If you are an entrepreneur passionate about solving problems, how about solving two problems at once? A marketplace is a platform that brings together two (typically) or more sides, facilitates the flow between them, and in a way, makes it possible for them to scratch each others’ itch. The challenge here is that everything you need to have in mind (the market size, the unique value proposition etc.) you need to have in mind for BOTH sides. Thus double the fun :) On the other side, usually, you don’t need to own much apart from the platform (like infrastructure, tools, expertise etc.), as you are taking care of supply & demand and never touch the goods.
Like any other disruptive idea, yours too will have to be validated with a minimal viable product, or platform in this case. Who do you need in your team and what exactly your team needs to do to launch an MVP that will answer the crucial questions about your marketplace idea? Read on!
Entrepreneurs should try to get all the expertise, help and advice they can get. That said, there is no need to block your MVP launch for years to come while you do PhD studies on each topic. Thanks to the freelance marketplaces (one of the most successful examples of marketplaces at the moment), you can get a few hours of a consultation with various experts, prior to, during, or instead of building the MVP with you full time in-house / agency team (there are pros and cons of all three approaches in software development, but that’s another topic). Here are some experts you might wanna get in touch with:
Maybe you are attempting to disrupt the real estate market and could benefit from a nice, long chat with a person who’s been in the business for some time? They might know a thing or two about the major pain points and the way the market currently functions. Or maybe you are innovating in the field of online banking and getting yourself into a regulated market calls for an extensive discussion with accountant / economist / banker. Get in touch with the domain expert(s) at the idea stage.
You might be just fine with a template solution offered by some of the CMS, and you probably will, at the MVP stage. However, sometimes there is one or more crucial features that have to be custom built and you will have to resort to the actual coding. In that case, a few hours of a software architect’s time could come in handy. This should help you pick the right tech stack (which you need to decide on prior to recruiting the developers), hosting option, high level architecture, 3rd party integrations, essential security and similar. Once you have the high level requirements, share it with the software architect and you’ll get some solid foundation for your marketplace development.
Often the founder assumes this role, but if you can, and as soon as you can, it would be a good idea to have somebody experienced guiding you from the very beginning, even if it’s only for a few hours per week. Researching the market and competitors, finding ways to get users’ feedback, specifying features and planning releases are certainly some of the most crucial activities in product and business development. The product manager will make sure that you are in fact building the right product - something that is actually needed and wanted. Work closely with your product manager, you need to share the same vision and strategy.
Again a role you might choose to take on yourself. However, in the long run, you are likely to get overwhelmed while trying to develop your idea, raise funds, possibly run an existing business, and in the same time manage the team and the product development. This role is here to make sure you are building the product right. Minimizing waste, adhering to the timeline and facilitating the efficient collaboration among the team members. A good pick when it comes to this role, and you’ll have all the tools and processes set in no time, the team members onboarded and the collaboration running smoothly. Moreover, while you shouldn’t treat your team as a black box, in times of a really busy schedule, having one point of contact for any update will prove to be day saving. The earlier the better, but at least when your team grows from 1 developer to more, bring a manager in.
There are examples of software applications that are not UI heavy, mostly rely on complex algorithms and powerful processing on the server side, while the UI can be done with any widgets library or template. Marketplace is not one of them. As your main “good” to sell is the facilitation of the transaction between your customers, you simply can’t afford to be short on a good, clean, user-friendly, appealing design. With due respect to the M in the MVP, pls don’t make your users suffer while they try to use your new product.
The designer will typically have more work in the beginning when specifying the release features, and later on, you can settle for an on as needed basis arrangement.
As much as the lack of the other team members would put you in trouble in the long-run, missing a developer would hurt you immediately. Based on the architect’s advice, try to recruit developers versed in the chosen technologies. If you are not in a big hurry and/or the budget is simply limited, you might decide to start with a one-man show. However, anybody can become unavailable or even decide to leave the project for various reasons, and searching for and onboarding a new developer who has no idea about the existing code, would probably block your progress for long time. If you are on a limited budget, there is an option of hiring two part-time developers. That would work great if they are both full-stack experts, while the situation gets a bit more complicated if you have developers focused on the back or front end only (on the other hand, there is the advantage of somebody focusing solely on one subset of application tiers and becoming really good at it). As mentioned before, the UI is important for marketplaces, so don’t neglect it. And whichever structure of the team you choose, remember that it’s better to have everybody you need even on part-time than limiting yourself to a full-time team that lacks certain expertise, or capacity to cover for each other in case of unavailability. With a good project manager, growing your team (onboarding and managing) shouldn’t be an issue.
Regarding when, as soon as you land on the tech stack and high-level architecture and have some initial specs and designs, the developers can join and start coding. The backlog will grow, mature and get re-prioritized on the go, provided that you are agile with your developer.
Some kind of quality assurance (testing) is necessary at any stage. There are various forms of testing and they all have their place in software development: automated tests, performance tests, manual testing etc. In the long run, you will be happy to have good code coverage by tests to make sure nothing gets broken with new releases. Even the most simple, manual testing, is crucial to make sure all the acceptance criteria are met. For a small development team, a QA person doesn’t need more than a few h/week of manual testing, but it’s crucial that somebody systematic and focused lays a fresh set of eyes on each implemented feature prior to the release.
As soon as there is some code, its’ quality has to be assured by a QA expert.
You need the copy that sells. No matter how passionate you are about your product, for a remarkable landing page or an ad, you need somebody who knows how to play with the words, and with the emotions of your potential customers. Naturally, you need a product in order to sell it, so get a copywriter closer to the release date.
Once your beautiful MVP is out there, you’ll want the word out as well. Work with an expert to create a strategy around building the tension prior to the launch, targeting different types of potential customers (at least 2 for a marketplace), build the mailing list and social networks accounts and engage the audience. Paid ads and paid search need to be planned properly, split tested and supervised by somebody who gets those statistics. Close to the finish line, contract a digital marketing expert.
Brands can grow and go through total makeovers, but it’s also necessary to call attention at launch time. A great logo, tagline etc sure help.
It would be good to have your web pages optimized for search engines so that the people who need your marketplace can find it easily. Having a blog can help you land new customers. Content marketing must be the most fair form of marketing, where you offer some information for free and users can decide to join your platform based on that. While the blog posts can be pre-written, the publishing and SEO optimization will probably happen at the release time.
Probably too early to think about growth at the pre-MVP stage, but if you grab a coffee with one and discuss points like whether to target the national market first, or go straight international etc., why not. Since building the MVP typically doesn’t take long enough for the markets to significantly change, you can grab that coffee whenever there is an opportunity and clarify your strategy.
What does an MVP do? It needs to do something - there have to be completed, functional features. That said, those features should be implemented in its’ simplest possible form. A very good way to plan releases is by using a storyboard. Here you will define these major high-level features, break them down and decide which sub-features to include in the MVP release, and which to leave for the future releases. The super high-level features of a marketplace MVP would be (an item being whichever commodity / product / service the platform is based on; pls take the comments in brackets just as examples - it varies from case to case):
- User account management (for the MVP, a user needs to sign up and log in, but doesn’t need to customize appearance, notifications, preferences etc.)
- Uploading an item (for the MVP, the user needs to put it out there, but doesn’t need to categorize it on 10 levels and add videos)
- Administrating items (user needs to mark them as (un)available, but doesn’t need to sort them by every attribute)
- Searching for items (user needs to be able to browse by basic categories, but doesn’t need extensive filtering, free text search, AI suggestions)
- Viewing items (user needs to see what it is and how much it costs, but doesn’t have to see what the people who bought it bought as well)
- Purchasing/booking/ contracting items (user needs to make a transaction, but doesn’t have to share it with friends)
- Communication between the buyer and the seller (they need to agree on the transaction, but they don’t need a built-in video conference tool)
- Communication with the platform (any user should be able to contact the company, but it doesn’t have to be a real-time chat)
- Legal content (include all, play safe)
- Educational content (user needs to understand how to use the platform by reading a quick HowTo or FAQ, but doesn’t need to have a video course on optimizing every aspect of the usage)
When deciding which sub-feature to include in MVP, have in mind that:
- It has to be possible to complete a transaction - you can map a simple user journey for both the buyer and the seller to make sure that the ends will meet
- The feature(s) that represent your unique value proposition needs to be there in the very MVP
Once these features are specified and built, how to launch your MVP? Here is a basic v0.1 launch checklist to make sure:
- all the accounts are yours - meaning that you receive notifications to your email address and have the access credentials (I had cases when founders didn’t think about this and everything was created using the email of the developer who might not stay - around forever). Here we are talking about accounts for the version control system (where the code lives), cloud hosting (where the app runs) and similar.
- there are separate staging and production environment and the correct set deployment procedures.
- the production environment is scalable - as the number of users grows, the technical infrastructure can follow
- the team ran basic performance tests
- infrastructure costs (scalable hosting, 3rd party systems that charge per click or transaction and similar) have been estimated and you are fine with that investment
- the Contact in the homepage footer has a working email address behind it
- you are covered from the legal side (T&C, GDPR, cookies policy etc.)
- there is at least some supply in your marketplace (give away free subscriptions, enter listings on behalf of your users if they are lazy (works for B2B) etc.) - a platform that is not populated has no value whatsoever
- include your company logo (provided that you had it designed already)
- the monetization (based on your business model) seems justified from the user perspective even if you are giving it all for free in the MVP version ( if you’re going to charge commission, display “0% commission due to promotion” - the users will feel privileged and won’t take it for granted that your service is free atm; if you’re going to go for a freemium model, make sure the labels for the feature you plan to charge in the future read: “get personalized results for free during promo” etc.)
- you have the marketing strategy ready
That’s all folks, get your team together and get this marketplace out! The world needs new ways to share and collaborate. Good luck!
About the Author:
Tijana Momirov is a software engineer, product manager and founder of StartupSetup where she helps founders start their startups, all in a remote, agile and super lean way leveraging the gig economy. She’s been a full time nomad since 2010 and loves blogging and giving talks about nomadic lifestyle, managing remote teams, future of work, the gig economy, productized services and more.