Take-Rate Revenue Models

Instacart’s largest revenue segment is its marketplace and delivery business connecting buyers and sellers and facilitating delivery of purchased items. Instacart gets a percentage of every transaction as revenue; i.e., a take rate. Let’s hypothetically say that Instacart’s take rate is 5%. For every $10 purchase on its marketplace, Instacart generates $0.50 in revenue. The take rate can be charged to the buyer, seller, or both.

The take-rate revenue model allows companies to increase their revenue as the value they provide increases. This is good, but this revenue has an overlooked downside. As a former customer of various marketplaces and software companies that used take-rate revenue models, I’ve experienced it firsthand, and I’ve watched other entrepreneurs have a similar experience.

As a customer’s merchandise volume on the marketplace or software platform grows, the take-rate dollars become larger, even if the percentage is flat. The larger the take-rate fees become, the more visible they are to the customer’s internal decision-makers. Five percent of $1,000 is $50 and may be an overlooked expense. But 5% of $1,000,000 is $50,000, which is less likely to be overlooked.

Imagine that a customer reviews its P&L, and someone asks, why are we paying XYZ Company so much money every month? That amount could materially boost our margins or support growth plans. They do some forecasting and start thinking about ways to replace the marketplace or software provider (if possible) or reduce its fees. The customer’s perspective changes. It no longer views XYZ Company as a partner that provides more value than it charges for. Instead, it sees XYZ as a company whose cost exceeds its value. The customer wants the cost it incurs to better align with or be less than the value it feels it’s receiving.

When the customer’s perspective changes, the relationship and interactions change. When the dollars at stake are high, the relationship can become adversarial. If your biggest customers are constantly fighting you, it takes a toll on your team and in extreme cases can affect the culture of your company. 

The various lawsuits over the years against Visa and Mastercard by retailers, Block, and other partners over take-rate fees are great examples of what I’m describing.

Take-rate revenue models work, but this dynamic is something founders considering them should be aware of. The good news is that take-rate revenue models can be crafted in various ways that prevent some of this tension with your largest customers.