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.