The next service marketplace wave: Vertical market-networks

The last few decades have produced many successful marketplaces. We went from goods marketplace pioneers such as eBay and Amazon to simple service marketplaces such as Uber, Lyft, Doordash, Upwork, Thumbtack, TaskRabbit, and Fiverr. But why haven’t we seen many successful B2B service marketplaces?

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Why Many B2B Service Marketplaces Failed

Some would argue that companies such as Upwork, Thumbtack, Fiverr, or TaskRabbit are horizontal B2B marketplaces in the sense that they provide access to suppliers of different services. But while businesses do indeed transact with freelancers on such “horizontal” marketplaces, for most service verticals these are limited-value, one-off transactions. They fail to enable long-term business collaborations.

So, such marketplaces haven’t delivered more valuable services nor introduced a new paradigm for how businesses buy specific services at scale and on an on-going basis. Why is that?

Horizontal marketplaces are stuck at the discovery process

Horizontal services marketplaces don’t provide much value beyond matching clients with quality service providers. In other words, they don’t facilitate collaboration between buyers and suppliers, never mind provide ways for the two parties to collaborate more efficiently over time as they engage in follow-on projects.

In essence, the model these marketplaces were built around is not much different from the likes of Craigslist, which put a convenient UX on traditional classified advertisements.

Complex B2B services require workflow and collaboration tools

In their article “What’s Next for Marketplace Startups?,” Andrew Chen and Li Jin found that there aren’t many successful service marketplaces because those offerings are complex, diverse, and difficult to evaluate. It’s challenging to define a successful transaction in a service marketplace because it’s harder to quantify success.

One reason is that several service providers must often work together to complete a single job for a buyer, requiring a complex workflow from end to end. As a result, it’s difficult for marketplaces to not only mediate service delivery but also make it significantly more efficient for buyers and suppliers. If both the buyer and suppliers don’t see a significant efficiency gain other than being initially matched, why would they continue using the marketplace?

(Image via Getty Images / Lidiia Moor)

The $50 billion translation industry is a prime example of complex B2B services marketplaces. On the supply side are roughly 50,000 small agencies around the globe responsible for more than 85% of this $50 billion industry. (Note we are referring to agencies here as suppliers, though they play on both sides.)

On the demand side are businesses that need to translate text from one language into another. Plus about 1,500,000 freelance linguists work in this industry, many of whom are more specialized than professionals in other industries.

Anyone can find and hire a translator on Fiverr or Upwork. Both provide a vast selection of language translators. However, the quality and cost of the translation depends on the translation tools available to the translator as well as their subject expertise.

Neither Fiverr nor Upwork provide computer-aided translation (CAT) and collaborative workflow solutions for users of their platforms. Additionally, neither provides an effective way for all parties to collaborate and continuously improve the efficiency and quality.

But the problem with traditional marketplaces goes even further: Multiple translators and reviewers are usually needed to complete a single job for a customer. Multi-language translation projects are even more complicated. Such projects require multiple service providers and cost estimates, in addition to project management tools.

This is why building a B2B service marketplace is difficult. Service marketplaces must not only connect buyers and suppliers, but also provide tools to enable an efficient and collaborative workflow that reduces wasted time and effort.

Horizontal marketplaces suffer high attrition

In addition to the problems already outlined, traditional marketplaces experience another issue that prevents them from growing and retaining market participants: Buyer and supplier attrition.

Many business services are based on regularly recurring engagements. In some cases, a buyer and a service provider interact daily, requiring a different workflow than gig-marketplaces are built around.

Buyers and suppliers have little motivation to continue interacting on a platform with no workflow automation solutions. They lack a way to improve service efficiency and quality, automate collaboration, payment, paperwork, and other basic processes required for a business.

This is why many traditional marketplaces suffer from slow network effects and high attrition. (A network effect is what happens when a platform, product, or service delivers more value the more it is used.

Think Facebook, eBay, WhatsApp.) Why wouldn’t companies work directly with service providers outside of a marketplace after they were introduced? What incentives keep the service transaction on the marketplace? These are critical questions to answer when building a marketplace.

Traditional marketplaces target broad services, making it nearly impossible to provide workflow solutions for buyers and suppliers. Going forward, successful service marketplaces will be developed relying on an industry-specific SaaS workflow. This will focus buyers and suppliers on longer-term projects and interactions that serve the unique needs of collaborations and transactions in a specific vertical.

Image via Getty Images / OstapenkoOlena

What makes a successful service marketplace?

In “The next 10 Years Will Be About Market Networks,” James Currier, Managing Partner at NFX Ventures, defines a new era of service marketplaces, which he calls market networks.

A market network is a platform that combines elements of an n-sided marketplace, a network, and workflow solutions. An n-sided marketplace is one that requires coordination of multiple supply-side parties to provide a complex service for a single buyer.

Market networks enable multiple buyers and suppliers to interact, collaborate, and transact on the same platform. They provide users with industry-specific workflow solutions that enable efficient, ongoing collaboration on long-term projects. This reduces costs and leads to a higher quality of services and increased overall value for all users.

But how do you actually build a successful market-network platform? While the answer to that varies from company to company, here is our approach. We were able to build a market network for the translation industry that combines the components: network, marketplace, and workflow solution.

STEP 1: SaaS workflow platform unlocks high-value collaboration

The first step to building an effective complex market network is to develop a workflow that is easy for users to embrace. It might not seem like much, but this increases productivity by enabling teams to perform tasks that were previously impossible.

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