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Product Vision and Strategy – Advice from Marty Cagan

How do you feel about your company’s product vision, product strategy and product roadmap?

These are high-leverage areas where many companies could sharpen their thinking and ways of working to become more effective.

One of my favourite product management experts, Marty Cagan (author of Inspired), was recently interviewed on the ‘This Is Product Management’ podcast about these topics and gave some great advice.

Here are my takeaways from his interview.

Product Vision

  • “It’s the future you’re trying to create.”
  • It’s your most powerful tool for recruiting a great product development team.
  • Looks a minimum of 2 years ahead; more often, 5-10 years.
  • Gives team a common objective, e.g. “a marketplace for buying anything from anyone, any time, anywhere.”
  • Needs to be compelling and capable of motivating a team for many years.
  • In a startup, it’s usually the responsibility of one of the co-founders; in a larger company, typically the head of product.

Product Strategy

  • Path to achieving the product vision.
  • Not the same as a product roadmap.
  • Can be a series of product/market fits, e.g. sequence of vertical markets you’re going to go after.
  • Can be a series of geographies.
  • Could be more complex, e.g. first provide an API, then services, then access to data gathered through providing those services.

Product Roadmap

  • Marty doesn’t like typical roadmaps (in the sense of a prioritised list of features and projects); he views them as analogous to a big up-front business plan — the antithesis of lean startup ideas. Many of the assumptions underlying them will be wrong.
  • Instead, he recommends giving teams a prioritised set of business problems to solve.
    • e.g. “It takes us two months to get a new customer live. Figure out how to reduce that by half.”
  • Teams then figure out themselves what solutions to try in which order, test those solutions, and iterate as necessary.
  • When the wider business needs dates (note: not everything needs a date), Marty recommends doing discovery first to figure out what solution will work for the business and for its customers. Then, give a date based on that solution.


Three steps:

  1. As mentioned above, give teams a set of prioritised business problems to solve each quarter.
  2. Good teams will have lots of ideas about how to address these.
  3. Team prioritises the potential solutions based on their experience and insights.

Marty recommends three techniques for framing the opportunities.

  1. Ask four framing questions 
    • What problem are you trying to solve for the customer?
    • What problem are you solving for the business?
    • How will you measure the results?
    • Who’s the target market?
  2. Amazon-style internal press release  — imagine the press release you’d write when the potential product was released.
  3. Startup canvas — good for whole new product lines; has largely taken the place of the old-style business case.


Typically, product managers and designers spend most of their time doing discovery, i.e. finding solutions that actually solve the problem. This addresses the ‘big four risks of product’:

  1. Value Risk — Will people buy / choose to use it?
  2. Usability Risk — Can they figure out how to use?
  3. Technology Feasibility Risk — Can we build it?
  4. Business Viability Risk — Do we have a way to get this to market?

Probably 5% of the work for PMs is vision, strategy and prioritisation. The rest (95%) is discovery.

Getting Out of the Office

  • Marty recommends most product teams spend much more time out of the office meeting with users.
  • He doesn’t do focus groups or requirements gathering. Instead, does interviewing, prototype testing, etc.
  • He recommends a minimum of 3 customer sessions per week with a typical session being about an hour.

Three ways to get in front of customers:

  • Visit them where they use your product
  • Meet them at trade shows / wherever your customers congregate
  • Meet at Starbucks

Other Tips:

  • Read Principles by Ray Dalio.
  • Turn your phone to airplane mode so you can get some focussed work done.



15 Marketplace Startups That Have Raised Over $50 Million

I’m fascinated by online marketplaces.

One of the interesting things about them is their inherent network effects. They’re hard to get going (not least because of the chicken-and-egg problem) but — if successful — can become very valuable as it’s hard for other businesses to compete.

As a result of this defensibility, online marketplaces have been popular with VCs.

Here are 15 marketplace startups across a wide range of verticals that have each raised over $50 million. (I’m betting there are more than a couple you don’t know.)

1. Tokopedia

Tokopedia logo

Indonesia’s answer to Amazon and Alibaba, Tokopedia is an ecommerce marketplace that helps brands and small businesses sell to consumers. They’ve received a total of over $1.3 billion in funding, including backing from Alibaba.

2. Mercari

Mercari logo

Mercari is a mobile peer-to-peer marketplace helping people buy and sell used goods. The service was launched and grew rapidly in Japan and has since expanded to the US and UK. The company has raised over $116 million in funding.

3. Paddle8

Paddle8 logo

Paddle8 is an auction-based marketplace for buying and selling art. It was founded in 2011 and has received $51 million in funding.

4. JobAndTalent

JobAndTalent logo

Jobandtalent is a job marketplace from Spain which now serves a number of countries, mainly across Europe. It has raised over $85 million.

5. ezCater

ezCater is a marketplace making it easy to order office catering from nearby restaurants. It has raised over $69 million in funding.

6. Tradesy

Tradesy logo

Tradesy lets people buy and sell new and preowned designer fashion and accessories and raised $74.5 million.

7. VivaReal

VivaReal is an online real estate marketplace in Brazil. According to Crunchbase it has raised over $74 million.

8. Managed by Q

Managed by Q is a platform for office management that acts as a marketplace between office occupants and service providers such as cleaners and handymen. The company was founded in 2013 and has raised over $72 million.

9. Shyp

Shyp connects businesses and consumers with shipping carriers. Founded in 2013, they’ve raised just over $62 million.

10. Lyst

Lyst is a London-based fashion marketplace and aggregator which lets consumers shop from a large range of stores, all in one place. They’ve raised $60 million in funding.

11. LendInvest

Another London-based business, LendInvest is a marketplace for property finance for property professionals. They’ve raised over $59 million in funding.

12. Science Exchange

Science Exchange is a marketplace for scientific research where you can order outsourced research and development services from thousands of qualified service providers. The company has raised $58 million in funding.

13. HomeLight

Homelight logo

HomeLight is a marketplace connecting home sellers to estate agents, using reviews and sale price data to help home owners find the best agents in their area. They’ve raised a total of $55 million.

14. Apartment List

Apartment List logo

Apartment List is an apartment rental marketplace based in San Francisco. It has raised $59 million in funding.

15. Policygenius

Policygenius is an insurance comparison service (effectively a marketplace connecting consumers with insurance providers). Founded in 2014 and based in New York, the company has raised $51 million.



How to Use Scarcity to Hack the Marketplace Chicken-and-Egg Problem

Solving the chicken-and-egg problem is a key one for any marketplace business.

Here’s one hack that uses scarcity to help with solving it.

What is the marketplace chicken-and-egg problem?

When you’re starting a marketplace, you typically have no customers and no suppliers.

With no customers, it’s hard to get suppliers on board. And, having no suppliers, any customers who come to your marketplace will be disappointed and unlikely to return.

This problem applies when getting the overall marketplace started but can also apply on a city-by-city basis for marketplaces relying on local supply and demand — having your marketplace up and running well in London may not help much when you try to launch in Manchester.

How can you get round it?

Many marketplaces never reach the sustained level of ‘liquidity’ they need to break past the chicken-and-egg problem.

At this stage you typically need to get creative and do things that don’t scale.

One hack that can help is to create scarcity and then use that scarcity to persuade hesitant suppliers to come on board.

Restaurant food delivery service Seamless (initially SeamlessWeb) used this tactic to solve the chicken-and-egg problem for their service. Here’s how…

How Seamless used scarcity to bring suppliers on board

Seamless was founded in 1999 and aimed to connect hungry people with restaurants who could delivery food to them.

Jason Finger, their founder, started with the demand side by going to big investment banks and law firms in New York City. He’d tell them he was creating a new delivery service and asked if they were interested in using it for their staff.

With interest from these big firms, he’d then to go restaurants in each niche (e.g. Thai restaurants) and tell them they were only going to onboard two restaurants in that niche and they’d be going to their competitors next. This got the restaurant owners’ attention and allowed him to get a selection of restaurants onto his platform.

From there, Jason could more easily get further corporates interested which represented more demand for restaurant owners and hence made the marketplace more appealing to them. Jason had started the SeamlessWeb flywheel spinning.

After a relatively slow start, Seamless went on to raise $50 million in funding in 2011 and was reportedly on track to generate over $100 million in annual revenue before merging with Grubhub in 2013.

How can you use these ideas for your marketplace?

There are really two key tactics here that you can borrow from Seamless:

  1. Tap into hubs of demand. Seamless identified large pools of attractive demand (large banking and law firms) and, by targeting them, efficiently established a base of significant demand they could tap into once they had suppliers in place.
  2. Create artificial scarcity to persuade suppliers. Seamless got suppliers on board by offering access to the potential demand from the large corporates then sealed the deal with scarcity they created by limiting access to their platform to just a couple of restaurants for each type of food.

These are powerful tactics that can be applied by many marketplaces, particularly in the early stages.

First, look for ‘demand hubs’ — places that aggregate potential demand for the product or service your marketplace will be offering. See if you can work with these hubs to bring people to your marketplace when you have suppliers in place.

Next, look for a way to create scarcity on your platform when approaching potential suppliers. Perhaps, like Seamless, you’ll limit listings to a small number of suppliers in each category. Use this scarcity to persuade suppliers to come on board.

Where have you spotted these tactics in use by other marketplaces? Do let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

Further Reading

How to Hire a CTO

How to Hire a CTO

How do you find and hire a CTO for your business?

As a business owner you might be looking to find a CTO for a number of reasons:

  • You have an established business and are looking for someone with the experience to help you use technology more effectively and strategically.
  • You’re looking to raise money for your business and know that investors will want a solid CTO in place.
  • You’re early on in starting your business and want a technical co-founder.

From speaking with lots of business owners, I know that finding the right CTO can be a challenge. Perhaps you don’t know the right people. Or all the people you’d like to hire are already involved in other interesting projects.

Here are some suggestions to help you find a CTO for your business.

What does a CTO do?

First, let’s make it clear what a CTO is and what their responsibilities are — a brief job description of sorts.

A chief technology officer is the person with primary responsibility for the technology strategy within a company. Some companies may call them a technical director or chief technical officer.

What does this involve?

  1. Creates and communicates a technical vision: In a startup or small business, the CTO will typically be making decisions about which technologies and platforms to use and be responsible for the development methodology that is followed. They’ll understand the trade-offs of different options and, based on experience, analysis and their network, will be making technology choices to support the strategy of the business.
  2. Hires and develops the technical team: The CTO will commonly be responsible for hiring and managing the technical team — especially developers and infrastructure specialists. As a company grows, some businesses break these people management aspects into a separate role — a VP of Engineering — who focuses on this area and works closely with the CTO.
  3. Selects technology vendors and partners: The chief technology officer will often be involved in selecting and managing important external technology vendors and partners, such as external software development agencies, hosting companies, and providers of other technical infrastructure.
  4. Provides input into product decisions: Another key part of the CTO’s role is to provide input into product decisions, using their experience to help the rest of the business get a sense of the likely costs of different features and suggesting ways to effectively use technology to help the business succeed.
  5. Communicates technology roadmap: Lastly, the CTO is often responsible for communicating the technology roadmap to the rest of the company and to external stakeholders such as investors, strategic partners, and large customers.

Now that we’re clearer about what a CTO does, what are some good ways to find one?

How to Find a CTO

Here are some approaches to consider:

  1. Reach out to your network: You may surprised at which of the people you already know are themselves available or interested in something new. Likewise, your contacts (especially any people who are CTOs themselves, or tech investors) may know someone who could be just the right fit.
  2. Search LinkedIn: You’ve probably been trying this already. If not, LinkedIn can be a powerful way to find and reach out to people, in particular using the powerful filtering options to limit your search to people in your city and matching certain keywords.
  3. Use a specialist recruiter: A number of recruiters specialise to a greater or lesser extent in filling technical executive roles. In London, for example, there are companies such as Albany Partners, Gordon & Eden, or The Up Group. It’s an expensive option, but worth considering if you have the money and other avenues haven’t been successful.
  4. Post on specialist job boards: Consider posting on specialist job boards that are likely to be frequented by potential CTOs. For example, for an early-stage tech startup, consider posting on the Hacker News monthly ‘Who Is Hiring’ thread, or on
  5. Look within your existing team: If you already have a technical team in place, perhaps there is someone who is ready to step up to the next level? If the person is right, then promoting from within your business can be a great motivator for everyone in your company.

Would a Part-Time CTO be Best?

It’s worth mentioning that CTOs tend to be expensive people to have around. If your business doesn’t need a CTO on a full-time basis right now, you might want to consider hiring a freelance CTO or a ‘fractional CTO’ who would work for you a certain number of days per week or month.

This can be an effective way to get the benefits of an in-house CTO without the full costs. It can also be a great way to maintain flexibility and allow you to try out the services of a CTO in a low-risk way.

How About an Interim CTO?

If you’re struggling to find the right permanent CTO for your business or need expertise to help on a short-term basis, perhaps for a few months, then you may want to consider an interim CTO.

Some CTOs specialise in temporary engagements such as these, sometimes providing essential leadership while a permanent CTO is found; sometimes helping companies with a specific technical challenge they are facing for a limited period.


Now you know what a CTO does, how to find a permanent CTO, and two alternatives to consider before you bring a permanent CTO on board.

I hope you’ve found this helpful.

What have your experiences been with finding a CTO? What are the biggest challenges you’re finding? Do let me know in the comments.


(Thanks to James Goodrich and Sam Gordon for reading and offering feedback on drafts of this article.)

How Started a Fast-Growing Careers Marketplace

How Started a Fast-Growing Careers Marketplace

If you’re interested in how to start a successful marketplace, Matt Mickiewicz is a man to study.

Matt has previously started two successful marketplaces: Flippa and 99designs.

His latest business,, is a job marketplace which — after just three years — is doing tens of millions of dollars in annual sales and has raised over $70 million in funding.

Matt was recently interviewed by Andrew Warner of Mixergy (transcript here) about how was started. As usual, Andrew dug down to some great details.

If you’re building a marketplace, there’s plenty to learn from.

Here’s a summary of the main points:

Phase 1: Idea and Minimum Viable Product (MVP)

1.1 Identified a Big Pain Point

Over dinner after a conference on April 27th 2012, Matt got talking with a couple of other successful entrepreneurs about a problem that they and many of their friends were frustrated by: not being able to find good people to hire.

Existing ways of addressing this problem were:

  1. very expensive, and
  2. not working well.

They knocked around some ideas for a marketplace to help match the best candidates with the best companies.

One of the guys (a CTO) offered to build it, saying it would be worth it if it helped him find even one software engineer for the company he had at the time.

1.2 Built the Initial Tech Platform

Matt created some wireframes, landing pages, ad copy, emails, etc. and the CTO guy built it. The first version was at

Phase 2: First Users

2.1 Focussed Tightly Early On

To get liquidity in their early stages, Hired focussed their efforts in three ways:

  1. Geography: They concentrated on a specific geographic area (the San Francisco Bay Area).
  2. Supply-side: They only accepted candidates from five or six Silicon Valley companies (Google, Facebook, Twitter, and others) with a reputation for hiring good engineers.
  3. Demand-side: They only allowed VC-backed Silicon Valley companies to make job offers.

This focus increased the chances of any pair of candidate and potential employer on the platform being interested in one another. So with relatively few candidates and employers, they could still start getting ‘matches’.

2.2 Used Email to Get Initial Candidates (With Lure of ‘Finding Out How Much They Were Worth’)

To get candidates onto the platform, Matt and his co-founders emailed engineers at their target candidate pool companies inviting them to

“find out how much you are worth”


“have companies trying to hire you with transparency up-front.”

This was a novel pitch to the engineers (who were used to being bombarded with requests from recruiters) and Matt feels it was an important reason why it caught their attention and encouraged the engineers to sign up.

Through these emails, the Hired founders got 88 engineers to create profiles on the platform.

2.3 Used Email to Get Initial Hiring Companies (But Had to go Via Investors)

Approach 1: Emailed Potential Hiring Companies Directly

With profiles of 88 potentially highly sought-after candidates in hand, Matt and his partners then emailed target hiring companies with the following pitch:

“We have 88 engineers who are interested in new job opportunities. Would you be interested in using our platform to interview the people that you’re interested in? There’s no cost up front. We’re not asking you for a credit card, no contract to sign. You don’t have to talk to us if you don’t want to. We’ll only charge you a success fee when somebody gets hired.”

They expected a good response. After all, these companies were keen to hire software engineers.

But the approach didn’t work.

Matt thinks the problem was that they didn’t have any credibility at that stage, and so came off as being like the many other recruitment services that were pitching these companies at the time.

Approach 2: Contacted Hiring Companies via Investors

The Hired team then tried a new approach: they reached out to the investors they knew and asked them to tell their portfolio companies about the new service.

This did work.

Some of the investors contacted their portfolio companies about the new platform and some of those portfolio companies started using the platform.

Phase 3: Growth

3.1 Developed an Innovative, Differentiated Solution differentiated themselves from existing alternatives in a key way which helped to improve the experience for candidates:

  • They provided upfront transparency to candidates about the compensation they could receive if hired.

This differentiation helped them get attention when contacting people directly and also helped them get a TechCrunch article which generated a lot of interest in the service early on (resulting in around 5,000 developers and hundreds of employers signing up to the service).

3.2 Boosted Liquidity by Introducing Urgency

From early on, Hired started presenting batches of candidates to hiring companies for limited two week periods. This had two benefits:

  1. it gave prospective employers a reason to take action and
  2. it meant that strong candidates could end up with multiple offers on the table at the same time, allowing them to compare those offers better.

3.3 Invested in their Brand

At a stage when they had $2.7 million in seed funding, the team spent $10k to $20k on a branding/naming consultancy and around $125,000 on the domain name

3.4 Focussed on Candidates

Despite their initial challenge with getting employers on board, the team viewed candidates as being the hardest side of the marketplace to get in place.

With this in mind, for the first 3 years, Hired focused almost all their resources on attracting and improving the experience for candidates (knowing that with the right candidates, prospective employers would follow).

This included building a team of ‘talent advocates’ to help candidates through the recruitment process. These are people with high EQ who are incentivised around Net Promoter Score, not recruitment commission. are only now looking at ways to directly boost the employer side of their marketplace as well.

3.5 Used Feedback, Experimentation and Data to Improve Process

From the very beginning, Hired have continually been working to improve the recruitment process:

  • They talk to lots of customers and run user research feedback sessions.
  • They continue to test new approaches, some which work, some which don’t.
  • They are very data-driven with a data team and business intelligence infrastructure, with data available to the entire company.

This has led to them dramatically reducing the end-to-end time it takes for someone to be recruited.


Hired is a marketplace that has been hugely successful in a short space of time. Key factors in their success so far have been:

  • Identified a very severe and common pain point.
  • Focussed tightly to get initial liquidity.
  • Raised lots of capital to double down on the opportunity (but only after proving the concept, and the founders’ track records presumably helped).
  • Focussed resources on building the most in-demand side of the marketplace (great candidates), which attracted the other side (hiring companies) for free.

Further Reading

If you’re interested in this kind of thing, do have a read of the transcript of the interview here.

Some other articles that you may like:


7 Frameworks For Predicting Online Marketplace Success

7 Frameworks for Predicting Online Marketplace Success

What makes some online marketplaces billion dollar successes and others costly failures?

Uber and Airbnb are forging ahead relentlessly. Yet Homejoy, having raised $40 million in funding, ended up shutting down.


How much is down to execution and luck, and how much to fundamental differences between the industries they chose to play in or their precise business models?

What if there was a framework that could help us predict whether an online marketplace would be successful or not in a given industry?

line drawing of man pondering

It turns out that over the last few years a number of smart people have thought about this and shared their frameworks for assessing the potential for online marketplaces.

Let’s take a look at what they had to say…

Framework 1: Ben Holmes of Index Ventures

Ben HolmesIn a post from July 2014, entitled “Autobutler and the Six Characteristics of a Successful Online Marketplace“, Ben described how, when looking at online marketplaces, he and his colleagues at Index Ventures look for a proposition that fulfils 6 key criteria:

For the consumer:

  • Convenience : Is it significantly easier to use the marketplace than not to?
  • Choice: Does the marketplace have a good selection of sellers?
  • Clarity: Are price and service level clear?

For suppliers:

  • Promotion: Does the marketplace provide a way for sellers to efficiently promote their offering to highly qualified buyers?
  • Productivity: Does the marketplace help sellers increase their utilisation or productivity?
  • Practicality: Does using the marketplace fit conveniently into the sellers’ workflow? (A characteristic that can be seen strongly in so-called market networks.)

(They look for strong teams, too, just as they would with non-marketplace businesses.)

Framework 2: Imran Ghory

Imran GhoryIn his blog post Markets for Marketplaces in September 2014, Imran Ghory (previously an analyst at Index Ventures) presented a great list of factors that affect whether an industry is attractive for an online marketplace.

Demand side:

  • Multiple-transaction behaviour (do customers make at least a few transactions per year?)
  • Low vendor loyalty (do customers regularly switch between vendors?)
  • Large market (customer spending of $10bn+?)
  • Expandable demand (is there ‘untapped demand’ that can be unleashed by a marketplace?)
  • Potential to improve consumer experience (e.g. reviews of suppliers)

Supply side:

  • Fragmented (do small suppliers control a large part of the market?)
  • Low conversion/high conversion (do customers typically shop around a lot before making a transaction? If so, a marketplace can have an advantage in customer acquisition costs vs any individual vendor.)
  • Supply-side servicing (can marketplace provide value-add services to suppliers because of their position?)
  • Expandable supply (would a marketplace reduce the barriers for new suppliers to enter the market?)


  • On-platform transactions (can the entire transaction be captured on-platform?)
  • Market open to a marketplace (are the participants willing to move to an online marketplace?)
  • Willingness to pay (are participants willing to pay for a marketplace?)

Framework 3: Bill Gurley of Benchmark Capital

Bill GurleyIn Bill Gurley’s 2012 post “All Markets Are Not Created Equal: 10 Factors To Consider When Evaluating Digital Marketplaces,” he described 10 factors to consider:

  1. New Experience vs. the Status Quo. (Can marketplace offer a better experience for the customer?)
  2. Economic Advantages vs. the Status Quo.
  3. Opportunity for Technology to Add Value. (e.g. providing data about market or facilitating workflow)
  4. High Fragmentation (ideally buyers and suppliers)
  5. Friction of Supplier Sign-Up. (high friction is costly but can be a barrier to entry)
  6. Size of the Market Opportunity
  7. Potential to Expand the Market
  8. Frequency (higher frequency better)
  9. Payment Flow (being part of the payment flow is best)
  10. Network Effects (is experience for customer N+1000 better than for customer N directly because of 1000 extra participants?)

Framework 4: Josh Breinlinger of Sigma West

Josh BreinlingerIn his post “The Ingredients for a Successful Marketplace” from 2014, Josh listed 5 top factors to consider as a framework for evaluating whether a marketplace should exist in a given vertical:

  1. Recurring Usage
  2. Irregular Usage
  3. Standardized Work
  4. Little Trust Required
  5. Non-Monogamous Relationships

Framework 5: Fabrice Grinda

Fabrice GrindaFabrice has written some great articles about marketplaces as well as being an active investor and operator.

In “Thoughts on Building Successful Vertical Marketplaces” from March 2013 he considered marketplaces that specialise in a particular category in contrast to broader multi-category marketplaces such as Craigslist and eBay.

Fabrice identified three factors he believes are important:

  1. Frequency: Users purchase the product or service reasonably regularly.
  2. Value in Specialisation: The vertical marketplace must offer something that is not easy for the horizontal marketplace to offer and truly improves transactions in the category.
  3. Market size

Framework 6: Andrei Hagiu of Harvard Business School and Julian Wright of the National University of Singapore

Julian WrightAndrei HagiuIt’s interesting to think about the similarities and differences between being a reseller (where you purchase inventory) and being a marketplace (where you don’t purchase inventory). In both cases you are an intermediary enabling goods or services to pass from sellers to buyers.

In this HBR article from March 2013, Andrei Hagiu of Harvard Business School and Julian Wright of the National University of Singapore looked at which of the two business models is most appropriate to a given situation.

They argued that the following 4 factors are important in this decision:

  1. Scale effects – high-demand products favour reselling since a large buyer can capitalise on economies of scale.
  2. Aggregation effects – if products and services have much higher value to buyers when bought together than when purchased separately, then this can favour reselling.
  3. The buyer and seller experiences – if customer experience is often poor, reselling tends to work better as it allows more control over the experience.
  4. Market failures – in some cases, marketplaces can collapse, e.g. due to uncertainty about suppliers or large mismatches in bargaining power. Reselling can add stability.

Andrei and Julian also concluded that different models might be preferable at different times. You might, for example, want to start as a reseller and then move towards being a marketplace. By their nature, marketplaces tend to need less capital to operate at a given scale so may be better suited to rapid growth.

Framework 7: Boris Wertz of Version One

Boris WertzIn this May 2015 article, Boris considers what characteristics make an industry attractive for an Uber-style marketplace:

  1. Underlying commoditized services
  2. High purchase frequency
  3. True on-demand use case (In most cases you don’t need a cleaning service or house painter to show up within minutes, or even the same day. But taxis are a different story.)

Further Reading


All these frameworks were designed with slightly different viewpoints in mind and to serve slightly different purposes, so their authors naturally arrived at different results. For venture investors looking for huge exits, for example, the potential size of the market is extremely important. For others, it’s less important.

There are, however, two common factors that appeared in several frameworks as important factors for the success of an online marketplace:

  • Frequency of purchase
  • Potential to improve the buying/selling experience

Imran and Josh both listed a factor that can be a result of Boris’ ‘underlying commoditised services’:

  • Low vendor loyalty

Lastly, one factor that a couple of the frameworks included and that I personally suspect is an important one:

  • Fragmentation of existing players


It’s an interesting time to watch what’s happening with online marketplaces, especially given the excitement around the likes of Uber and Deliveroo and the rise of ‘market networks‘ such as AngelList and Houzz that layer social network and workflow components on top of marketplaces.

Which industries do you think are best suited for disruption by an online marketplace next?

How Thumbtack Built a Huge Local Services Marketplace

How Thumbtack Built a Huge Local Services Marketplace

How do you build an online marketplace from scratch?

Thumbtack, an online marketplace for local services, yesterday announced a $100M funding round led by Google Ventures.

Building a local services marketplace is a notoriously difficult problem that has beaten many entrepreneurs. So how did Thumbtack get where they are? What tactics are behind their apparent success?

The founder of Thumbtack, Marco Zappacosta, was interviewed by Andrew Warner of earlier in the year and covered some of the tactics that Thumbtack used to build its marketplace. You can read the transcript of their interview here.

Here’s a summary of the tactics and approaches Marco described:

1. Built Supply Side Using Scraping and Customised Mass Emails

  • Recognising the chicken-and-egg problem of all marketplaces, Thumbtack saw the supply side as easier to get in place and focused on that first.
  • They used web scraping to compile data on local service providers and developed software to process and organise it.
  • They used the extracted information to bulk send customised emails to service providers inviting them to create profiles on the site.
  • They were concerned about being blocked by email service providers so were careful about monitoring the relevance of their emails.*
  • Their technology wasn’t limited to a specific category or part of the country, so they covered a broad range of categories and the whole US from the start.**
  • With their first $6M of funding, they had listed hundreds of thousands of service pros.

Here‘s an example of an email Thumbtack reportedly sent in 2012. What do you think: was this spam?

** It’s interesting to see that Thumbtack succeeded despite going against the common wisdom of focusing on a single city and/or category.

2. Built Demand Side Using SEO (Based on Unique Content of Service Provider Profiles)

  • Service providers creating their own profiles resulted in lots of unique content.
  • As the service provider profiles were crawled by search engines, this resulted in lots of organic search traffic.
  • More and more customers now coming from word-of-mouth and direct.
  • Have started running search and display ads, including retargeting.

3. Tried Different Revenue Models (Commission -> Subscription -> Per-Quote)

  • Initially, tried commission-based model. But had collection issues (hard to tell if an introduction resulted in paid work, lots of providers didn’t pay).
  • Next, tried subscription model. Worked okay, but wasn’t well aligned with marginal value of each introduction.
  • Currently charging providers to respond to quotes. (They can pay per response or buy credits in bulk.)

4. Off-shored Labour-Intensive Tasks

  • 75 of 200 employees are in the Philippines.
  • Main tasks for these employees are: responding to support inquiries (from customers and providers) and helping to onboard service providers.

In summary, then, in terms of building up their marketplace, Thumbtack’s use of mass emails to contacts scraped from the web seems to have been key. Another important decision was to keep their supplier profiles accessible to search engines. This allowed them to grow their demand side through SEO.

At Thumbtack’s current scale and with a large amount of money to spend, it will be interesting to see whether other paid acquisition channels will now start to pay off for them.

What other tactics have you seen used to successfully establish marketplaces? Do leave a comment below.

If you’re interested in tactics for building marketplaces, you make like to read my posts on Getting to Critical Mass: How to Start a Marketplace Business and Skillshare: How to Build a Marketplace for Online Education.

Photo by kellee_g

What is the Average Churn Rate for a Subscription Box Business?

What is the Average Churn Rate for a Subscription Box Business?

What churn rate can you expect for your subscription box business?

What’s a good churn rate? What’s a bad churn rate? If you haven’t yet launched, what number should you put in your business plan?

I wrote in a previous post about typical subscription e-commerce retention rates and how, when considering launching a subscription box businesses, your assumptions about retention rates are critical to whether or not the business looks like it’ll be profitable.

To help you choose a realistic number, here are the retention rates and churn rates of a few subscription box businesses based on information that has been shared online:

  • According to this interview with Andrew Warner of Mixergy, one of the founders of Foodzie (selling monthly tasting boxes of artisan food) said they had average subscription lengths of 6-8 months. That implies a churn rate of around 14% (and a retention rate of 86%).
  • BarkBox (selling monthly boxes of toys, gifts and treats for dogs) reportedly boasted a 93-95% retention rate in their first year. I assume that’s a monthly retention number. Taking the midpoint of 94% retention rate, that equates to a 6% monthly churn rate or an average subscription length of around 17 months.
  • UmbaBox (selling monthly boxes of curated handmade goods) reportedly claimed a retention rate of 90% (churn rate of 10%) a few months after their launch, with a not-insignificant $18,000 in monthly revenue. That’s equivalent to an average subscription length of 10 months.

It would be dangerous to read too much into these numbers, especially the ones for businesses in their early stages, but they at least give some ballpark numbers that you might find useful.

Note: do bear in mind that there may be some survivorship bias here – businesses with low retention rates would have been less likely to raise money and get written about. So these numbers may be on the optimistic side.

Have you come across any other published numbers for subscription box churn rates or retention rates?

For more information about subscription commerce, see Subscription Commerce Insider.

Photo by ceonyc

How to Find a Good WordPress Developer on oDesk


You have a WordPress blog or website. You want some changes made to it, so you need to find someone who can help. But who?

One effective way to find a WordPress developer is through a freelancing website like oDesk or Elance. But finding the right person can be very time-consuming and error-prone. How do you make sure a developer you’re considering is the right fit for your task?

Here’s the 9-step process I’ve used:

1. Craft your job posting to help good developers self-select

Write a detailed description of the task you want completed. The more details the better. A serious developer (the kind you want) will read what you’ve written carefully to see whether it’s something they feel confident about doing. They will only apply if they believe they can do it, so give them as much information as possible to help them self-select.

2. Ask the developer to describe similar projects they’ve worked on

You want to find developers who have already successfully completed the kind of task you’re looking to get done, so you want to establish to as high a degree of confidence as possible whether they’ve done that. Ask them to describe similar projects they’ve completed and provide URLs if possible. Ask the developer for a brief outline of how they’d tackle your task.

After posting your job, you’ll likely receive a large number of bids that you’ll need to filter through. Here’s to do that…

3. Remove bids that don’t refer to anything about your task

People who haven’t bothered to read your task description are probably mass-replying to a large number of job postings. Given this scatter-gun approach, they’re more likely than average to not be a good fit for your task. Eliminate them now.

4. Remove any developers who have a less than excellent rating

A quick and easy filter – just get rid of anyone who has a rating of less than 4.5. If they haven’t left a good impression with their previous tasks, there’s a strong chance they won’t leave a good impression on you.

5. Remove any developers who have fewer than 100 hours of work logged on oDesk

Someone who’s completed very little work via oDesk may be inexperienced as a developer or may simply be inexperienced with the oDesk system. Either way, their limited oDesk history means they’re more of a risk. You don’t know whether, if they had built up more history, they would have received good ratings or not. If you still have enough bids to be picky, eliminate all bids from people with fewer than 100 hours of logged work.

6. Review bid details and work histories

Review their oDesk work history and the past projects they’ve mentioned in their bid. In each case, look at what exactly their task was. Was it something very simple, such as installing a WordPress extension, completed for a very small amount of money? Or was it a much more complex task, involving custom development work over multiple weeks?

If you’re looking for a developer to take on a relatively complex project, make sure they’ve completed projects of at least a similar level of complexity in the past. This is very important! Reject any developers who have only done much simpler things than you’re looking for (even if they have great feedback).

Note: this is an easy place to go wrong. It’s not enough to select someone with a lot of hours doing WordPress work if what they were doing was much simpler than what you need them to do.

7. Consider other factors

You may have preferences about such things as the developer’s location, standard of English, or hourly rate. If you still have plenty of candidates, now’s the time to reject any bids that are a clear mis-match against these factors.

8. Hold Skype interviews

You should hopefully be down to around 3 to 6 developers by this stage. Schedule 25-minute Skype interviews with each one (I like using to give a block of time when I’m available and let the developers pick time slots).

A lot of developers will want to communicate via Skype text rather than audio. Decide whether voice communication is a must-have for you. If it is, make it clear when you arrange the interviews that you’ll want an audio call and that they’ll need a working microphone and speakers or headset at their end.

During the interviews, discuss the task you’re looking to get done and ask the developer how they’d tackle it. Ask them about similar work they’ve done in the past and how they tackled that. As well as getting a feel for their technical fit, you’ll also quickly find out whether they’ll be able to communicate well with you.

9. Make your choice

For a relatively small task, simply hire the developer who seems the best fit and politely decline the other bids. If your first-choice developer doesn’t work out for some reason, you may want to go back to one of the other developers.

For more complex tasks, consider hiring two or three of the developers for a limited paid trial. Agree a trial amount of time or small milestone. Make sure everyone is clear how the process will work. After the trial is complete, hire the developer who has performed best.

That’s It!

If you’ve followed the steps above, you should now have hired a WordPress developer who’s a great fit for your task.

Going through this process can be pretty time-consuming, so you’ll probably only want to do it if you want to hire someone for ongoing tasks or a fairly significant one-off piece of work.

Update: in case you want to take a short-cut, I’m preparing a pre-vetted list of good WordPress developers for $15. Let me know if you’re interested. You can contact me about it here.

Photo by thenovys

Skillshare: How to Build a Marketplace for Online Education

I always like hearing how entrepreneurs have managed to launch marketplace businesses. TechCrunch recently posted this interview with Michael Karnjanaprakorn of Skillshare, a platform for online education, about how they seeded and grew their marketplace.

He described two main phases in a marketplace’s journey:

Phase 1: Seeding

Where you “Roll up your sleeves up and get it done.”

Michael explains how, at Skillshare, they focused on getting teachers onto the platform as they recognised that teachers already had their own student communities who they’d be able to bring along with them. They reached out to their friends and personal contacts and tried to minimise the friction for teachers to get started, including doing non-scalable things like finding them real-world venues for the classes.

The key points from Michael are:

  • Don’t try to do everything. If you can focus on one side of the marketplace and get them to bring in the other side, then do that.
  • Reduce friction and get to liquidity as soon as you possibly can because once you do, powerful network effects then come into play.
  • At this stage, don’t worry if what you’re doing doesn’t scale.

Phase 2: Scaling

The labour-intensive approaches used in the seeding phase tend not to scale, so you then need to transition to building things into the platform to power further growth. Skillshare are currently improving their product to deliver more value to their users and help users create content and resources that, in turn, bring in more users.

Further Reading

Photo by: Emilian Robert Vicol