 6) Size of the Market Opportunity, 7) Expand the Market, 8) Frequency, 9) Payment Flow, 10) Network Effects. http://abovethecrowd.com/2012/11/13/all-markets-are-not-created-equal-10-factors-to-consider-when-evaluating-digital-marketplaces/

19. Josh Breinlinger (early oDesk) on the ingredients for a successful marketplace: 1) recurring 2) episodic 3) standardized work 4) little trust required 5) non-monogamous. http://acrowdedspace.com/post/73232464154/the-ingredients-for-a-successful-marketplace

20. Worth a mention – not an essay, but The Perfect Store is a behind the scenes look at eBay that I read a long time ago that is great. https://www.amazon.com/Perfect-Store-Inside-eBay/dp/0316164933.

Re: Uber, I’ve read everything out there about Uber but there’s nothing good yet. @mikeisaac’s upcoming book is the one to watch.

I’m still collecting/curating my list! So if you have clues for other great pieces, please let me know. Also interested in books if I’m missing anything.

More ideas/thoughts welcome! I read every reply :)

[Originally tweetstormed, with some edits, at @andrewchen. Follow me there for more!]

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Conservation of Intent: The hidden reason why A/B tests aren’t as effective as they look

When a +10% isn’t really a +10%
OK, this is an infuriating startup experience: You ship an experiment that’s +10% in your conversion funnel. Then your revenue/installs/whatever goes up by +10% right?

Wrong :(

Turns out usually it goes up a little bit, or maybe not at all.

Why is that? Let’s call this the “Conservation of Intent” (Inspired by the Law of the Conservation of Momentum 😊)

The difference between high- and low-intent users
For all your users coming in, only some of them are high-intent. It’s hard to increase that intent just by making a couple steps easier – that’ll just grow your low-intent users. Doing tactical things like moving buttons above the fold, optimizing headlines, removing form fields – those are great, but the increases won’t directly drop to your bottom line.

In other words, the total amount of intent in your system is fixed. Thus the law of the conservation of intent!

This is why you can’t add up your A/B test results
If you’re at a company that A/B tests everything and then announces the great results – that’s wonderful, of course, but just run the thought experiment of summing together all of those A/B tests. And then look at your top-line results. Rarely does it match.

The most obvious way to see this is to test something high up on a funnel, for example maybe the landing page where a new user hits, or an email that a re-engaged users opens – you can see that a big lift on the top of the funnel flows down unevenly. Each step of friction burns off the low-intent users that are flowing step-by-step.

Be skeptical of internal results, but more importantly, external case studies too
If you’re at a big company and another team publishes a test result, make sure you agree on the actual final metric you’re trying to impact – whether that’s revenue, highly engaged users, or something else. Make sure you always review that.

Similarly, this is a reason to be skeptical of vendors and 3rd parties who have case studies that’ll increase your revenue by X just because they increase their ad conversion rate (or whatever) by X. In these kinds of misleading case studies – often presented at conferences – not only do vendors have the ability to only cherry pick the best examples that reinforce their case, but also the metric that’s highest impacted! Be skeptical and don’t be fooled.

Unlock increases to the bottom line
First, understand what’s really blocking your high-intent users. Those are the ones who’d like to flow all the way through the funnel, but can’t, for whatever reason. For Uber, that was things like payment methods, app quality (for Android especially!), the forgot password flow, etc. If you can’t pay or can’t get back into your account, then even if you use the app every day, you might switch to a different app that’s less of a pain in the ass.

Also, you can focus your experiments. You obviously get real net incremental increases on conversion the further down the funnel you go. By that point, the low-intent folks have burned off. You’re closer to the bottom line. Look the steps right around your transaction flow – for ecommerce sites that might be the process to review your cart and add your shipping info, or the request invoice flow for SaaS products, etc. Think about high-intent scenarios, for example when you hit a paywall or run out of credits/disk space/resources/etc. All of these can be optimized and it’ll hit the bottom line quickly.

Make sure your roadmap reflects reality
When it comes to your product roadmapping, yes you can definitely brainstorm and ship a bunch of +10% increases, but you need to add a discount factor to your spreadsheets to reflect reality. Can’t just add up all your results.

When you focus on low-intent folks, you’ll have to get creative to build their intent quickly. Things like being able to try out the product, having their friends into the product – these are the “activation” steps that generate intent. Here’s a great place to start – a highly relevant essay on getting users more psych’d, guest written by Darius Contractor from the Dropbox growth team.

Conservation of Intent
Many of you have directly experienced the “Conservation of Intent” but now you have a name for it! It’s tricky.

This is really a reflection of how working on product growth is really a combo of psychology and data-driven product. You can’t just look at this stuff in a spreadsheet and assume that a lift in one place automatically cascades into the rest of the model.

[Originally tweetstormed at @andrewchen – follow me for future updates!]

PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

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The Startup Brand Fallacy: Why brand marketing is mostly useless for consumer startups

Brand marketing is mostly useless for consumer startups. Startups build a great brand by being successful, finding product market fit and scaling traction, etc. But it’s not a real lever. Let’s not mix up correlation with causation!

If this seems contrarian to you, it’s because there’s a vast ecosystem of consultants, agencies, and other middlemen who are highly incentivized to have you spend $ and effort on non-ROI/non-performant activities. Early startups should opt out of all of this

It’s easy to confuse correlation and causation: If you’re starting a consumer startup, you see successful late stage cos with fawning media coverage, amazing conference speaking slots, celebrities on the cap table, etc., and think that’s what caused their success: Great brand.

But great brand is the lagging indicator of success. The buzz is created by the hard work that the entrepreneurs put in: Finding product/market fit, hiring a great core team, finding acquisition channels that scale. Brand marketing is great, but it should be layered on later.

The greatest consumer products in recent years slogged through years of obscurity. The overnight success of Uber, Airbnb, Instagram, etc were actually multi-year successes driven by hard work and multiple pivots.

Working on press mentions, conferences, etc can be a good way to get an initial hit of traffic. It’s great! But it’s not enough. Here’s an article from a few years back: After the TechCrunch bump, there’s life in the trough of sorrow.

Anyone who’s been on the homepage of TechCrunch, AngelList, Hacker News, or even in the NYTimes knows that it’s a increase to your dopamine but not so much your customer acquisition :) It’s great for the early days, but you need a lot more to scale.

Furthermore, the metrics-driven argument is obvious. Ultimately, the engagement in every product can be deconstructed into a series of user cohorts that join and decay over time. How does brand help these cohorts? My observation: They don’t help much.

One argument is that brand marketing can create buzz and word of mouth. OK if that’s the case, why does every brand-driven commerce company have >60% of their customer acquisition happen through paid marketing? Why do they have to buy all their customers?

If brand marketing helps make acquisition ultimately cheaper, then why does every startup’s paid acquisition become less efficient over time, even as the company becomes more well known? The same arguments apply to startups’ re-engagement efforts.

It’s true that a strong brand can confer defensibility in a noisy space – but it’s brittle, hard to create, and hard to sustain. Hard to bet on that in the early days of a startup.

Where brand marketing does matter, especially outside of consumer: Recruiting a great team. Raising money. Partnerships. These are all small targeted audiences where you can reach them with more touchy feely efforts, and it can work! So put your emphasis there.

For early consumer startup efforts, it’s better to focus on the basics. Understand your users, deliver a great product to the market that grows by itself, built moats, monetize in a user-aligned way. Grow your team, work with the best advisors/investors/etc. The basics.

Do all that, and your product’s brand will take care of itself – and then you can layer on more brand marketing efforts to 10x the effect. Just don’t do the steps out of order!

[Originally tweetstormed at @andrewchen]

PS. Get new updates/analysis on tech and startups

I write a high-quality, weekly newsletter covering what's happening in Silicon Valley, focused on startups, marketing, and mobile.

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