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Sequencing Business Models: So You Want To Be A Platform?

This is part three of a three part series on sequencing business models. This post is a collaboration with Gilad Horev.

In part two of our Sequencing Business Models series, we talked about the different types of marketplaces and what needs to be built to be effective in each of them. This builds on the first essay in the series of how there has been an increase in interest of SAAS-like models interested in becoming marketplaces over time. In that essay, we also talked about how a more common route for a SaaS business is to become a platform. Platforms can create an immense amount of long-term value for companies, or be a minor component of their product strategy to maintain product/market fit. In this post, we’ll talk about the different types of platforms and what needs to be true to create long-term success.

The Types of Platforms

Bill Gates’s definition of platform has been widely popularized, but it has some problems. To repeat, Bill said: 

A platform is when the economic value of everybody that uses it, exceeds the value of the company that creates it.

This quote outlines the extent to which platforms enable the success of businesses building on them. But as we try to define platform as a business model strategy separate from any other, we can see that this quote is incomplete as a definition. Assume your company manufactures and sells professional tools for plumbers. Presumably the aggregate economic value that plumbers get from the use of your tools is greater than the value of your company. If not, your tools are overpriced. But a wrench company is not what we mean when we say ‘platform.’

So, if a platform can’t be defined by economic value alone, how does one define it? Well, first, there are two distinct types of platform models SaaS companies tend to pursue, with drastically different chances of success and fundamental value for the company.

Integration Platforms
The first type is an integration platform. In an integration platform, the product integrates with other types of software the product’s customers already use. Integration platforms are ubiquitous in SaaS. It could be argued they are a requirement for long-term product/market fit in most industries SaaS companies compete in. Sure, if you are an upstart company like, say, Roam Research, you might not yet have an integration platform, but you almost certainly will build one as you scale. 

If a SaaS company is going to build a successful integration platform, it will need to attract the right integrations that help their customers. Many times, SaaS companies adopt a “build the platform and they will come” approach that doesn’t work in practice. Even if developers do come, and they happen to build integrations that help customers; if incentives aren’t aligned between the two companies, lasting investment will not happen, and the integrations will be poorly maintained. Apps and integrations will simply break over time as the company and integrators reorganize, shift strategy or update APIs and functionality. Failing this test prevents a company from even getting started, and surely from sequencing to a more sophisticated platform model later. In fact, the quality of integrations can impact the customer’s perception of the core SaaS product. At Eventbrite, Gilad and his team found that many event creators who were actively using integrations didn’t even realize that they were engaging with a product built by external developers. From the customer’s perspective it doesn’t matter where the ‘product’ ends and the ‘integration’ begins—they are all part of one customer experience.

What is the right incentive for building an integration? Simply put, it’s when both the platform and developer think the integration will make their respective product better and more retentive for a segment of customers. If the drive for the developer is primarily user acquisition, however, the platform is more likely to end up with an ad than an app. There may be fewer developers who want to integrate for the right reasons than you would like, but volume of integrations shouldn’t be the goal. Incorrect incentives will lead to poor quality integrations. In the best case, those will result in lower usage and a disappointed developer. But the worst outcome is disappointed customers, and the mistrust of other integrations and even the SaaS product itself.

When kickstarting a platform, a SaaS company is creating a form of cross-side network effect. The demand side of the network should already exist. That demand is the base of SaaS customers using the core SaaS product. So, how do you create and manage the supply side? This is frequently done with a lot of business development work early on to get other companies to build integrations. An alternative is for the company to build integrations itself or to contract out the building. An increasingly common version of this is working with companies like Tray.io or Zapier to ensure the integration is successful and maintained. Having the right supply and quality decreases the risk of the network effect not kicking in. But, just because the demand side of the network effect already exists does not mean they naturally find and adopt these integrations either. Companies need to invest in discovery experiences for customers to find these integrations as well as shared documentation and co-marketing efforts.

What are examples of integration platforms? Pick almost any SaaS company, and you will find one. Successful examples include Slack, Gusto, and Docusign. In these instances, the integrations really do add to the experience, strengthening the product/market fit of the core product by either passing data or automating usage of the tools being integrated. We’re probably all familiar with the Giphy integration with Slack, but also Google Calendar, Google Drive, and Github. You may be less familiar with Gusto if you are not a small business, but they integrate well with every type of accounting software, point of sale system, or expense management tool you could possibly use. Docusign integrates with all sorts of productivity, sales and legal software. Go to almost any mature SaaS company’s home page, and you will typically find an integrations link in the footer.

Extension Platforms
Extension platforms are an evolution of the integration platform. First, let’s bring back Brandon Chu’s definition of an extension platform from the original essay:

A business that enables other developers to make your product better where the platform owns the relationship with the customer and provides some of the direct value itself 

This is where the distinction between a marketplace strategy and an extension platform strategy becomes the most clear. A successful extension platform strategy takes your existing customers and makes them available as demand for external developers. A SaaS transition to a marketplace takes your existing customers and tries to help them acquire more demand. So, whereas sequencing to a marketplace adds a demand side and turns the SaaS customers you acquired into the supply side of the marketplace, sequencing to an extension platform adds a supply side and turns the SaaS customers you acquired into demand for external developers. This means two things in contrast to integration platforms. A company integrates with your integration platform because they believe it improves their product/market fit, primarily improving retention of their existing customers. In extension platforms, new developers build new businesses on your platform because your platform is a source of customer acquisition in addition to attracting existing businesses your customers already use.

Why should you care about extension platforms vs. integration platforms? Successful extension platforms are much more rare than successful integration platforms, but when they are successful they create fundamentally large business outcomes. Salesforce, Shopify, and WordPress are some of the most notable extension platforms. All of these platforms have billion dollar companies that have been built on top of them. Most operating systems like Windows, iOS, and Android are also extension platforms. 

Why do extension platforms create such amazing outcomes? Well, in general, creating a cross side network effect enables the product to get better faster than the company can make it better on its own. Take Grubhub, for example. Initially, the key way that Grubhub got better for consumers was by acquiring more restaurants. When selection improved, the product experience got better. Extension platforms are a version of this phenomenon that is supercharged in two ways. First, while an incremental Grubhub restaurant is only useful to you if it delivers to your location, additional apps on an extension platform are more widely valuable–developers are not building apps for a 20 block radius. Second, every incremental app on an extension platform makes the platform and many of the existing apps more useful as a unit. An additional restaurant provides more choice, but either way you are only going to have one dinner a night. And you’re unlikely to order ingredients from different restaurants to comprise a better meal.

Just because a company has built a successful integration platform does not mean it can or should build an extension platform. Considering the practical differences between integration and extension platform helps clarify what is required for a given strategy. It helps diagnose where a company currently is, what order of operations might be, and concretely what to build, what not to build and where to invest. So first, let’s talk through the raw ingredients that seem to be required. Then, we can talk about the strategy elements that need to be defined to pursue this strategy correctly. 

Extension platforms are most likely to be successful when sequenced from successful integration platforms. Why is that? Well, developers want to see other developers already being successful on the platform, and the easiest way to do that is to show successful integrations from companies they already know. So, if a developer sees that Dropbox is integrated with the platform, it will have much higher social proof than an unknown developer. In essence, independent developers need to see that the cross side network effect of the platform already exists before they try to create a new business on the platform. Shopify has remarked about how long it took their extension platform to start working because they did not have these proof points.

Unlike Kwokchain, we do our graphs in Excel, like professionals.

The second thing that needs to be true to have a successful extension platform is having a large volume of customers. If an external developer hopes to run a successful business largely on top of your platform, there needs to be a lot of potential customers for them to acquire on it. It’s actually even harder than that though. It’s not just about volume. The core product needs to support a wide variety of customers and use cases. Otherwise, developers believe they will eventually need to compete with the core product when the company builds that feature itself, and the platform will of course have an unfair advantage. External developers build on top of extension platforms when they spot an opportunity to monetize something for customers on the platform they know the company won’t build itself. Usually, this is because it is just for one segment, niche or country when platforms usually only build horizontal features. Practically, this means most extension platforms won’t materialize until the company is already successful internationally.

One other major factor that is rarely appreciated by companies pursuing this strategy is that the company needs a robust technology platform to support external developers. Developers are doing a cost benefit analysis. Why should they build on your platform? Yes, your customer base (i.e. their potential demand) is the biggest incentive. But if your technology is wanting and your documentation poor, the benefit is less likely to justify the cost. Developers will ask questions to figure this out. They’re going to inquire about your APIs, your SLAs, and your capabilities. If the company would be embarrassed to have to answer those questions, you may not be ready to build an extension platform. Wondering if you are robust enough? Ask your own engineers.

Now that we have defined the differences, let’s look at them on the same vectors as the types of marketplaces.

Click to view in more detail.

Supply Value Prop
Remember that supply in a platform is the group of external developers. In an integration platform, suppliers integrate with a SaaS company to improve their product/market fit, which increases their customer retention. For example, Mailchimp integrates with WordPress to make it easy for their customers to increase email subscribers from a WordPress site. In an extension platform, external developers do receive this value prop, but also list on the extension platform to find new customers. Acquisition becomes the primary value prop for the majority of developers. Shopify, for example, has multiple venture funded companies for whom the majority of their new customer acquisition comes from Shopify, like Shippo or ReCharge.

Demand Value Prop
Remember that demand in a platform is the SaaS company’s existing customers. In an integration platform, the main value prop of the customer is being able to integrate two tools customers already use so they can do things faster. Going back to the Mailchimp example, WordPress bloggers can integrate with Mailchimp to automatically send emails to subscribers when they post a new blog post to their WordPress site. Occasionally, an integration platform can make your customers switch to a tool similar to one that they already use if that integration is more robust. In an extension platform, customers look at external developers’ offerings for new functionality the core platform doesn’t offer. In an integration platform, the platform offers the ability to browse apps and search for specific integrations like “Evernote” or “Dropbox”. Think of this as the platform equivalent of branded search. In an extension platform, while branded search remains, a higher percentage of searches become unbranded search like “CRM” or “subscription.”

Payment
The question of control over the payment for platforms is similar to the one for marketplaces that we covered in the previous post. That is to say, when the platform controls payments, it has more flexibility to monetize the transaction, a greater ability to broker trust between developers and customers, and the ability to make the platform experience better for both supply and demand by improving payments. When Gilad evaluated this at Eventbrite it was clear that the benefits of owning the payment system didn’t outweigh the costs. Monetization of integrations isn’t a high priority since their primary value is in driving retention, trust is less of a challenge since most apps used by customers are known SaaS brands, and the experience of paying for integrations directly to the developer works well and is relatively infrequent. Therefore, at Eventbrite we chose to have the payment to the external developer happen off the platform. So, if an Eventbrite customer decides to integrate their Eventbrite account with SurveyMonkey, they pay SurveyMonkey separately from Eventbrite. That’s typical for integrations platforms—the SaaS customer pays the two SaaS tools independently from each other. However, in an extension platform, evaluating the same criteria usually yields a different result. Monetization is often a priority, the platform is generally far more trusted by customers than the majority of developers building on it, and the platform has room and incentive to improve the payments experience for customers and developers. So, in an extension platform, the platform typically is the payment provider for all developers selling tools on the platform and uses its own payments and billing infrastructure, like Apple’s in app payments. 

Demand Side Branding
In an integration platform, there is heavy co-branding of the two companies that are integrating. Integrations pages feature logos of other successful companies extremely prominently. In an extension platform, there is still co-branding, but because so many apps are bespoke to the extension platform, they lead with their value prop rather than with their corporate logo much of the time.

The top result under popular WordPress plugins is “Contact Form 7”, and in tiny font it says who built it. Contrast to Slack, where their popular page is all focused on brands.

Customer Service
This is an area that trips up some companies as they build out platforms. Companies need to build out an entirely new type of customer service to a totally new customer: other developers. This includes API documentation and support. For a platform, external developers are a hybrid of customer and partner. So often, the support function will grow out of business development, which, as we discussed, is how most companies get the first partner companies to build on their integration platform. As a company continues to build out the platform though, the support structure begins to include dedicated API support, partner management, developer support engineers, and technical writers.

Trust and Quality
Once a company embarks on any platform strategy, it has to determine if the apps on it are actually driving customer success and satisfaction. For integration platforms, this potentially can be managed in an internally facing way where the company polices or deletes apps that are not successfully serving customers and promotes apps that have high retention or satisfaction scores. In an extension platform, this typically becomes externally facing to customers with ratings and reviews.

Refund Policy
In comparison to many marketplace models, refunds are mainly handled by the supplier, the external developer. In an extension platform, that refund is more likely to pass through the platform’s payment flow, meaning refund tools need to be built into that system for developers to leverage.

Fees
Integration platforms don’t typically charge fees to external developers to be on the platform. For extension platforms, this can become a significant part of the business model. Apple, for example, charges 30% for in-app payments, and mandates usage of in-app payments for many types of transactions. Shopify charges 20% for payments, but app developers can choose not to use their payment solution.

Extension Platform Strategy

Committing to building an extension platform is a major strategic decision. It has implications for technical architecture, resourcing, the company’s own product roadmap, as well as its relationship with customers. 

One major strategic difference between pursuing an extension platform strategy vs. a marketplace strategy is how decisions are made that affect customers. In marketplaces, companies tend to centralize decision-making over time. So, the dominant marketplace strategy is to deeply understand the market and your supply of customers and control more of how they run their business to streamline the experience for demand over time. Extension platforms require decentralization of decision-making. External developers will decide more and more of the product experience your customers receive over time by what they decide to build and maintain. You can incentivize developers to move in a certain direction, but not control them.

Do not make this decision lightly. In order to pursue this strategy, a company needs to have a good understanding of what value it wants to provide, and what value it wants external developers to provide, and to design the platform in a way that incentivizes external developers to work on the right things and not the wrong things. Then, it needs to create rules or boundaries so that in a decentralized world, the product offering still generally goes in a direction that is good for the company. A framework the two of us have used to talk about this is to ask four questions:

  • What does the company need to own?
  • What does the company want to compete to win?
  • What does the company want to attract?
  • What does the company want to reject?

The best way to confuse a bunch of executives at a company is to ask the simple question, “what does this business need to own to be successful?” It sounds like a simple question, but it is most certainly not one. It’s a question all businesses need to answer, but particularly important for extension platform strategies as companies want to make sure external developers don’t build what the company needs to own. It’s a question Casey first had to answer at Grubhub, and subsequently at Pinterest and now Eventbrite. At Grubhub, the answer was the easiest. Grubhub had many partnership opportunities as they scaled, and they’d be willing to give partners data and allow them to build experiences that mutually benefited both companies. But Grubhub would never give partners customer data or delivery boundary data as that would allow partners to rebuild Grubhub more easily. Grubhub needed to own demand to win, and to keep proprietary data around restaurants to make the restaurant network functionality harder to recreate. At Pinterest, that question was harder to define, but as Pinterest developed an understanding of itself as a data network effect company, the user and pin data became a clear answer. Another common answer is owning the payment, which may be practical from a monetization standpoint, and for a marketplace, to enforce trust. This was true for Airbnb.

Deciding to own something means not owning it is an existential threat to the business. For example, at Grubhub Casey was part of a decision to reject integrating with Yelp because Grubhub would not have access to the customer data, and owning demand was the most critical component for Grubhub’s strategy. There are many other areas of a product you may want to own, but competitors are not existential threats, and there will be valid reasons your customers may want to use an external partner for them. We call these areas in which you want to compete. Shopify would love to own email marketing for all their customers, but know that some of their more sophisticated clients will upgrade to dedicated email providers with more functionality. So, they compete by offering their own email marketing tool, but also integrate with third party email marketing tools as well.

The attract category consists of things the company definitely will not build themselves, but wishes the core product would have to enhance value. For example, Salesforce does not build phone software, and they do not feel doing so would fit their core competencies. So they wish to attract integrations with call center companies sales teams use, so the data of length and volume of calls gets integrated into Salesforce. Dozens of companies and consultancies have since been created to enable this for Salesforce clients.

The repel category are apps the company does not intend to build, and they do not want external developers to build them either. For example, Apple rejects apps that disintermediate their relationship with developers, like Facebook Gaming, Google Stadia, and Xbox xCloud service.

Answering these four questions really well while developing a platform strategy can prevent many headaches in the future. Developers have plenty of examples of the rules changing on them because companies put off answering these questions like Apple’s recent spat on requiring in app payments with Hey and marketplaces that pivoted to online models during the pandemic, or Twitter’s numerous policy changes for bots, clients and monetization, or Shopify and Mailchimp breaking up in public. Just as platform companies want to avoid breaking changes for developers at the API level, they owe it to them to minimize strategic u-turns. Now, no amount of forethought can predict possible outcomes years into the future. A critique of the extension platform model is that more and more goes into the “compete” bucket over time, and the platform starts leveraging unfair advantages in that competition, like Spotify having to pay Apple 30% for in-app purchases, but its competitor Apple Music does not. Even with that critique, the more a company figures out how they want developers to be involved the less likely these scenarios are to emerge later. This is another danger of a “build it, and developers will come” approach to platforms. You may not like what they bring.


While many companies desire to be a platform, they don’t honestly know yet what that means for their business. While most SaaS companies need to add integrations over time, extension platforms have stricter criteria for being a successful long-term strategy and even stricter criteria for how to execute them well. Mapping these appropriately to your business and making the right strategic moves can be all the difference, and always superior to a “build it, and developers will come” approach that has plagued many companies interested in this direction.

Currently listening to my Ambient playlist.

Sequencing Business Models: The Types of Marketplaces

This is part two of a three part series on sequencing business models. This essay is a collaboration with Gilad Horev.

Casey’s first sequencing business models essay talked about the transition from a SaaS business model to marketplace business model, and why it’s so difficult. In this essay, we’ll go deeper into the gradients of marketplace models that a company can sequence to, and as a follow up, we will do the same for platforms. Models on this spectrum may seem similar to each other at first blush. Especially adjacent ones. But sequencing between models is always hard, and failing to appreciate the practical differences between them makes executing that transition even harder. If the previous essay was about the organization, this essay is more about the roadmap.

The Types of Marketplaces

If a company is thinking about sequencing into a marketplace, it’s important for it to understand that there are different types of marketplaces with different components. Having a good idea of what you’re sequencing to eventually is important, but also influences the transitions on how to get there.

In Casey’s last essay, he covered the differences between regular SaaS companies and SaaS-like Networks. Building on the definitions from that essay and introducing a few new ones, here are the types of business models we’ll cover:

  • SaaS: software that businesses access online and purchase via a subscription e.g. Slack, Adobe, Atlassian
  • SaaS-like Network: any number of different models where a business sells software to businesses online and that software supports the interaction between the business customer and their end consumer. The business does not charge via a subscription, but rather fees are transactional or pre-revenue e.g. Square, Styleseat, Mindbody
  • Light marketplace: a network model focused on transactions that happen without facilitation by the marketplace. There are two common modes here in lead gen and peer to peer e.g. Zillow, Thumbtack, Craigslist
  • Managed marketplace: a network model that facilitates transactions between supply and demand by processing payments and ensuring quality of transaction by establishing trust e.g. Etsy, Ebay, Airbnb
  • Heavily managed marketplace: a network model that facilitates transactions by participating in the delivery of the transaction in a meaningful way e.g. Uber, Amazon, Faire
  • Vertically integrated: The company owns or directly employs the “supply” e.g. Clutter, Oyo, Honor

We find it’s best to describe these marketplace types against each other on some common vectors.

Common Marketplace Vectors

Click to view in more detail.

Before we examine these vectors, it’s important to understand there is no one dominant business model, and the larger companies grow, the more likely they are to sequence to new or additional models over time. Google, for example, has an ads business, a vertically integrated hardware business for the Pixel and Google Home, a developer platform in Google Play, an enterprise SaaS product in Google Cloud, consumer subscription with YouTube Music and YouTube TV, and many light marketplaces like Google Shopping and Google Flights. So, which model a company might want to sequence to next depends on quite a few factors.

Now, let’s examine these vectors to help understand, as one type of business model, what it means to sequence to another over time.

Supply Value Propositions
Let’s start with the most important thing. If a business is a marketplace, it is selling incremental demand to customers as its primary value proposition. A business is SaaS or SaaS-like if it sells anything else software-related. If a business starts as a marketplace, it usually means demand is the most important problem customers need to solve. If a business starts out SaaS or SaaS-like, it usually means its customers have ways of driving demand and have other important problems software can better help them with. It could also mean the marketplace dynamics needed to drive demand are very hard.

When a business starts out SaaS-like—solving problems that are more important to customers than demand generation—the most common problems it’s usually solving is payments. Early on, when Gilad joined Eventbrite, accepting payment and selling tickets online was still the biggest challenge for event creators. Unless you were a very large creator who could afford complicated and expensive enterprise software, you were likely stitching together a PayPal merchant account and a spreadsheet. It was common for PayPal to limit these merchant accounts because they didn’t understand the risk profile of events businesses, and for the ticket buyers to endure a pretty unpleasant purchase experience. Eventbrite offered a simple, vertical specific solution to the problem. Like Eventbrite, GoFundMe, Patreon, and Kickstarter were also all about accepting payments for services or raising money online. The difference between them and a pure software payments business like Stripe or Braintree is that they are self-service meaning they don’t require integration work or code, are vertical specific, and both sides of the transaction interact with the service. Other common value props that SaaS-like businesses address are around managing inventory or calendars. Regular SaaS companies that are not ‘SaaS-like’ have many different value props, but they typically exclude those above. Normal SaaS companies have no relationship with their customers’ customers.

As we move to the right of the business model spectrum, the sophistication of value props offered to supply increases. A light marketplace usually offers leads or connections and leaves it up to the supplier to then close the transaction. The marketplace doesn’t vouch for the demand in any way. It’s a bit of a free for all. A lot of people in the industry tend to feel like this is an old business model that goes away over time as the internet matures. We’re not sure. It depends on the willingness of the market to pay for a more sophisticated offering. When price is most important to customers, they sacrifice quality. Just look at airlines.

Moving further to the right, leads gets replaced as a value prop by liquidity. As opposed to creating leads, liquidity requires more of a focus on matching and that the marketplace does work to ensure supply attracts demand. In the more heavily managed version, the marketplace offers a lot more services to facilitate the relationship with demand. They may personally handle delivery like Doordash, take on financial risk to reduce friction of transactions like Faire, or provide loans to suppliers to help them invest in growing their business like Uber tried to do, or do multiple of these services like Shift. In vertically integrated models, the suppliers work for the company, so they don’t have to offer loans or reduce friction. They just own all aspects of the delivery of the product or service.

Demand Value Propositions
For demand, the value proposition landscape is a bit simpler. If I am a SaaS company, I have no relationship with demand, and therefore offer them no value prop. For a SaaS-like network, it’s really about making the transaction with the supplier as efficient as possible. So, a company like Solv or Styleseat may make the appointment booking process really smooth, or a company like Indiegogo may make the checkout process clean and simple. Moving further to the right, a light marketplace will invest in basic search and contact flows. Managed marketplaces up that game by including not only the efficient booking/transactional flows of the SaaS-like networks, but they offer better search plus other discovery mechanisms. Perhaps curations and algorithmic recommendations, notifications, emails, saved searches, etc. They also create signals to help consumers navigate to the best options through elements like ratings and reviews. More heavily managed marketplaces oversee fulfillment and delivery to make sure it happens to the demand side’s liking. Vertically integrated models have everything standardized, not just supervised, to make sure it is delivered to the company’s specifications.

Payments
This is one of the more tricky areas as depending on where the company wants to sequence to over time, it will make different decisions on how to handle payments. If the company only ever aspires to be SaaS or a light marketplace, it will probably not invest in its own 1st party payments products. But if it’s, say, a SaaS-like network on its way to being some sort of managed marketplace, it will not remove its payment infrastructure as it starts to offer light marketplace value props only to rebuild them when it shifts again to a managed model. Why do many of these models care about owning payments infrastructure? Well, the simple answer is they monetize it, but that’s not really it. Payments also allow the company to enforce policies that build trust in the marketplace. At Eventbrite for example, where tickets are typically purchased well ahead of fulfillment, some of the first primitive, but effective, fraud rules Gilad and his team put in place naturally relied on controlling when funds would be exchanged between demand and supply. Moreover, with additional control over payments, the company can offer more bank-like value propositions to customers in the future. Common forms of this are advancing payouts ahead of fulfillment, loans or a stored balance that can be used for purchases of goods or services.

Consumer Branding
SaaS companies that provide software to business have no relationship with the consumer of that business, and therefore, no branding to them. SaaS-like networks have a relationship with the consumer, but that consumer is not considered their customer. So branding is more minimal, and many of these companies allow white labeling of their software that can be embedded on their customers’ websites. Once a company is officially a marketplace, consumer branding takes prominence, and many of these models may not even allow white labeling as it would hurt awareness of the marketplace brand and the marketplace’s relationship with the demand side. Owning demand is one of the biggest predictors of marketplace success, so this is a big deal.

Customer Service
Customer service in SaaS businesses may take different forms. But it usually includes self-service components as well as some ability to get manual support. SaaS-like networks do the same, but tend to find the majority of customer service requests are from their customers’ customers, who they don’t feel responsible for. So they try to have minimal support there, and push that volume directly to the supplier. Even many marketplace models like Airbnb and Etsy try to push customer service directly to the supplier at scale because demand-side customer service requests are very costly. But since the marketplace owns the relationship with demand, it is tricky to pull off. A negative experience will be associated with the marketplace no matter what, like a bad rental on Airbnb or a bad ride on Uber. Casey certainly felt this at Grubhub.

Trust and Quality
SaaS models and even light marketplaces are more of a “free for all.” The consumer risks transacting with a poor supplier, and the company doesn’t guarantee the transaction. We’ve all had sketchy experiences on CraigsList, but we don’t expect them to step in and fix it for us. Once a company moves to a managed model, there is an expectation that the marketplace tells customers who is safe to transact with and gives a lot of detail as to what to expect. The marketplace should fire people on both the supply side and the demand side who cannot be trusted to create a quality transaction. Even early on, when Casey was at Grubhub, they fired restaurants who gave poor service, for example. Uber riders and drivers with low enough ratings will no longer be allowed to use the product as another example.

Refund Policy
This is another tricky one. SaaS-like models see the supplier as their customer and let the suppliers create their own refund policies. This creates confusion for consumers who don’t understand why they would get a different level of support from the company, based on which supplier they chose. Light marketplaces are usually caveat emptor. Managed marketplaces, because they care about owning the demand, usually have very demand-side friendly refund policies and enforce a standard that supply must comply with to continue transacting on the marketplace. Heavily managed marketplaces usually have demand-side guarantees.

Fees
The broader trend you might have noticed is the further right a company goes, the more in general it is doing to manage the business. The only way to make this work is by charging more in fees. Different companies approach this differently, and will have their own mix of transactional fees vs. subscription fees, and vary in terms of how much is paid by supply vs. demand. But there is no way to move to the right of this spectrum without making more in the process to finance all of the extra services. The challenge some companies face when they want to move to the right is there is no extra money to be made from supply or demand to make that move profitable.


We hope this helps people building marketplaces understand the different styles of marketplaces out there and what that tends to mean for what a company has to build to be successful in them. Not understanding the spectrum of models means that companies can build the wrong things in the wrong order, preventing them from sequencing effectively. The same is true for platforms, which we will discuss in the next essay.

Currently listening to A View of U by Machinedrum.

Martech Part II: Why Marketing Analytics is a Bad Business

My post on martech was surprisingly well received, so I thought I might go deeper on a particular area of martech that no one is happy with, but it seems very few people attempt to solve: marketing analytics. I’ll pull no punches here: marketing analytics is a bad business. Sure, there are successful marketing analytics companies, and you can definitely build a successful marketing analytics company now. But when people complain to me about marketing analytics, they complain about something specific; that the tools to help me understand how well my marketing efforts are doing are harder to use than they should be. Solving that is bad business. The reason is that great marketers don’t understand what most marketers are hiring analytics products to do.

What does an average marketer want at a larger organization? Cynically, I can boil it down to two things:

  • To look good to their boss
  • More budget

It really is that simple sometimes. Yes, there are marketers that are motivated by the truth whether it makes them look good or bad, and marketers who have recommended they should not spend money they are offered because they don’t think they can do it efficiently. I love those people (like the Eventbrite marketing team 🙂 ), but they are the minority. When you get to the enterprise, most people want one or both of the bullets above. So what do most marketing analytics tools that focus on understanding how well a marketer’s marketing efforts are doing actually do in practice? They tell the marketer one of two things:

  • Their marketing spend is not efficient (read: they are not good at their job)
  • They should be spending less than they are currently spending

They literally do the exact opposite role the marketer hired them to do. This creates the Marketing Analytics Death Spiral:

  1. They hire a tool to achieve marketing goals, for which their proxies are their current efforts making them looking good to their boss and getting more budget
  2. The tool tells them the opposite of their goals in Step 1
  3. They think they are good at their job and deserve more budget, so they naturally distrust the data from the tool
  4. Since they don’t use the data, their marketing efforts don’t get better
  5. They look for new tool

The addressable market for marketers who will be willing to have a tool show them how ineffective they are and will use that tool to improve over time is just too small. People who read my first post may ask: why not just change the target customer? Sure, you can target the finance team or the CEO, who may be less biased as to the effectiveness of a marketing team’s current programs. But then your product creates organizational friction between either two different functions or the CEO and the marketing function. This is a tough win condition for most forms of go-to market.

So what are companies doing instead in this space? Well, Amplitude and Mixpanel decided to focus on analytics for product instead of marketing. If product or engineering becomes the position of strength inside an organization, they can extend their tools into other functions like marketing over time. Many other marketing tools focus on making the marketer more efficient through automation. This makes them look better to their boss, which is exactly the job to be done for most marketers. Another variation that is successful is making something measurable in the first place that historically has not. This tends to solve job #2 for marketers of making budget available to them when it previously was not. For example, it was hard to measure mobile app campaigns before companies like AppsFlyer and Adjust came along, so no one was approving large app install ad budgets. Once these tools became available, marketers adopted them so they could prove their CPA’s were effective to get more budget.


The marketing analytics space is so tempting because budgets are large, and there are many unanswered questions. But you can’t forget the job to be done for marketers. If you’re not helping them look good or get more budget, your market size is going to be too small focusing on the few that are not motivated by that.

Currently listening to Let’s Call It A Day by Move D & Benjamin Brunn.

The Kindle and the Fire

Entrepreneurs ask me about how to grow all the time. They ask about SEO, about virality, and about increasing conversion, about onboarding. They ask about hiring local teams, building up new functions, and hiring executives. What almost all of them miss is that all of this is context specific on what stage of company they are in. There are two types of growth strategies: non-scalable strategies to get to scale and scalable strategies. I have come to call these kindle strategies and fire strategies. I’ll explain a little bit more about that, and how to think about them.

Kindle strategies can be very unsustainable. Their only goal is to get the company to a place where more sustainable strategies are available. The classic example is in marketplaces. Marketplaces only work when their cross side network effects kick in. Those network effects can only kick in once you get to liquidity. Once network effects do kick in, they can generally be optimized for very sustainable growth. When I left Grubhub, my former co-workers started complaining to me about how much Doordash, Uber Eats, and Postmates were spending on paid search and promotions. They were losing tons of money. There was no way any of those companies ever made this money back from consumer LTV. I told them that wasn’t their goal. Their goal was to get enough consumers so the cross-side network effect kicked in. Those companies were paying their drivers no matter what. Might as well spend money to make sure they’re actually delivering something. And these companies would be willing to almost spend an infinite amount to get the cross-side network effect going because of its value to the company.

I’ve never seen a company as aggressive with promotions as Postmates besides perhaps Homejoy.

This does not only exist in marketplaces however. Superhuman, for example, does live calls or meetings with most people who sign up. This will never scale if they have millions of users, but until either their LTV increases to make this strategy profitable, or they improve self-serve onboarding, they are doing it, because no one would retain without it. You’re willing to do anything it takes in kindle strategies no matter how silly it might seem long term. This is what Paul Graham is talking about when he says “do things that don’t scale.”

Airbnb sold politically themed cereal to raise money for the startup in the early days.

For kindle strategies, it’s more important they work quickly rather than sustainably or efficiently. A lot of early stage companies, for example, ask me about SEO. SEO, unless you have very clever hacks for content and authority, is a fire strategy. It takes too long to work. It might be a great fire strategy to sequence to, though. A lot of companies also ask me about local teams in each market they launch. This can be a great kindle strategy, but it’s generally a terrible fire strategy. Read more from me on this topic here.

Fire strategies by definition need to be sustainable. They need to be able to scale the company 100x and set up a long-term profitable business. So a question all entrepreneurs need to be asking when they pursue their kindle strategy is what fire strategy am I sequencing to. Pinterest used DIY meetups to sequence to influencer blog campaigns to sequence to virality to get enough content where it could scale via personalization on the retention side and SEO on the acquisition side. Most startups won’t go through that many sequences. I’ve seen many companies that have a successful kindle strategy, but it’s not sequencing them into any eventual fire strategy. For example, I spoke with an automotive startup that hacked SEO to get answer box results for their content to get initial users. That eventually caps on how many users it could drive, and it didn’t sequence them to something greater. They eventually shut down.

There aren’t that many fire strategies. Those that involve network effects are generally the best. Sales, paid acquisition, virality, and user generated content with a scalable distribution channel are the most common ways to create sustainable loops to either scale a network effect or scale a product that doesn’t have network effects. This is sobering when I tell entrepreneurs this. There just aren’t that many ways to scale, and almost all involve having extremely good retention as well. Otherwise, you won’t have the profit in the system to invest in sales or paid acquisition, or you won’t get enough users to invite or create content to attract more users.

There are many ways to sequence to a network effect or some other sustainable growth loops, but there are not that many ways to scalably grow without these loops. If you want to learn more about these strategies, it’s exactly what we cover in the Reforge Advanced Growth Strategy course.

Currently listening to Perception by Grant.

What Is Good Retention: An Exhaustive Benchmark Study with Lenny Rachitsky

At the end of 2019, I presented Eventbrite’s product plans to the board for 2020. These plans included a lot of the goals you likely have in your company: improvements in acquisition, activation, and retention. One of our board members asked: “I understand these goals for the year. But long term, how high could we push this retention number? What would great retention be for Eventbrite?”

I actually didn’t have a great answer. Soon after, I was chatting with Lenny Rachitsky, and we decided to embark on a holistic study across the industry to ask “what is great retention?” across business models, customer types, etc. Lenny surveyed a lot of the top practitioners in the industry across a variety of companies, and we’re happy to share the results here. You can see the raw data below, but I recommend reading Lenny’s analysis here. Done? Good.

Why is retention so damn important?
Why are Lenny and I spending so much time researching retention? Because it is the single most important factor in product success. Retention is not only the primary measure of product value and product/market fit for most businesses; it is also the biggest driver of monetization and acquisition as well.

We typically think of monetization as the lifetime value formula, which is how long a user is active along with revenue per active user. Retention has the most impact on how many users are active and lengthens the amount of time they are active. For acquisition, retention is the enabler of the best acquisition strategies. For virality or word of mouth, for example, one of the key factors in any virality formula is how many people can talk about or share your product. The more retained users, the more potential sharers. For content, the more retained users, the more content, the more that content be shared or discovered to attract more users. For paid acquisition or sales, the more retained users, the higher lifetime value, the more you can spend on paid acquisition or sales and still have a comfortable payback period. Retention really is growth’s triple word score.

What are effective ways to increase retention?
Okay, so you understand retention is important and want to improve it. What do you do? Well, at a high level, there are three types of efforts you can pursue to increase retention:

  1. Make the product more valuable: Every product is a bundle of features, and your product may be missing features that get more marginal users to retain better. This is a journey for feature/product fit.
  2. Connect users better to the value of the product that already exists: This is the purpose of a growth team leveraging tactics like onboarding, emails and notifications, and reducing friction in the product where it’s too complex and adding friction when it’s required to connect people to the value.
  3. Create a new product: Struggling to retain users at all? You likely don’t have product/market fit and may need to pivot to a new product.

We discuss these strategies in a lot more depth in the upcoming Product Strategy program coming soon from Reforge, and if you really want a deep dive on retention, we build the Retention & Engagement deep dive.

Why does retention differ so much across categories?
One question you might be asking yourself is why does retention differ so much by different categories? This was the impetus for the initial research, and why I couldn’t give a great answer to our board. Every company has a bunch of different factors that impact retention:

  • Customer type: For example, small businesses fail at a much higher rate than enterprise businesses, so businesses that target small businesses will almost always have lower retention.* This does not make them inferior businesses! They also have many more customers they can acquire.
  • Customer variability: Products that have many different types of customers will typically have lower retention than products that hone in on one type of customer very well.
  • Revenue model: How much money you ask from customers and how can play a big role in retention. For example, a customer may be more likely to retain for a product they marginally like if it costs $30 vs. $300,000. A product that expands revenue per user over time can have lower retention than ones that have a fixed price.
  • Natural frequency: Many products have different natural frequencies. For example, you may only look for a place to live once every few years (like my time at Apartments.com), but you look for something to eat multiple times of day (like my time at Grubhub).
  • Acquisition strategy: The way a company acquires users affects its retention. A wide spread approach to new users may retain worse than carefully targeting users to bring to your product.
  • Network effects: Network effects may drive retention rates up more over time vs. businesses that do not have these effects. For example, all of your friends on Facebook or all of your co-workers on Slack makes it hard to churn from either product whereas churning from Calm or Grammarly is entirely up to you.

* In those businesses, the business failing and churning as a result is called “involuntary churn”, though that can also mean a payment method not working for someone who wants to retain in other models.

BONUS: Why are Casey’s benchmarks for consumer transactional businesses lower than others?

For the demand side of transactional businesses, where the retention graph flattens is more important to me than the six month retention rate. And unlike other models, these businesses can take longer than six months to have their graphs flatten. Also, for marketplaces, one of the two common models along with ecommerce in this category, a healthy demand side retention rate is very dependent on what supply side retention looks like and acquisition costs. For example, since Uber and Lyft have to spend so much time and money acquiring drivers due to a low retention rate, in order for their model to work, demand side retention either has to be high or demand side acquisition has to be low cost. For a business where supply side retention is high and acquisition costs are low, demand side retention can be lower, and the company can still be very successful. Etsy and Wag I imagine fit more into this model.

Currently listening to We All Have An Impact by Boreal Massif.

Sequencing Business Models: Can That SAAS Business Turn Into a Marketplace?

As someone who has spent a lot of time building marketplaces in my career, a curious thing has happened over the last couple years. Founders have started reaching out asking for help converting their SAAS or SAAS-like business into a marketplace. The approach sounds a bit like this:

  • I’ve amassed a large group of X type of professionals
  • I’ve helped their business, but they’re asking for help driving more customers
  • Since I already have the supply, it should be easy to build the demand side to have a successful marketplace
  • My customers will be happy, retain better, and I’ll be able to charge them more

So goes the story. Now, this story itself explains why many businesses fail to make the conversion to marketplace. If driving more customers was your customers’ #1 need, and that’s not what you helped them with, you probably didn’t build a very successful business, or the problem of solving customer acquisition for that market is very difficult.

What Types of Businesses Are We Talking About?

Before we go any further, we should talk about what these businesses look like, and what they mean when they ask about becoming a marketplace. Many of the terms we use to define businesses today are features of the business rather than an encompassing definition, like the words SAAS or platform, which makes them not very useful. Note: I am blatantly stealing Brandon Chu’s platform definitions for this. Let’s break down these definitions so we know where we’re at:

  • SAAS: software that businesses access online and purchase via a subscription e.g. Slack, Adobe, Atlassian
  • SAAS-like: any number of different models where a business sells software to businesses online, but does not charge via a subscription e.g. transactional or pre-revenue
  • Marketplace: a business where sellers (frequently businesses) provide their services on a platform to attract additional buyers, and buyers come to this marketplace to seek out these services and find new suppliers. Marketplaces commonly process the transaction and charge a commission to either the supplier or the demander. If not, they usually charge some sort of lead generation fee to the supplier.
  • Developer platform: a business where developers can build businesses on top of the business’s software and charge customers. The end customer is usually not aware this company even exists e.g. Stripe, Twilio, Amazon Web Services
  • Extension platform: a business that enables other developers to make your product better where the platform owns the relationship with the customer and provides some of the direct value itself e.g. Shopify, WordPress, Salesforce
  • Networks: a type of platform where consumers interact with each other and/or content on the platform in a non-transactional way e.g. LinkedIn, Pinterest, Yelp

So, when we talk about businesses trying to become marketplaces, what we’re talking about usually is sellers of software to businesses trying to help those same businesses attract more buyers by aggregating buyers on their platform and aiding in the discovery of those buyers finding the businesses the company currently counts as customers.

The Weak Transition to Marketplace Arguments

Why is there a sudden demand of founders looking at this strategy? There are three fairly weak arguments I don’t like, but I’ll present them anyway.

#1 Saturated Growth in SAAS

Perhaps it is a natural extension of the SAAS explosion the last ten years. Kevin Kwok and I have often discussed that growth at some scale equals an adjacent business model:

  • Ecommerce businesses trend towards marketplaces over time e.g. Amazon
  • Marketplaces trend towards vertical integration over time e.g. Zillow
  • SAAS businesses trend towards extension platforms e.g. Salesforce

Perhaps as SAAS has moved into more niche verticals, the extension platform opportunities have dried up, so companies are looking at consumer marketplaces as a new potential growth lever. But SAAS companies continue to grow on the public markets. Perhaps as SAAS has expanded into industries where customer acquisition is difficult, they’ve found their businesses at best only solve the second most important problem for their customers.

#2 Desire for Market Networks

Perhaps it’s because of James Currier. He has blogged repeatedly about market networks being the companies of the future. These companies combine SAAS, marketplaces, and networks. But these founders are not using this term, and this supposed revolution looks no closer to happening five years after his original prediction. Some businesses attempting to build out market networks have become good SAAS businesses e.g. Outdoorsy with its Wheelbase product, but there is no evidence they’ve actually ended up building marketplaces or market networks. Honeybook has struggled, and Angellist and Houzz started as networks, not SAAS businesses. Angellist has never added a SAAS component. Houzz acquired IvyMark last year to launch a SAAS model after ecommerce, ads, and marketplace models for monetization disappointed, and it is too early to understand how well that is working. All evidence shows that if market networks are real, they are more likely to become them from starting as a marketplace or network first, then adding SAAS, not the other way around. Faire is a recent example of this.

#3 It Worked for OpenTable

Now this is a reason I actually hear. But it’s not a great one. The first reason is that OpenTable was a marketplace from day one. Customer acquisition was always a key value proposition, and they delivered on it. It wasn’t aspirational. Second, OpenTable is one of the largest public market disappointments of the last ten years. With an infinitely sized market, the company struggled, was acquired, and then written down significantly post-acquisition by Booking.com.

While these stories exist and do influence some founders, I do still think the main reason why is illustrated in the initial story above; it’s just the strange allure of ongoing customer development.

Why Changing Business Models and Customers is Always Hard

Ignoring the impetus for the rapid increase in desire for SAAS businesses to transform into marketplaces, let’s talk about why companies struggle to do this in practice, and how you fight these headwinds. Through my research and directly working with companies attempting these changes, I’ve identified some main barriers for this transition. If you can work through these barriers, your chances of making this mythical transition increase dramatically.

#1 Founders have to change the incentive structure for all or a significant percentage of the company

SAAS or SAAS-like businesses can grow very quickly. If you’ve spent a significant amount of years building a SAAS business and are considering the marketplace transition to drive additional growth and value to your customers, you’ve almost assuredly built a significantly large base of customers, still have growth targets on this core business, and are managing a lot of complexity already. What happens frequently is founders attempt to spin up a team to work on what’s usually a large, new addition to their current product offering. This initiative is considered a long term, strategic play. It’s important, but not urgent.

What happens to important, but not urgent, initiatives at fast growing companies? They usually get broken up by other important, but more urgent initiatives for the core business. Oh, our quarter was soft, and we need more resources to get back on track? Take them from the marketplace team. We’ll get back to it later. Have an initiative that could drive additional growth in the core business, but don’t have the resources? Take them from the marketplace team. We’ll get back to it later. And so on.

It’s always more attractive to take the more guaranteed optimization on the core business than risk those resources for the very long term, completely risky proposition that might drive a step change in growth for the business much later.

Fortunately, this issue is not new to fast growing companies, and there is a solution. In fact, we faced this very issue at Pinterest. Our largest strategic issue was international growth, but employees kept optimizing 1-2% changes in the U.S. business that moved the top line instead of international work that needed to begin from scratch. Founders usually have two tools to solve this problem. The first is to make the entire company’s growth revolve around this new initiative. That’s what Ben Silbermann did at Pinterest. The entire company was goaled on international growth at the expense of U.S. growth. And it worked.

The other tool is what usually happens at larger companies looking to expand into new product lines. They create a new team with separate goals and reporting lines. Frequently, they don’t even sit in the same building. This is what we did at Eventbrite. We created a Marketplace business unit with a GM reporting directly to the CEO. And while they sat in the same building, it had its own team and its own OKRs.

Changing the goals or creating an independent team with its own set of OKRs does not guarantee marketplace success, but they free you from the temptation of dismantling or impacting teams that frequently need to do years’ worth of work to find product/market fit for a second set of customers.

#2 Founders have to shepherd the right new and existing resources most likely to value the business model transition and change the company culture

Strong businesses usually build a culture of understanding their customers and their model very well and catering to those needs. What happens when you suddenly ask those employees to care about a second customer, or a new business model, and potentially trade off the needs? Old habits die hard. Employees still default to doing what’s best for the current customer/business model even at the expense of the new customer. And even if they do want to care about the new type of customer, they may not have the DNA. Consumer and B2B cultures tend to be very different, for example, attract different types of talent, and there are very few people who are great at both. 

Building B2B products can be very different from building consumer products, and many marketplaces (but not all) have consumers on the demand side. In this case, your customer is a less reliable narrator for their needs, so user research, while effective at identifying their problems, can be a lot less reliable at predicting what people will actually use. Consumer products require significantly more experimentation, and have the data to do it because there are so many more consumers than businesses. 

This cultural issue frequently requires new blood in the organization and careful recruitment of internal resources that are more passionate about the opportunity and usually have some background in consumer product development. Usually, leaders are brought in to lead teams like this with heavy consumer backgrounds, and they recruit more new people with consumer backgrounds. The use of advisors with that kind of experience (like myself) is also common—to suggest product development best practices that may be better suited for the task, to prevent common marketplace-building mistakes, and to more objectively monitor if progress is occurring at the appropriate rate.

How to Be Better Positioned to Build a Marketplace

While transitioning to new customers and/or business models and described above is hard, there are a few ways to make the transition to a marketplace more likely to be successful from a SAAS-like business.

#1 Founders need to confirm there is a demand side to this market, and the way you would engage with them aligns to you and your customers’ business models

One major reason marketplace transitions fail is that there isn’t actually a demand side to this theoretical marketplace to be added. These companies are selling to the supply side of a theoretical marketplace, and don’t understand if demand exists. There are two shades of this I have seen. One is that the SAAS customers make their revenue not by selling something people want to buy and find more, but that people feel compelled to support financially. Let’s take GoFundMe or Patreon as an example. These companies would love to have consumers come to their websites and find people and causes to support. Patreon even tried this. But are consumers searching for websites where they can donate more of their money to artists and local causes? No, not really. Do they support artists and local causes? Of course, that’s why those businesses have done well. But consumers generally aren’t searching for more causes.

The second shade is that the marketplace opportunity is only to find a vendor once on the demand side. In these markets, once a consumer finds a provider for a service, they tend to stick with them for long periods of time. Let’s say you are looking for a babysitter. If you find one that works for you, you stick with that person for a long time. This is in contrast to ordering food, where variety is a feature, not a bug, of the decision-making process. While successful marketplaces have been built in these areas, they are harder to build. SAAS companies struggle to transition in these markets because they have to build trust signals that may damage their relationships with their clients, and there are generally better platforms for researching these vendors than on the SAAS platform e.g. Yelp for local restaurants and services, Tripadvisor for hotels, and G2 Crowd for software. Also, how should the SAAS tool price these additional customers? Just once for the acquisition, or every time they use the product in the future? The clients and the company will usually be misaligned on this, creating leakage. In this case, the business model for the marketplace doesn’t align with the business model for the SAAS business or the SAAS customer. In a weird way, by trying to address the biggest problem you heard from your customers, you built a product that doesn’t work for that need, but for your own.

Again, this is a solvable issue. It can be mitigated through a lot of customer research on the demand side. Not only understanding the consumer your clients are targeting, but finding a critical pain point for them that isn’t solved on the market by another product that your company can actually solve due to its relationships with all of the suppliers in the market. Then, try to align revenue to the value you create in a way your SAAS customers will understand. And be prepared not to capture all of the value.

#2 Make sure the opportunity actually aligns to the characteristics of other successful marketplaces

Transitioning to a marketplace effectively requires founders to understand what makes a successful marketplace, and those characteristics are surprisingly opaque to people who haven’t worked on marketplaces. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I encourage founders to read Bill Gurley’s treatise on 10 factors to consider for marketplaces. One other factor Bill neglects to mention that is important is that normally marketplaces are built on top of under-utilized fixed assets:

  • Excess kitchen space for Grubhub
  • Idle cars for Uber/Lyft and Getaround/Turo
  • Empty bedrooms for Airbnb
  • Empty land for Hipcamp
  • Empty hotel rooms for Booking.com/Expedia
  • Excess SMB Inventory for Groupon

Do your current customers have this characteristic?

Can the Transition to Marketplace Ever Work?

It’s clear that evolving a SAAS business to a marketplace is an emerging strategy that more and more founders will research. What is important is to make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, and that you’re prepared to fight the main barriers that prevent this transition from working. It’s also important to remember that even if you fight these barriers, this transition takes time. Marketplaces tend to take 2-3 years to find product/market fit. You need to be in a position where you can invest for that long before seeing a return.

In the Advanced Growth Strategy course, Kevin and I talk a lot about minimum scope. Minimum scope is the activation energy that makes a strategy viable. In the course, we talk about the minimum scope for cross side network effects to emerge. And in our examples, we do show that most cross side networks (but not all) emerge with the supply side first. But you have to remember that you do have to hit minimum scope for the demand side as well. And many businesses find they do not have a good answer for this.

Another existential issue for founders looking at this transition is that it inverts the typical company building model. When building a company (especially if you are raising venture), you typically have different assumptions you have to validate to receive funding rounds and eventually build a successful, long-term business. The harder the assumption you validate, the more likely you are to be successful, and the easier a fund raise will be. Ask any founder whether building a SAAS business or a marketplace business is harder. I bet you almost all will answer that a marketplace is harder. With the SAAS to marketplace strategy, you defer the hardest part of your strategy.

When looking for inspiration, it’s true there isn’t a cohort of companies to emulate, and that’s scary. In fact, almost every other business model transition related to this has more data to support. Flexport started as a SAAS business from the demand side (called ImportGenius), and built a marketplace on top of it, for example. Almost all marketplaces add a SAAS component eventually to their model. But don’t be too scared if this is your strategy. If you can answer positively:

  • Can I change the culture?
  • Can I change the structure?
  • Have I vetted a demand side exists?
  • Does the demand side actually exhibit great marketplace characteristics?

Then you are off to a great start in building a new scalable model of growth for your business.

Have transition to marketplace questions? If so, hit me up in the comments.

Thanks to Kevin Kwok and Gemma Pollard for giving feedback on this post. Also thanks for Brandon Chu for letting me use his platform definitions.

Currently listening to my 2010s Shortlist playlist.

On The Spectrum: Thoughts on Zuckerberg, Tradeoffs, and Cultural Values

Many founders spend a lot of time trying to codify their culture and get culture right for their company. Yet many companies end up with serious cultural issues as they scale. Frequently, this is due to a forest for the trees approach to culture. Companies think they maybe they can hide lack of alignment and political strife with pool tables and company offsites, and are surprised when they still have employee attrition problems. Most founders get past that and try to codify strong cultural values that instill how they want to work to get things done at their company. But these values are frequently some mythical view of how things could work vs. how things actually do work. The average response of an employee to a complete set of these values is slightly better than an eye roll. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen goals like “Be aggressive” at a company, but everyone is the opposite, or something is set as a cultural value that is just a thing all people should do anyway, like “Think like a founder,” when the problem is people don’t know how.

Mark Zuckerberg has taken a lot of flack for some of his management at Facebook over the years, but I believe it was he who most clearly defined what a cultural value is and isn’t.  Company values (among many other parts of building a company) are about asking, “What are you willing to give up?”. When Facebook chose “Move fast and break things” as a cultural value, they put speed and quality on a spectrum, and said they biased toward speed.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 16.45.52.png

Compare that to Slack. On Slack’s website, they list a few cultural values, including: Craftsmanship, Courtesy, and Solidarity. They too are picking a place on the speed vs. quality spectrum, and I bet with those words it’s a lot closer to quality.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 16.45.38

Neither of these is wrong in isolation. It depends on your market, your competition, your value prop, etc. In all cases, it’s important to pick where you are though. More recently, Facebook switched its core value to “Move fast with stable infrastructure.” It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, but it’s a signal to the company that at their scale, they need to prioritize quality a little more.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 16.45.16

There are other spectrums to consider when managing culture for a company. One is around openness. Again, here, Facebook has a value that mentions specifically how they think about it, with “Be open,” where they say “We work hard to make sure everyone at Facebook has access to as much information as possible about every part of the company so they can make the best decisions and have the greatest impact.” Stripe is another company famous for swinging to the open side of the spectrum. Most of the email at Stripe is available for anyone at the company to read, for example. Compare this to Apple, where most projects are handled in secret, and information is given on a need-to-know basis.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 16.39.22

Another classic tradeoff is good for company vs. good for world. Take a company like Netflix that ruthlessly measures performance, and focuses on time spent on the platform. It very much biases towards good for company on this spectrum. But take a company like Etsy or Warby Parker that is certified as a B corporation. That’s an explicit signal that they are trading off some company performance for social responsibility. Then there’s of course companies like Kiva, which are non-profits.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 16.39.06

There are others like data vs. intuition, but you get the point. Plotting your company values on a spectrum is important to setting values that actually matter and driving decision-making at scale. Most that make “company value” level should be ones where you are taking a more extreme position. 

What’s really interesting is if you spend time working at companies is many companies don’t appear to be on the spectrum for some of these company company trade-offs. Now, for direct opposites like open and closed, that’s impossible, except for being inconsistent. But some companies are neither fast, nor do they deliver quality products. Some companies are not providing great financial returns or social returns. In this case, our spectrum becomes a 2×2.

Screenshot 2019-08-18 16.38.21

For illustration purposes only. I do not purport to know where Slack and Facebook actually sit on this 2×2.

As in all 2×2’s, it’s the worst to be in the bottom left. If you find this to be the case, the first step is to get on the spectrum. Make a decision about where you want to be, and work to get there. Then, once you’ve landed on the spectrum, you can try to optimize toward getting to the top right of the 2×2. Even though Facebook changed its value, I bet it’s still faster at building and higher quality than a lot of other companies. The same can be said for Slack. Except for Slack Threads. They definitely drifted into the bottom left on that one. I… really hate Slack Threads.

Whether you update your company values to reflect these spectrums is not the point of this post. The point is to be intentional about the tradeoffs you’re making, and revisit them over time to make sure they still make sense, like Zuckerberg did. You may find you’re not making a tradeoff at all; you’re just performing poorly on both axes, or you may find that the value you picked five years ago no longer matches the needs of your company.

Thanks to Brian Balfour for reading through an early draft of this and providing his feedback.

Currently listening to Flamagra by Flying Lotus.

The Problems With Martech, and Why Martech is Actually for Engineers

Since I spent some time in VC land and have a background in marketing, a lot of people ask me about martech, or technology built for the marketers. Are these good businesses? Which tools should they use/are on the rise?

In short, I hate martech, and think martech will decline as a category, and most martech businesses will not be very successful. I think there are a few reasons for this that are not well understood, but if you understand them, it can unlock some martech opportunities that are still quite large for entrepreneurs, and help marketers understand which technologies to bet on vs. bring in house. The main misunderstanding is that successful martech is actually for engineers, not marketers. Let’s talk about why that’s the case.

Martech is a Response to Engineering Constraints
A controversial opinion I have stated before is that the marketing function in technology companies is usually a response to engineering constraints. If you don’t have enough engineers to build a system to manage bidding for performance marketing, you hire a marketer. If you don’t have engineers that can work on SEO, you hire a marketer. If you can’t build a great email system, you hire a marketer. Most key marketing roles are manual tasks that can better be solved with engineering. The smartest marketers, realizing this, started automating a lot of their work through third party tools, and if they could, even better, first party tools. This is how martech exploded over the last decade. Marketers actually had important, if not critically under-weighted, responsibilities for the company. For example, I was in charge of getting new people to try ordering online at Grubhub, and to keep them coming back once they did. My team used a lot of martech tools to do that.

Engineering Constraints Are Being Laxed
While hiring engineers inside companies to solve these problems is still extremely competitive, engineering constraints are (slowly) being laxed across every technology company I meet. Startups and technology companies today have many more engineers working on more functions (due to improvements on engineering technology) than we had at Grubhub during similar stages of our company.

These engineering constraints being laxed means martech companies have to compete with the engineers at the company for the best way to solve a marketing problem. And besides there being more engineers in a company to work on these problems, engineers are now more likely to want to work on these problems or reject these tools as best practices. Growth teams have emerged to work on a lot of the traditional marketing problems marketing teams bought software for: email, SEO, landing page optimization, onboarding, etc.

Martech now finds itself in a more competitive environment since “build” in the “build or buy” equation is more likely than it used to be. Also, if engineers inside a company do decide to build instead of buy a solution, a lot of times what they build is more effective than what the martech provider can offer. This is not to say engineers inside tech companies are better than engineers inside martech companies; engineers inside tech companies simply have unfair advantages. Not only can engineers building the solution for their company build directly to the needs of their company instead of adapt some generic solution; they can also more easily integrate with the data needed for these tools to make the right decisions. It is notoriously difficult, for example, for many martech tools to integrate conversion data, and certainly much harder for lifetime value data. This is much more easily done with an in-house built tool.

Platforms Also Limit Martech’s Reach
Martech companies face the squeeze from the other side of the integration as well. Usually, martech companies integrate into some other system: advertising companies like Google and Facebook, adtech companies like exchanges and demand side platforms, email service providers and email clients, etc. What happened is these martech companies built value added features on top of a platform to deliver extra value to customers. What is happening now is those platforms are either integrating those best features themselves, so you don’t need the martech company for it anymore, or deleting the access that enables it, because the platform doesn’t actually want that level of transparency.

Where Can Martech Be Successful?
So these companies have the platforms stealing their features or cutting off the access that makes them possible on one side, and engineers at the companies of their clients building deeper integrations themselves. So, if most martech solutions have a disadvantage to competing with in-house engineering solutions, or the platforms starts competing with them, what type of martech tools have an advantage?

Option 1: Leverage Data Network Effects
One key example where martech thrives is when the external data becomes more important than the internal data. If a martech tool can be gathering data from multiple companies, and create a data network effect from this aggregation, thereby helping all companies improve in a way they could not on their own, they are very defensible. Sift Science is a great example of this. By being used as a fraud provider across thousands of companies, they have data any individual company won’t have in determining if a transaction is fraudulent or not.

Option 2: Manage Pain
Similarly, integrations with a bunch of key operators or vendors are very defensible in martech. Litmus is a classic example historically. Email providers have notoriously finicky rules around what renders in their systems and how, and they are not very transparent. Engineers and designers hate coding for email, and it’s hard for them to remember all the rules for all the different types of email clients. Litmus allowed you to preview what your emails looked like across all major clients to spot errors before you send the email, and generally became an all-encompassing email QA tool. No engineer internally wants to build that, and they will never be as good as Litmus at doing it because Litmus has been doing it for billions of emails, so it has seen many more cases, and has better integrations with email providers. Another example of removing engineering pain is Heap Analytics, which auto-tags events, removing one of the most painful parts of setting up a new analytics vendor.

Option 3: Leverage Cross Side Network Effects
A more modern example is the customer data platform companies Segment and mParticle. These companies integrate with hundreds of other companies marketers use for various purposes: web analytics, conversion tracking for performance marketing, crash reporting, et al. Integrating these companies saves engineers time because they integrate once, and any other solutions they need can now be enabled instantly. These integrations not only help marketing, but product, and engineering as well. These companies have created a cross side network effect between customers and other technology providers. Data platform companies are hard to rip out once you integrate because they are so integrated in all of your processes.

The Real Answer: Change the Target Customer
Okay, so all of these are great options, but they actually share one thing in common: they have really shifted the target customer to the engineer instead of the marketer. Sure, the marketer may be the person requesting the solution, but the solution is chosen because the engineers like it. Many things an engineer has to do are painful, and as much as engineers like to solve their own problems, if you show value to them, they will appreciate it. So I am very bullish on engtech companies masquerading as martech. Other examples of this besides the ones above are data visualization platforms like Mode and Periscope.

Bonus Option: Pick the Right Marketing Customer
One other strategy that is very successful for martech companies is to build targeted solutions for the types of companies where marketing is more central to the organization’s success. While marketing is ebbing in importance in most tech companies, one area it is thriving is in ecommerce companies, whose main playbooks are logistical on product delivery, and where brand + performance marketing drive all sales. The product is something delivered offline, so the product and engineering teams are more subservient to marketing than in other functions, and because the product is delivered offline, these teams usually have less engineers than other companies. Narvar is a great example for ecommerce tracking. Buffer is a great example for social media marketing. Canva is a great tool to help design creative for marketing campaigns and social media posts.

Martech is a very challenging space for an entrepreneur. If you are going to tackle it, there are distinct strategies like data network effects, pain management and maintenance, and cross side network effects that make it more possible to build a sustainable business. Approaching the right customers, either in role (engineering) or space (ecommerce) also make the road easier.  If you have any other tips on building a great martech business, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Currently listening to Slide by George Clanton.

Getting Smart About Growth Podcast with Andrew Chen

Andrew Chen recently wrote a blog post about how growth is getting harder. I invited Andrew to the Greymatter podcast to chat more about why growth is getting harder, and more importantly, what to do about it.

We talk about how viral growth is on the decline in consumer, but not in B2B, and how to leverage paid referrals effectively. We also walk through trends in paid acquisition, how to find your first channel of growth, and much more.

[soundcloud url=”api.soundcloud.com/tracks/391139022″ params=”color=ff5500″ width=”100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]

The iTunes link is here, and here is the Soundcloud link for email readers.

Why Focus Is Critical to Growing Your Startup, Until It Isn’t

When I was a teenager, I told my dad about a friend and his dad and how they had seven businesses. He immediately replied, “And none of them make money.” I thought it was an extremely arrogant thing to say at the time, but later, I realized it might be the smartest piece of advice he ever gave me.

When I joined Grubhub, I quickly noticed the founders were incredibly good at staying focused. They said we were building a product for online ordering for food delivery — and only delivery — not pickup, not delivery of other items, not catering, and that’s all we would do for a long time. I remember thinking, “but there’s so much we could do in [XYZ]!” I was wrong. By staying focused on one thing, we were able to execute technically and operationally extremely well and grow the business both very successfully and efficiently. When we added pickup functionality four years later, it proved not to be a very valuable addition, and hurt our conversion rate on delivery.

If you have product/market fit in a large market, you should be disincentivized to work on anything outside of securing that market for a very long time. There is so much value in securing the market that any work on building new value propositions and new markets is destructive to securing the market you have already validated.

There is an interesting switch in the mindset of a startup that needs to occur when a startup hits product/market fit. This group of people that found product/market fit by creating something new now have to realize they should not work on any new value propositions for years. They now need to work on honing the current product value or getting more people to experience that value. Founders can easily hide from the issues of a startup by working on what they’re good at, and by definition, they’re usually good at creating new products. So that tends to be a founder’s solution to all problems. But it’s frequently destructive.

If a product team can work on innovation, iteration, or growth, they need to quickly shift on which of those they prioritize based on key milestones and value to the business. In this scenario, it’s important to define what innovation, iteration, and growth mean. In this context:

  • Innovation is defined as creating new value for customers or opening up value to new customers. This is Google creating Gmail.
  • Iteration is improving on the value proposition you already provide. This can range from small things like better filters for search results at Grubhub to large initiatives like UberPool. In both cases, they improve on the value proposition the company is already working on (making it easier to find food in the case of Grubhub, and being the most reliable and cheapest way to get from A to B in the case of Uber).
  • Growth is defined as anything that attempts to connect more people to the existing value of the service, like increasing a product’s virality or reducing its friction points.

I have graphed the rollercoaster of what that looks like below around the key milestone of product/market fit.

Market Saturation
The time to think about expanding into creating new value propositions or new markets is when you feel the pressure of market saturation. Depending on the size of the market, this may happen quickly or slowly over time. For Grubhub, expansion into new markets made sense after the company went public and had signed up most of the restaurants that performed delivery in the U.S. The only way the company could continue to grow was to expand more into cities that did not have a lot of delivery restaurants by doing the delivery themselves.

All markets are eventually saturated, and that means all growth will slow unless you create new products or open up new markets. But most entrepreneurs move to doing this too early because it’s how they created the initial value in the company. Timing when to work on iteration and growth and when to work on innovation are very important decisions for founders, and getting it right is the key difference to maximizing value and massively under-performing.