Marketplace, Workflow Management, or Both?

Over the past few months, I’ve listened to a few early-stage founders pitch marketplace start-ups. Their pitch begins with a focus on connecting buyers and sellers. During the pitch they also say they have tools to help sellers, who are small businesses, manage their operations. They’re building marketplaces with workflow management embedded in V1 of their solutions.

This approach gives me pause because I struggle to understand the core problem they’re solving. Are they solving the inability of buyers and sellers to connect? Or are they helping small sellers manage their business operations?

Many of these founders point to large marketplaces (Airbnb, Etsy, etc.) as having inspired them. These mature marketplaces offer workflow management tools to sellers, so the early-stage founders believe they should build these features too. But mature marketplaces didn’t offer workflow management to sellers from the get-go. They solved their core problem (connecting buyers and sellers) first. After they achieved product–market fit and looked at scaling the platform, they added workflow management features. If they had done both at the same time, I’m not sure they would have had the same level of success.

Building a marketplace and achieving product–market fit is really hard. Getting the supply and demand dynamics to work is no small task. Early-stage founders should be crystal clear on the core problem they’re solving and allocate resources to build the best possible solution to solve that problem before building additional features that don’t solve the core problem.