Ethan Stock lived the Silicon Valley dream. He had recently sold his company to eBay and emanated the tanned skin and relaxed composure you'd expect of someone who just cashed a big corporate check. But as we sat across from one another in a Palo Alto coffee shop, I was surprised by what he said next. "Mediocrity is worse than failure, you know?" For seven years before the acquisition, Stock served as the founding CEO of Zvents, an online guide for local events. Though he was successful by anyone's standards, I could tell he was a guy who, like me, had learned some hard lessons about marketplace businesses.
"Zvents grew incredibly well," Stock told me. "We were the largest events site of its kind, providing local listing in hundreds of markets and attracting over 14 million monthly unique visitors." Zvents had done what so many tech companies dream of doing, they cracked the network effect and built a marketplace business that increased in value with each new user. The more event organizers posted to the site, the more useful the site became to people looking for things to do. Both parties loved the site and Stock’s marketplace business was in the middle, connecting visitors to events they otherwise wouldn't find.
"But I learned the network effect isn’t everything. In fact, it became a liability." Stock's words confused me. How could being in such an enviable position of creating a valuable marketplace business be a bad thing? "Getting paid was a bitch," Stock said, and he began to unravel how certain marketplace businesses like Zvents can succeed themselves to death.
The Expectation of Completeness
Marketplace businesses exist to connect two or more parties, typically the buyers and the sellers. Investors love these marketplace businesses because they tend to grow quickly and spawn winner-take-all companies. A long line of successful Silicon Valley startups have found success providing a place for people to connect and transact. Examples of these kinds of companies include industry titans like eBay and LinkedIn but also include some of today's web darlings like Uber and AirBnB. "Marketplace businesses are great," Stock told me. "But there is a fatal flaw in some marketplace businesses that can hogtie their ability to make money -- the expectation of completeness.”
Stock explained how Zvents had planned to charge event organizers to list on their site. "Once we reached critical mass and it was clear we were becoming the market leader, we expected event organisers would start paying." Unfortunately, reality fell short of expectations.
Like many marketplace businesses, Zvents was catering to users who expected to find a comprehensive listing of all local happenings. To keep users coming back, Zvents had to ensure it was displaying everyone's events -- an incomplete list would send visitors looking elsewhere.
“When we asked event organisers to pay up, they said ‘what for?’,” Stock said. But threatening to remove a listing was not possible, Zvents needed them all to keep site visitors happy.
So Stock’s team offered event organizers better ways to reach users like sponsored placements, which displayed the listing more prominently on the site. But the attempt to finally get paid largely fell flat. “We certainly created value for them.” Stock said. “We were sending people to their events. We just couldn’t capture very much of that value. I guess it's the old saying, 'why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for free?'"
Just Like Google
“Google is similiar if you think about it.” Stock told me. The comment surprised me given the tremendous success of the search giant juxtaposed with the Zvents story. “They also create much more value than they capture.”
He was right. When searching on Google, users also have an expectation of completeness. They come to the site to find all relevant results, every time. If Google decided to only display listings from paying advertisers, we’d all switch to Bing.
When considering the collective value of all the clicks on un-sponsored links, the company does give away the vast majority of the value it creates. Indeed, Google appears to be “giving away the milk for free.” The difference is that Google’s market is not limited to local happenings as was the case for Zvents. Google’s market is much, much bigger. In fact, it’s everything.
By organizing “the world’s information,” Google skims a proportionally tiny amount of value from a tremendously huge marketplace. The absolute number of people who buy a sponsored placement is large enough to keep the company humming, even though it only monetizes a tiny proportion of the value created.
The Zvents story should give pause to marketplace businesses going after niches. The expectation of completeness, and the resulting inability to monetize, may help explain the challenges faced by companies like Foursquare, RedBeacon, and many industry-specific job listing sites.
One way around the problem of completeness is to facilitate the transaction itself. Companies like oDesk, etsy and Uber, ensure they are in the middle of the money by processing the flow of cash. It’s much easier to justify taking a cut when you hold the gold, particularly when doing so adds convenience and security to the transaction.
Without the ability to collect a share of each transaction, marketplace businesses serving users who expect completeness face a difficult challenge. Two options remain: either cater to a very large market, a la Google, or monetize a large share of the value created. The network effect alone just isn’t good enough.
- Network effects are great but they don't ensure a viable business model.
- Though they may prove successful from a growth and engagement perspective, certain marketplace businesses can be very difficult to monetize.
- Marketplaces where either the buyer or seller expects to choose from an exhaustive listing - so-called "complete" marketplaces - typically give-up far more value than they are able to capture.
- Unless they facilitate the transaction itself, these marketplace businesses often find themselves in a bind.
- Complete marketplaces must either cater to a very large market, a la Google, or position themselves to monetize a large share of the value they create.
Top Consumer Psychology Articles
- The One Fitness App That Hooked Me For Good
- Here's How Fortnite 'Hooked' Millions
- How Apps Can Shape Your Future Self
- How Netflix's Customer Obsession Created a Customer Obsession
- Want to Design User Behavior? Pass the 'Regret Test' First
- How to Trigger Product Usage that Sticks
- How to Get People to Help Each Other, Online and Off
- Here's How Amazon's Alexa Hooks You
- How to Use Psychology to Make Persuasive Video
- How to Use Personality Science to Drive Online Conversions
- The Unbelievable Future of Habit-Forming Technology
- The Secret Marketing Power of Evolutionary Psychology
- Don’t Ask People What They Want, Watch What They Do
- How Cognitive Biases Can Help (and Hurt) Your Business
- What Most People Don't Know About Behavioral Design
- How to Start a Career in Behavioral Design
- Your World is Full of Placebo Buttons (and That's a Good Thing)
- How to Build Technology that Feels Like a Friend
- 3 Pillars of the Most Successful Tech Products
- Here's How to Ethically Manipulate Other People
- How Two Companies Hooked Customers On Products They Rarely Use
- How to Hook Users in 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Die Dashboards, Die! Why Conversations Will Reinvent Software
- The Secret to Sending Emails and Notifications That Work
- How to Win Your Competition’s Customers
- Hooked for Good: How Habit-Forming Products Improve Lives
- Good Products Start With Good Questions
- Human + A.I. = Your Digital Future
- Why 'Assistant-As-App' Might Be the Next Big Tech Trend
- People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently.
- 4 Ways to Win Your Competitor's Customer Habits (Slides)
- Here’s Why You'll Hate the Apple Watch (and the Important Business Lesson You Need to Know)
- The Secret Psychology of Snapchat
- The Psychology of Notifications: How to Send Triggers that Work
- How Technology Tricks You Into Tipping More
- The Limits of Loyalty: When Habits Change, You're Toast
- 4 Ways to Use Psychology to Win Your Competition's Customers
- The Real Reason “Stupid” Startups Raise So Much Money
- The Psychology Behind Why We Can't Stop Messaging
- The Psychology of a Billion-Dollar Enterprise App: Why is Slack so Habit-Forming?
- Framing Reward is as Important as Reward Itself
- A Free Course on User Behavior
- It’s Not All Fun And Games: The Pros and Cons of Gamification at Work
- Getting Traction: How to Hook New Users
- Designing for Behavior Change Book Review
- The Sneaky Trick Behind the Explosive Growth of the Kardashian Game
- How Successful Companies Design for Users' Multi-Device Lives
- The Link Between Habits and User Satisfaction
- What Triggers The Best Word of Mouth Marketing?
- What Tech Companies Can Learn from Rehab
- The Secrets of Addictive Online Auctions
- Teach or Hook? What's the Real Goal of Online Education?
- Using Mind Control to Raise Startup Cash
- How To Build Habits In A Multi-Device World
- How To Cope with Your Insane Jealousy Of The WhatsApp Deal
- Why Do Fads Fade? The Inevitable Death Of Flappy Bird
- You'd Be Surprised By What Really Motivates Users
- Nostalgia: A Product Designer's Secret Weapon
- How You Can Help Users Change Habits
- Is “Lean Startup” Right for Your Idea?
- Hunting for Habits: Keying in on smart design to make a product irresistible
- Are Companies Too Obsessed With Growth? How to Measure Habits
- Refresh: The App a Secret Agent Would Love
- Angel or Devil: Who’s Really Investing In Your Start-Up?
- In 10 Years, We Won't Use Personal Technology
- 4 Simple Things I Did to Control My Bad Tech Habits
- "Yes, And": The Two Words that Created a #1 App
- From Laid to Paid: How Tinder Set Fire to Online Dating
- What if In-App Purchases Came to Real Life?
- Hooking Users One Snapchat at a Time
- How To Save Your Startup From The “Spotlight Effect”
- Bible App: Getting 100 Million Downloads is More Psychology Than Miracles
- How to Boost Desire Using the Psychology of Scarcity
- Marketplaces & The Curse of the Network Effect
- Today's Behaviors, Tomorrow's Startups
- Venture Capital and The Superstitious Investor
- The Future is Driven by Interface Changes
- Why Business is Addicted to Habits
- Viral Loops Or Viral 'Oops'?
- Making a Marketplace
- What Killed Turntable.fm?
- What You Don't Know About Human Intuition Can Hurt You
- Designing to Reward our Tribal Sides
- New Video - "Hooked: Building Habit-Forming Products"
- How Technology is Like Bug Sex
- Ways To Get People To Do Things They Don’t Want To Do
- The Network Effect Isn’t Good Enough
- Mass Persuasion, One User At A Time
- How Investment Drives Engagement (Slides)
- Getting Your Product Into the Habit Zone
- Where Have The Users Gone?
- Infinite Scroll: The Web’s Slot Machine
- Designing User Habits Video
- Psychology of Sports: How Sports Infect Your Brain
- This is Your Brain On Boarding: How to Turn Visitors Into Users
- User Investment: Make Your Users Do the Work
- Behavior by Design Video
- When Designing for Good Is Bad
- Stop Building Apps, Start Building User Behaviors
- The Morality of Manipulation
- The Next Secrets of the Internet
- User Growth and Engagement: A Hacker Metric
- Spotting the Next Facebook: Why Emotions are Big Business
- The Billion Dollar Mind Trick: An Intro to Triggers
- Why Everyone Hates I.T. People
- Hooking Users In 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Abolish The Reference Check
- Variable Rewards: Want To Hook Users? Drive Them Crazy
- How to Design Behavior (The Behavior Change Matrix)
- How To Design For “Normals”
- Hooks: An Intro on How to Manufacture Desire
- User Habits: Why Startups Must Be Behavior Experts
- What Is, and Is Not, Your Product's Job
- Pinterest’s Obvious Secret
- Personalized eCommerce Is Already Here, You Just Don’t Recognize It
- Where is the Web Going?
- The Developer Divide: When Great Companies Can't Hire
- Being a Quitter Makes You a Good Entrepreneur
- Behavior by Design
- Why You Should Run Your Business Barefoot
- Are you a Startup Star, Wacko, or Wannabe?