(*) Benchmark is/was an investor in companies labeled with the asterisk.
In 1776, Adam Smith released his magnum opus, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, in which he outlined his fundamental economic theories. Front and center in the book — in fact in Book 1, Chapter 1 — is his realization of the productivity improvements made possible through the “Division of Labour”:
It is the great multiplication of the production of all the different arts, in consequence of the division of labour, which occasions, in a well-governed society, that universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people. Every workman has a great quantity of his own work to dispose of beyond what he himself has occasion for; and every other workman being exactly in the same situation, he is enabled to exchange a great quantity of his own goods for a great quantity, or, what comes to the same thing, for the price of a great quantity of theirs. He supplies them abundantly with what they have occasion for, and they accommodate him as amply with what he has occasion for, and a general plenty diffuses itself through all the different ranks of society.
Smith identified that when men and women specialize their skills, and also importantly “trade” with one another, the end result is a rise in productivity and standard of living for everyone. In 1817, David Ricardo published On the Principles of Political Economy and Taxation where he expanded upon Smith’s work in developing the theory of Comparative Advantage. What Ricardo proved mathematically, is that if one country has simply a comparative advantage (not even an absolute one), it still is in everyone’s best interest to embrace specialization and free trade. In the end, everyone ends up in a better place.
There are two key requirements for these mechanisms to take force. First and foremost, you need free and open trade. It is quite bizarre to see modern day politicians throw caution to the wind and ignore these fundamental tenants of economic science. Time and time again, the fact patterns show that when countries open borders and freely trade, the end result is increased economic prosperity. The second, and less discussed, requirement is for the two parties that should trade to be aware of one another’s goods or services. Unfortunately, either information asymmetry or physical distances and the resulting distribution costs can both cut against the economic advantages that would otherwise arise for all.
Fortunately, the rise of the Internet, and specifically Internet marketplace models, act as accelerants to the productivity benefits of the division of labour AND comparative advantage by reducing information asymmetry and increasing the likelihood of a perfect match with regard to the exchange of goods or services. In his 2005 book, The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman recognizes that the Internet has the ability to create a “level playing field” for all participants, and one where geographic distances become less relevant. The core reason that Internet marketplaces are so powerful is because in connecting economic traders that would otherwise not be connected, they unlock economic wealth that otherwise would not exist. In other words, they literally create “money out of nowhere.”
Exchange of Goods Marketplaces
Any discussion of Internet marketplaces begins with the first quintessential marketplace, ebay(*). Pierre Omidyar founded AuctionWeb in September of 1995, and its rise to fame is legendary. What started as a web site to trade laser pointers and Beanie Babies (the Pez dispenser start is quite literally a legend), today enables transactions of approximately $100B per year. Over its twenty-plus year lifetime, just over one trillion dollars in goods have traded hands across eBay’s servers. These transactions, and the profits realized by the sellers, were truly “unlocked” by eBay’s matching and auction services.
In 1999, Jack Ma created Alibaba, a Chinese-based B2B marketplace for connecting small and medium enterprise with potential export opportunities. Four years later, in May of 2003, they launched Taobao Marketplace, Alibaba’s answer to eBay. By aggressively launching a free to use service, Alibaba’s Taobao quickly became the leading person-to-person trading site in China. In 2018, Taobao GMV (Gross Merchandise Value) was a staggering RMB2,689 billion, which equates to $428 billion in US dollars.
There have been many other successful goods marketplaces that have launched post eBay & Taobao — all providing a similar service of matching those who own or produce goods with a distributed set of buyers who are particularly interested in what they have to offer. In many cases, a deeper focus on a particular category or vertical allows these marketplaces to distinguish themselves from broader marketplaces like eBay.
- In 2000, Eric Baker and Jeff Fluhr founded StubHub, a secondary ticket exchange marketplace. The company was acquired by ebay in January 2007. In its most recent quarter, StubHub’s GMV reached $1.4B, and for the entire year 2018, StubHub had GMV of $4.8B.
- Launched in 2005, Etsy is a leading marketplaces for the exchange of vintage and handmade items. In its most recent quarter, the company processed the exchange of $923 million of sales, which equates to a $3.6B annual GMV.
- Founded by Michael Bruno in Paris in 2001, 1stdibs(*) is the world’s largest online marketplace for luxury one-of-a-kind antiques, high-end modern furniture, vintage fashion, jewelry, and fine art. In November 2011, David Rosenblatt took over as CEO and has been scaling the company ever since. Over the past few years dealers, galleries, and makers have matched billions of dollars in merchandise to trade buyers and consumer buyers on the platform.
- Poshmark was founded by Manish Chandra in 2011. The website, which is an exchange for new and used clothing, has been remarkably successful. Over 4 million sellers have earned over $1 billion transacting on the site.
- Julie Wainwright founded The Real Real in 2011. The company is an online marketplace for authenticated luxury consignment. In 2017, the company reported sales of over $500 million.
- In 2015, Eddy Lu and Daishin Sugano launched GOAT, a marketplace for the exchange of sneakers. Despite this narrow focus, the company has been remarkably successful. The estimated annual GMV of GOAT and its leading competitor Stock X by Öl Profit app is already over $1B per year (on a combined basis).
SHARING ECONOMY MARKETPLACES
With the launch of Airbnb in 2008 and Uber (*) in 2009, these two companies established a new category of marketplaces known as the “sharing economy.” Homes and automobiles are the two most expensive items that people own, and in many cases the ability to own the asset is made possible through debt — mortgages on houses and car loans or leases for automobiles. Despite this financial exposure, for many people these assets are materially underutilized. Many extra rooms and second homes are vacant most of the year, and the average car is used less than 5% of the time. Sharing economy marketplaces allow owners to “unlock” earning opportunities from these underutilized assets.
Airbnb was founded by Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky in 2008. Today there are over 5 million Airbnb listings in 81,000 cities. Over two million people stay in an Airbnb each night. In November of this year, the company announced that it had achieved “substantially” more than $1B in revenue in the third quarter. Assuming a marketplace rake of something like 11%, this would imply gross room revenue of over $9B for the quarter — which would be $36B annualized. As the company is still growing, we can easily guess that in 2019-2020 time frame, Airbnb will be delivering around $50B per year to home-owners who were previously sitting on highly underutilized assets. This is a major “unlocking.”
When Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick founded Uber in 2009, they hatched the industry now known as ride-sharing. Today over 3 million people around the world use their time and their underutilized automobiles to generate extra income. Without the proper technology to match people who wanted a ride with people who could provide that service, taxi and chauffeur companies were drastically underserving the potential market. As an example, we estimate that ride-sharing revenues in San Francisco are well north of 10X what taxis and black cars were providing prior to the launch of ride-sharing. These numbers will go even higher as people increasingly forgo the notion of car ownership altogether. We estimate that the global GMV for ride sharing was over $100B in 2018 (including Uber, Didi, Grab, Lyft, Yandex, etc) and still growing handsomely. Assuming a 20% rake, this equates to over $80B that went into the hands of ride-sharing drivers in a single year — and this is an industry that did not exist 10 years ago. The matching made possible with today’s GPS and Internet-enabled smart phones is a massive unlocking of wealth and value.
While it is a lesser known category, using your own backyard and home to host dog guests as an alternative to a kennel is a large and growing business. Once again, this is an asset against which the marginal cost to host a dog is near zero. By combining their time with this otherwise unused asset, dog sitters are able to offer a service that is quite compelling for consumers. Rover.com (*) in Seattle, which was founded by Greg Gottesman and Aaron Easterly in 2011, is the leading player in this market. (Benchmark is an investor in Rover through a merger with DogVacay in 2017). You may be surprised to learn that this is already a massive industry. In less than a decade since the company started, Rover has already paid out of half a billion dollars to hosts that participate on the platform.
Exchange of LABOR Marketplaces
While not as well known as the goods exchanges or sharing economy marketplaces, there is a growing and exciting increase in the number of marketplaces that help match specifically skilled labor with key opportunities to monetize their skills. The most noteworthy of these is likely Upwork(*), a company that formed from the merger of Elance and Odesk. Upwork is a global freelancing platform where businesses and independent professionals can connect and collaborate remotely. Popular categories include web developers, mobile developers, designers, writers, and accountants. In the 12 months ended June 30, 2018, the Upwork platform enabled $1.56 billion of GSV (gross services revenue) across 2.0 million projects between approximately 375,000 freelancers and 475,000 clients in over 180 countries. These labor matches represent the exact “world is flat” reality outlined in Friedman’s book.
Other noteworthy and emerging labor marketplaces:
- HackerOne(*) is the leading global marketplace that coordinates the world’s largest corporate “bug bounty” programs with a network of the world’s leading hackers. The company was founded in 2012 by Michiel Prins, Jobert Abma, Alex Rice and Merijn Terheggen, and today serves the needs of over 1,000 corporate bug bounty programs. On top of that, the HackerOne network of over 300,000 hackers (adding 600 more each day) has resolved over 100K confirmed vulnerabilities which resulted in over $46 million in awards to these individuals. There is an obvious network effect at work when you bring together the world’s leading programs and the world’s leading hackers on a single platform. The Fortune 500 is quickly learning that having a bug bounty program is an essential step in fighting cyber crime, and that HackerOne is the best place to host their program.
- Wyzant is a leading Chicago-based marketplace that connects tutors with students around the country. The company was founded by Andrew Geant and Mike Weishuhn in 2005. The company has over 80,000 tutors on its platform and has paid out over $300 million to these professionals. The company started matching students with tutors for in-person sessions, but increasingly these are done “virtually” over the Internet.
- Stitch Fix (*) is a leading provider of personalized clothing services that was founded by Katrina Lake in 2011. While the company is not primarily a marketplace, each order is hand-curated by a work-at-home “stylist” who works part-time on their own schedule from the comfort of their own home. Stitch Fix’s algorithms match the perfect stylist with each and every customer to help ensure the optimal outcome for each client. As of the end of 2018, Stitch Fix has paid out well over $100 million to their stylists.
- Swing Education was founded in 2015 with the objective of creating a marketplace for substitute teachers. While it is still early in the company’s journey, they have already established themselves as the leader in the U.S. market. Swing is now at over 1,200 school partners and has filled over 115,000 teacher absence days. They have helped 2,000 substitute teachers get in the classroom in 2018, including 400 educators who earned permits, which Swing willingly financed. While it seems obvious in retrospect, having all substitutes on a single platform creates massive efficiency in a market where previously every single school had to keep their own list and make last minute calls when they had vacancies. And their subs just have to deal with one Swing setup process to get access to subbing opportunities at dozens of local schools and districts.
- RigUp was founded by Xuan Yong and Mike Witte in Austin, Texas in March of 2014. RigUp is a leading labor marketplace focused on the oilfield services industry. “The company’s platform offers a large network of qualified, insured and compliant contractors and service providers across all upstream, midstream and downstream operations in every oil and gas basin, enabling companies to hire quickly, track contractor compliance, and minimize administrative work.” According to the company, GMV for 2017 was an impressive $150 million, followed by an astounding $600 million in 2018. Often, investors miss out on vertically focused companies like RigUp as they find themselves overly anxious about TAM (total available market). As you can see, that can be a big mistake.
- VIPKid, which was founded in 2013 by Cindy Mi, is a truly amazing story. The idea is simple and simultaneously brilliant. VIPKid links students in China who want to learn English with native English speaking tutors in the United States and Canada. All sessions are done over the Internet, once again epitomizing Friedman’s very flat world. In November of 2018, the company reported having 60,000 teachers contracted to teach over 500,000 students. Many people believe the company is now well north of a US$1B run rate, which implies that around $1B will pass hands from Chinese parents to western teachers in 2019. That is quite a bit of supplemental income for U.S.-based teachers.
These vertical labor marketplaces are to LinkedIn what companies like Zillow, Expedia, and GrubHub are to Google search. Through a deeper understanding of a particular vertical, a much richer perspective on the quality and differentiation of the participants, and the enablement of transactions — you create an evolved service that has much more value to both sides of the transaction. And for those professionals participating in these markets, your reputation on the vertical service matters way more than your profile on LinkedIn.
NEW EMERGING MARKETPLACES
Having been a fortunate investor in many of the previously mentioned companies (*), Benchmark remains extremely excited about future marketplace opportunities that will unlock wealth on the Internet. Here are an example of two such companies that we have funded in the past few years.
The New York Times describes Hipcamp as “The Sharing Economy Visits the Backcountry.” Hipcamp(*) was founded in 2013 by Alyssa Ravasio as an engine to search across the dozens and dozens of State and National park websites for campsite availability. As Hipcamp gained traction with campers, landowners with land near many of the National and State parks started to reach out to Hipcamp asking if they could list their land on Hipcamp too. Hipcamp now offers access to more than 350k campsites across public and private land, and their most active private land hosts make over $100,000 per year hosting campers. This is a pretty amazing value proposition for both land owners and campers. If you are a rural landowner, here is a way to create “money out of nowhere” with very little capital expenditures. And if you are a camper, what could be better than to camp at a unique, bespoke campsite in your favorite location.
Instawork(*) is an on-demand staffing app for gig workers (professionals) and hospitality businesses (partners). These working professionals seek economic freedom and a better life, and Instawork gives them both — an opportunity to work as much as they like, but on their own terms with regard to when and where. On the business partner side, small business owners/managers/chefs do not have access to reliable sources to help them with talent sourcing and high turnover, and products like LinkedIn are more focused on white-collar workers. Instawork was cofounded by Sumir Meghani in San Franciso and was a member of the 2015 Y-Combinator class. 2018 was a break-out year for Instawork with 10X revenue growth and 12X growth in Professionals on the platform. The average Instawork Professional is highly engaged on the platform, and typically opens the Instawork app ten times a day. This results in 97% of gigs being matched in less than 24 hours — which is powerfully important to both sides of the network. Also noteworthy, the Professionals on Instawork average 150% of minimum wage, significantly higher than many other labor marketplaces. This higher income allows Instawork Professionals like Jose, to begin to accomplish their dreams.
The Power of These Platforms
As you can see, these numerous marketplaces are a direct extension of the productivity enhancers first uncovered by Adam Smith and David Ricardo. Free trade, specialization, and comparative advantage are all enhanced when we can increase the matching of supply and demand of goods and services as well as eliminate inefficiency and waste caused by misinformation or distance. As a result, productivity naturally improves.
Specific benefits of global internet marketplaces:
- Increase wealth distribution (all examples)
- Unlock wasted potential of assets (Uber, AirBNB, Rover, and Hipcamp)
- Better match of specific workers with specific opportunities (Upwork, WyzAnt, RigUp, VIPKid, Instawork)
- Make specific assets reachable and findable (Ebay, Etsy, 1stDibs, Poshmark, GOAT)
- Allow for increased specialization (Etsy, Upwork, RigUp)
- Enhance supplemental labor opportunities (Uber, Stitch Fix, SwingEducation, Instawork, VIPKid), where the worker is in control of when and where they work
- Reduces forfeiture by enhancing utilization (mortgages, car loans, etc) (Uber, AirBnb, Rover, Hipcamp)
If you are a founder who is excited about starting a new marketplace, there are two caveats that are important to remember. First, you will need to find industries where the opportunity to improve the efficiency in the ways noted above is evident. If the network does not create true economic leverage, you will find it hard to be successful. Second, for any marketplace to be successful, the conditions in that given market must be optimal for a new marketplace entrant. Please check out our previous post, All Markets Are Not Created Equal: 10 Factors To Consider When Evaluating Digital Marketplaces, for a list of factors that help distinguish a great opportunity. If after taking in these considerations you think you have found such an opportunity, we would love to talk to you about potentially partnering together. Please send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
(*) Benchmark either is or was an investor in companies labeled with the asterisk.
Interested in “Unlocking Wealth” Yourself?
- Sell an item on eBay
- Sell tickets on StubHub
- Sell an item on Etsy
- Sell antiques on 1stdibs
- Sell your clothing on Poshmark
- Sell your designer goods on The Real Real
- Sell your sneakers on GOAT
- Become a driver on Uber
- Earn money as an Airbnb host
- Become a pet sitter or host on Rover
- Become a researcher on HackerOne
- Become a tutor on Wyzant
- Become a stylist on Stitch Fix
- Be a substitute teacher with Swing Education
- Rig Up (opportunities for oil field service professionals)
- Become an online English teacher with VIP Kids
- Turn your land into money, become a host on HipCamp
- Find flexible work at Instawork