Being a founder of any early-stage start-up requires you to wear a lot of hats. You’ll find yourself doing things you’ve never done before, learning skills you never thought you’d need and tackling jobs that you didn’t even know needed doing!
There is so much to do and you’re constantly switching tasks. It’s a juggling act. At this stage you don’t have a big team behind you so you perform all the roles - sales, accounting, research, design, copywriting, social media, operations, legal, PR… The list is endless!
When you are part of a small founding team you can spread the load, divide tasks and conquer. But it’s likely that you’ll still have some skills gaps. Either way, it’s important to know which skills are critical to successfully design and build your first marketplace and how you can fill those gaps.
Once you’ve validated your marketplace idea and you’re ready to begin building, you’ll need to design what it looks like (UI design) and how it’s going to work (UX design). For example, how will your suppliers create a listing and connect their bank account to receive payouts? How will customers quickly find the supplier who is the best match for them?
You want your marketplace platform to be intuitive, enjoyable and easy to use. If users find it difficult to navigate they might give up and not come back, which will harm your conversion rate. Creating flow diagrams to visualise your user journeys and communicate with developers will be a big help.
My biggest piece of advice when designing your user journeys is to keep them as simple as possible. Remember, this is your Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and you want to make the build as quick and easy as possible so that you can launch your product and start getting feedback from real users.
Secondly, stick to the core journeys - just the ones you need to make your marketplace work. Anything else at this stage is a “nice to have”. You can always add fancy features and more complex journeys later once you’ve validated what your users actually need.
Getting the core user journeys right from the beginning is fairly important, because once they are coded and built, they can be difficult and expensive to change. This is another good reason why you should keep them simple in the early stages!
You also need to think about the visual aspect of your marketplace. What will it look like? What look and feel will appeal most to the target audience? Should it be fun and playful or serious and wise? What is your colour palette and which fonts will you use?
Thankfully, the decisions you make about the look and feel are much easier to change than user journeys. So my advice is to not spend too much time worrying about it right now and invest in branding at a later stage.
You might be wondering whether you should try to do the UX/UI design yourself or whether you should outsource this. I think the answer really depends on your budget. The cheapest option, of course, is DIY and I’ll share my favourite tools along with advice on how to use them in a later article. However, if you don’t have a design background, you could find UX/UI design quite difficult, time consuming and frustrating.
UX/UI design is a skill that takes years to learn well, so if you can afford to hire a professional then please do. Not only will they speed up the design phase, but it will make your developers' lives easier as they’ll have clearer instructions on what to build. However, I wouldn’t recommend hiring a full-time UX designer just yet. Instead, look for a talented freelancer with marketplace experience who can translate your requirements into designs you will be proud to show-off.
If you'd like to learn more about the design process, check out my 10-step design process for marketplaces.
Whether you’re using a low-code tool or you’re investing in a custom build, you’re going to need at least one engineer to build your marketplace. Some start-ups are blessed with a technical co-founder so they can keep the engineering efforts in-house. Lucky you! But a lot of startups will need outside help.
When I co-founded my own marketplace, we used a low-code solution called Sharetribe Flex. I knew a tiny bit of HTML and CSS and somehow cobbled together a few basic customisations to the template. But I was soon out of my depth and needed the help from a real developer who knew what they were doing.
We used a development agency called Journey Horizon based in Vietnam. They were recommended to us by Juho Makkonen, CEO at Sharetribe, and I have to say, they were excellent! They priced each development task upfront so there were no nasty surprises, and the quality of their work was excellent. I have since worked with them on six more marketplace projects.
Picking the right development team is vital. I’ve heard horror stories of people spending thousands of pounds on a freelance developer they’ve found through UpWork or a rogue development agency, only to find out three months later that the developer didn’t have a clue what they’re doing and they’re no closer to launching. This can be devastating.
Please don’t go for the cheapest option. It might seem like a great deal at the time but if they can’t deliver what they set out to, you could end up spending far more money to put things right. Get recommendations from people you trust, or if you find a developer online, contact one of their previous clients and get a reference. I’ve had plenty of people approach me for references for the developers I use and I’m more than happy to provide them.
A lot of founders ask if they should hire a contractor or a permanent member of staff? Again, it comes down to how big your budget is and how aggressively you want to build. When I built a marketplace with my business partner, we decided to outsource our development work because we were bootstrapping on a shoe-string budget. Hiring an agency gave us full control over our spending meaning we could stop/start it whenever we needed.
However, when I worked at Forward Partners, a London VC, we encouraged non-technical founders in our portfolio to hire a CTO as soon as possible, often as their first employee. Being able to bring the development work in-house has many advantages, but you need to be able to afford their monthly salary for the foreseeable future and/or give up some equity. Most early-stage bootstrapped start-ups don’t have this luxury until they have gained traction.
So you have the most amazing business idea but how are people going to find out about it? I’ve heard a lot of founders say, “If I build it, they will come.” Unfortunately this isn't true. You will need to do some marketing.
When I set out on my entrepreneurial adventure I didn’t know the first thing about marketing so I had to learn everything on-to-job. It was a steep learning curve! I spent months researching the different marketing techniques, watching YouTube videos and talking to other founders for advice.
I found out that there are lots of marketing strategies and (at bigger organisations), each is a full-time job in it’s own right - SEO (how you rank in Google), paid search (pay per click Google ads), paid social (pay per click Facebook and Instagram ads), building an audience, building a community… the list goes on.
So should you try and tackle it yourself? Yes. In the early stage I believe you should do as much as you can yourself. These skills will be useful to you throughout your journey as a founder so it’s worth learning them now.
Take paid search and paid social ads for example. There are lots of Youtube videos explaining how they work and how you should set them up. Within a week you’ll have learnt the basics and set up some initial campaigns. Monitor the results, experiment with different ad types and see what works best for your marketplace.
SEO is trickier. It takes a long time to pay-off (around 6-12 months) but is usually worth the wait. SEO will involve writing blogs, using keywords (terms that people search for in Google e.g. “London portrait photographer”) on your website and building hyper-specific landing pages dedicated to those keywords. I’ll go into SEO in more detail in a later article, but if you find it too tough or too time consuming, you can usually find a good freelancer to help you out.
If you decide that building an audience/community is going to be key to your success as a marketplace, you really need to be the one doing it yourself, particularly in the early stages. You need to be there, immersed in the community, listening to what they are discussing, understanding their problems and helping people out. It will give you so much insight into your audience, their frustrations and their needs, and will essentially help you build a better product.
You’ll likely need to spend some time experimenting to find out which is the most successful marketing technique for your particular business. For my marketplace, we found that SEO and paid search (Google) ads worked the best for customer acquisition, whereas building a brand on Instagram, direct messages and paid social (Instagram) ads worked best acquiring photographers. But just because that worked for us, it doesn’t mean it will work for you.
Building a marketplace is a rewarding journey but requires a lot of hands on business skills and work from the founders, particularly in the early stage of starting your business. As time goes by and you start to gain traction you will need to outsource or hire for some of these skills. Try to outsource the skills you are least competent in and keep doing the ones that you enjoy the most. Always stay as close as you can to your users and your customers.