Facebook Marketplace stirs up old dreams
So today the day finally came when facebook launched their marketplace. While the launch of FB marketplace wasn’t particularly surprising my reaction to it has been. As you probably know I was a co-founder of boso.com, the first attempt at a national marketplace for students in the UK (and from everything I’ve seen, still the most succesful one by some distance). However it’s coming up to four months now since Kul and I decided to change direction and get out of the student marketplace space and until the online auction space with auctomatic. So with that in mind the release of FB does not impact on me in any way at all (so long as they stay out of building tools for eBay sellers I’ll be fine). However I still can’t stop thinking about it and on some level it still feels like being punched in the gut and here’s my attempt at explaining why (and then I’ll talk about what I think FB marketplace means for the student classifieds sector).
So boso did quite simply change my life. If it wasn’t for starting up boso while at university, I wouldn’t have seen how amazing doing a start up is and things may well have worked out very differently. It’s not surprising then that I had a HUGE amount of emotional attachment to boso – who doesn’t get attached to their first start up? Even though it’s no longer the project I’m working on when I saw facebook marketplace, my initial reaction was still the same as if boso was still my life. I suppose that by virtue of doing a web start-up you have to accept the fact you’re always sailing pretty close to the wind. With such a low barrier to entry and big boys in the space you face a bewildering range of threats to your livelihood. I can imagine just how seriously it would have hurt to have seen FB marketplace if I were still working on boso and it’s something I guess you just have to face up to as an entrepreneur, sometimes the big boys can just decide to crush you.
The other thing that makes it all slightly surreal is actually seeing and using the facebook marketplace in real life. As facebook continued to grow we always knew it was a potentially serious threat. I reached a stage with boso where I had a quick comeback for any criticisms of the boso concept but the one I always knew I was fudging was “what would you do if facebook did this?”. So after expending latent mental energy on trying to answer that question (if only to myself) now actually seeing it as a living breathing entity is strange.
Having the relief factor of not being in the space is obviously comforting but in a way that’s just coincidental this time around. There’s a seriously big chance that next time I won’t be lucky and it’ll actually be my livelihood being threatened by someone. If that day comes then I’ll have to decide whether to knuckle down and get ready for the fight or call it a day.
One thing I won’t do is start remaining “emotionally detached” from my startup. I’ve heard people give that advice before but that’s no way to run a startup. I do believe you need to reach a level of emotional balance where you’re not continually swinging high and low but that doesn’t mean you’re in any way detached. If I wanted to be emotionally detached I’d work in a bank. I want to do a startup so I can carry on dreaming (and executing on) changing the world in some way.
Anyway so my personal feelings aside, what do I think about FB marketplace itself? Well I don’t think it was always going to be an instant success. Norms of behaviour are important on the web and facebook has always been careful about which ones they promote. The reason I think marketplace will be massive now is because the users have started using it for that purpose. I’ve seen my friends start using facebook notes to list things they’re trying to sell or putting the names of items they want in their status updates. That’s not what they used facebook for a year ago (if marketplace had launched then I still think it would have been beatable but maybe my vision is a little clouded on this one) but that is what they’re using it for now. For me that was the final nail in the coffin and I’ve been expecting to see this development since.
As with all facebook features it’s been very slickly implemented and it’s hard to imagine how you’d compete with it (though I wish they’d make it easier to just see a whole facebook marketplace with all listings on facebook, marketplaces need to at least give the impression of liquidity and I’d be happier starting from the position of a generic marketplace and then drilling down into the networks I wanted rather than vice versa). You could try and focus on facilitating the trades themselves in a way that facebook couldn’t replicate but a lot of the sales will be low value items which are suited to quick and easy trades anyway.
What I might be interested to see is the potential for API spinoffs (assuming the developers who tried using the API to build their own classifieds solutions aren’t too disheartended of course). Maybe you could mashup ticket sales for events on facebook with the marketplace and make that trading experience better than facebook can, like StubHub did to eBay, though once you start getting into niches of niches you’re getting further away from big business.
As far as I’m concerned, sites like Chegg or DormItem (college classifieds) should stop trying to compete with FB and see if they can do something complimentary to the marketplace service. Otherwise they’re in big big trouble.