Classifying Marketplaces Startups Via SVB Mashup In NYC

Earlier this week in NYC, I was invited to participate on the investor panel at the SVB Marketplaces Mashup. In short, it was an outstanding event. At the bottom of this post, I’ve embedded a hashtag search from the event, and if you touch on marketplaces in your work, I’d recommend scanning the timeline. Before I dig into the meat of the event, I’d like to give a shout out to friends at SVB (like Shai) — I’ve now been to about 5 of their events, and each time, it’s outstanding. They care about the framing of each speech, panel, and cocktail hour. I learn a ton at these events and would highly recommend them as high-signal. (I know this sounds like an ad, but it’s how I feel.)

The main point of this particular event was to talk about marketplaces. And the deck was stacked. Execs from Airbnb, Uber, and the founder of oDesk all gave keynotes sharing key stats and best practices for the cutting edge of marketplace design, growth, policy, and management. The presenter who stole the show was Todd Lutwak, of eBay fame (and now at a16z) — if you can get your hands on his slides, it’s a business school course right in there. As they usually end these events with the investors up on stage, I spent the day going in and out of sessions, catching up with friends, and trying to wrap my own head around marketplace issues that matter in my line of work. And, that is, specifically, that the word “marketplace” is defined by different people differently and, moreover, used to describe specific businesses in a somewhat apt yet not precise way.

After the event, I was hanging out with Andy and we talked about how, on one hand, marketplaces are going to increase in number. Of course, they’re antifragile! And yet, on the other hand, how we don’t have a good way of classifying them. So, below is a more structured recounting of our chat. I don’t share this framework as an absolute, so I’d love your feedback and thoughts on what makes sense and what needs work. At a high-level, I see four (4) types of businesses than one could classify as a marketplace, though I do believe resiliency is a function of how pure the marketplace is:

Pure Marketplaces: Connecting buyers directly with sellers. These are the eBays of the world, using the web to find equilibrium between supply and demand of goods and services. There are very few of these that don’t need much curation or policing, but ones that get big in this category get *really* big. See: Airbnb. And if the web spawned an eBay, imagine what mobile could create — see: Uber.

Curated Marketplaces: Some marketplaces need curation. Ride share companies need to vet drivers and conduct background checks, for instance.

Other Business Models With Marketplace Dynamics: Companies I’m involved with like Instacart and DoorDash are sometimes called marketplaces, but I don’t think that’s quite right. To me, they’re e/m commerce companies that contain a marketplace dynamic, like metered pricing, and having their drivers pick times and jobs to claim.

Marketplaces Plus Subscription Services: This was brought up at the panel and I was curious to hear of these models. I asked Andy and he too hadn’t heard of them. Josh from Sigma West wrote a great post on this hybrid model (click here), and I’d love to see more of these, if anything that all investors, private to public, love the resilience of marketplace models and love the predictability of SaaS business models. (Josh is a great thinker on this subject, I’d also point out to this post he wrote about slicing marketplaces startups yet another way.)