How to build a billion dollar digital marketplace – examples from Uber, eBay, Craigslist, and more
Marketplaces are easily underestimated
When marketplaces get big, they can get really big. Some of the biggest tech successes ever – eBay, Airbnb, Alibaba, Uber – are marketplaces worth tens of billions of dollars each.
And yet marketplaces often start small, in niches and weird corners of the Internet. As we all know, when eBay got started in 1995, it was focused on collectibles.
An early investment in eBay would soon yield a 50,000% return from Series A to after the IPO, as the company started to help transact on everything from electronics, cars, homewares, and more.
Two decades after eBay was founded, a similar story unfolded itself, this time over Uber (my current employer!) and the taxi market. NYU Professor Aswath Damodaran asserted that Uber was overvalued after a 2014 investment round. Based on data points from the global taxi and car-service market, he concluded the real number should be $5.9B. Since the 2014 article, Uber has blown past his estimate by 10X, with top line revenues to support it. Not bad. The reason the estimate was so off, as investor Bill Gurley pointed out, is that Uber goes beyond taxi use cases and grows the market substantially by unlocking many new categories of transportation. Another example of going from niche into more use cases over time.
(As an aside, a slightly different flavor of the expansion of audiences and use cases leading to wild underestimates – this time my mistake: Why I doubted Facebook could build a billion dollar business, and what I learned from being horribly wrong)
Starting small, and what to do next
In both the eBay and Uber examples, we see that you can start with a niche – whether that’s a geography or product line – and then quickly scale into a huge network of buyers and sellers. It turns out that there are a couple key moves to make this happen, and today I’ll highlight some of the main strategies with examples across the past few decades:
Expand into new geographic markets
Add new products and price points
Decrease friction from signup to successful transaction
Grow supply + demand stickiness
Let’s dive into each one.