Centralization Vs. Decentralization in Marketplaces and Scaling Companies

First off, no, this is not a post about blockchain. Sorry to disappoint you. This is a post about structuring your teams, and structuring your business. A common problem I work with entrepreneurs on is where power should be held both inside and outside organizations. These entrepreneurs have heard the stories of how instrumental Uber’s local teams were in their success. They have also heard about marketplaces that have given all of the power to the supply, and also marketplaces where supply has no power. They struggle to understand for their particular business, how much power am I centralizing in HQ, or how much power am I centralizing inside the company vs. outside it.

These issues usually arise in two areas, which particularly, but not exclusively, affect marketplaces. One is around local expansion. When I enter a city or country, who is in charge of that market’s success? Is it a local GM or someone in HQ? The same questions emerge for satellite development offices and going international. Do I hire local managers? Or do people report into managers in HQ? Who owns a country’s growth? The second issue is around who controls the quality of the service. Do we let the supply side determine their level of service, or do we standardize it across all of our supply? Is there value in standardization or variety of service level?

Advice on these topics usually misses the main factors a company should be considering when making these decisions. That main factor is where does the expertise lie, and what enables the best execution. And both of these can change over time. Uber is a great example. Because of training and car inspections, supply side onboarding had to be decentralized to a GM in each market. And because each market needs to boot from scratch, it generally made sense to give the GM responsibility for the entire market. They could do scrappy things to drive supply and demand acquisition and brute force initial liquidity. Once Uber had initial liquidity in these markets though, it ran into decentralization problems. Uber started to build up world class acquisition teams in HQ that didn’t have full control on how to scale customer acquisition. Local teams were still doing scrappy tests that didn’t scale, and not managing budgets as efficiently. Uber eventually centralized a lot of this work, but most people will probably tell you they did it too late, causing a lot of political strife.

On level of service, however, Uber has always strictly standardized their level of service across markets. Uber is not interested in drivers creating their own style of service. Consistency is a key part of Uber’s offering to passengers. Uber decides if they want to introduce varying levels of service in markets in a standardized way, with Black, X, Pool, etc.

At Grubhub, we started with local responsibility for supply with outside salespeople and HQ (read: me) responsible for demand. The playbooks my team developed to drive demand with SEO, SEM, and offline marketing scaled equally well to new markets as long as we reached enough supply. For supply, we had to build knowledge of the local market, and the best way to do that was boots on the ground. Over time, as we refined our process to determine quality restaurant leads and which neighborhoods mattered, we started centralizing supply with an inside sales team in HQ as well. For market launches, we would paratroop salespeople into a market to get to a certain amount of liquidity, then retreat to inside sales to scale.

For level of service, variety matters a lot for a business like Grubhub because not everyone wants to order the same type of food. There is also demand across different price points, time of day, day of week, etc. Variability in the food from restaurant to restaurant is a feature, not a bug. Grubhub uses ratings from the demand side to determine if a restaurant is below a certain floor of quality it is willing to accept, and if it drops below that, they will remove the restaurant from the service. Where Grubhub has standardized more over time is the delivery experience. Grubhub used to outsource 100% of its deliveries to the restaurant, and now over 20% of orders are delivered by Grubhub couriers. I previously explored the variables in the food delivery space here.

Airbnb has evolved similar to Grubhub. At first, Airbnb let hosts define their level of service and encouraged them to express themselves and figure out their own pricing. As Airbnb grew, it developed a deeper understanding of what Airbnb guests want and what prices will be successful. It is now standardizing those pricing levels and amenities hosts are expected to give. Now, they are not booting hosts off the platform who choose not to adopt these strategies. Instead, they are promoting more aggressively the hosts who have specific designations (at first Instant Book and now Airbnb Plus) with higher rankings in search results and special filters. They expect most hosts will conform over time due to these incentives.

It is unclear if this is the right strategy for Airbnb. While baseline expectations for service are a good thing in hospitality, there is a possibility the service could lose some of the uniqueness that partially made it desirable as an alternative to hotels in the first place. Airbnb’s value propositions that made them grow so quickly were lower cost and more unique inventory (both more unique places to stay as well as in more unique locations like local neighborhoods). It will be interesting to see how professionalizing supply works for them in the long term.

Eventbrite is an interesting example of approaching decentralization. Eventbrite works with event creators, commonly known as promoters. What do event promoters know how to do: promote their event! So Eventbrite partially outsourced demand acquisition to its supply of event creators. Event creators knew how to attract ticket buyers better than Eventbrite did in many cases. As Eventbrite has grown though, it has gotten significantly better at helping event creators sell more tickets. It now has proprietary distribution channels the event creators do not have like its app and website, a strong SEO presence, and distribution partnerships.

Eventbrite also has development offices in many different countries now. When you hire a PM for a particular business unit, do they report to the local office leader, who may not have a product background, but knows what is going on in the office really well and knows how to hire locally? Or does the PM report to a product leader that may not even live in the same country but knows how to develop product managers and understands the product strategy? This was a recent problem we worked on. What we decided is that the PM would have a local leader that is in charge of making sure that PM is a happy and productive member of that local office and a functional leader that is in charge of making sure that PM is a happy and productive member of the business unit and product team.

General Best Practices

Out of these examples some best practices emerge. If you’re thinking about these questions for your business, I would ask the following questions:

Am I launching a new market? If so, how much of a replicable playbook do I have on how to launch successfully?

The earlier the stage of the market you are expanding into and the less of a playbook you have for this, the more likely you want a local owner in charge of figuring out how to make the market work. Their job, however, is not to own the market long term. It is to get to liquidity as fast as possible so that subject matter experts in HQ can take over parts of the growth of the market.

If you have a refined playbook like Grubhub eventually did, you may find you don’t need local expertise for supply or demand.

Once a market has launched, who is in charge of the growth of the market?

Once a market has found liquidity, or product/market fit, it depends on how much of what drives that market’s success is shared with the rest of the company. If the market is fairly unique, a GM with control may make sense. However, most markets have a fairly similar growth playbook once the market finds liquidity. Usually, this means, if a GM exists, they should not own the growth of the market. Instead, they control growth levers that cannot be managed effectively from HQ, such as training and local partnerships and local feedback to HQ teams. They also frequently are an execution layer for HQ strategies such a PR, content marketing, etc. A lot of companies make the mistake of keeping the onus of growth on a local person even after it is revealed most of the levers for growth are controlled by HQ, creating a very frustrating role for that GM.

Is supply variability a feature or a bug?

Does the demand side of your marketplace have homogeneous needs? If so, can you standardize that into different products or not? If not, you will allow your supply more control over what services they provide until needs become more homogenized or are cleanly separated into different products that can be standardized.

Who manages local team members?

If they are operations focused on local needs, they are usually best managed by some sort of operational team. At Pinterest, these team members were managed by a Head of International in HQ. At Grubhub, since all of our local people were salespeople, they were managed by a VP of Sales in HQ. If, however, you have local development teams, those teams have different management needs that typically need to be managed by different people. They need a functional manager that can tie them into the HQ’s strategy. Because of the size of the team though, they also need a local manager that can recruit them and make sure they are a happy and effective local employee that an HQ manager won’t have visibility into. As teams scale, they usually add local management layers that report into functional managers in HQ. For product, for example, that might be a Product Lead in a satellite office reporting into a Director or VP of Product in HQ. If you don’t have enough product managers to have a local manager, they usually dually report into the HQ Head of Product and the satellite office manager.

Most companies centralize decision-making over time in their main office. They do this not because they are hungry for control, but because they start to build up more expertise than either their local offices or their suppliers. It is not actually the leadership team centralizing the decision-making, but the subject matter experts in HQ. The real question to ask when you are managing these problems yourself is where is the expertise for this problem, and is it changing, and how does execution need to occur for this problem.

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