Cracking the Chicken-and-Egg Problem: How to Kickstart and Scale a Marketplace Business


Hatched by Glasp

Aug 05, 2023

5 min read


Cracking the Chicken-and-Egg Problem: How to Kickstart and Scale a Marketplace Business


Building a successful marketplace business can be challenging, especially when faced with the chicken-and-egg problem. Many marketplaces struggle to grow their initial supply, leading to a supply-constrained environment. In this article, we will explore various strategies and tactics used by successful marketplace businesses to overcome this hurdle and achieve scalable growth.

Understanding the Importance of Supply Growth:

One common theme among thriving consumer marketplaces is the incredible demand they tap into. However, this demand often puts immense pressure on the supply side. To achieve a strong product/market fit, marketplaces must focus on driving initial supply growth. This requires a strategic approach and a deep understanding of the levers that can fuel supply expansion.

Focus on Direct Sales:

Surprisingly, one-on-one direct sales emerged as a crucial lever for early marketplaces. Approximately 60% of the successful marketplace companies relied on direct sales to kickstart their supply growth. By personally reaching out to potential suppliers, these marketplaces were able to remove obstacles and incentivize them to join the platform. This approach proved particularly effective in immature markets without critical mass.

Harness the Power of Referrals:

Referrals played a significant role in driving early supply growth for many marketplaces. About one-third of the first trips were a result of referrals, which also proved to be the best drivers. By incentivizing existing suppliers to refer others, marketplaces were able to tap into their network and expand their supply base. This approach relied on the power of word-of-mouth marketing and leveraged the trust and connections within the marketplace community.

Piggy-Back Off Existing Networks:

For some marketplaces, piggy-backing off existing networks, such as Craigslist, proved to be an effective strategy. By utilizing an established platform, these marketplaces were able to attract suppliers who were already familiar with online marketplaces. This approach reduced the barriers to entry and accelerated the growth of initial supply.

The Influence of Word of Mouth:

While not a growth lever in itself, organic word of mouth played a significant role in the early supply growth of many marketplaces. By delivering exceptional experiences and value to suppliers, these marketplaces were able to generate positive word of mouth, which attracted new suppliers and accelerated growth. Satisfied suppliers became brand advocates, spreading the word about the marketplace within their networks.

Subsidizing to Drive Supply:

In some cases, marketplaces resorted to subsidizing to solve the supply problem. By offering incentives and guarantees, such as guaranteed earnings or subsidized resources, marketplaces were able to attract and retain suppliers. This approach reduced the risk for suppliers and incentivized them to join and actively participate in the marketplace.

Leveraging Employees as Early Supply:

Some marketplaces tapped into their own employees to kickstart supply growth. By involving everyone in the company, from executives to entry-level employees, marketplaces were able to address early supply shortages. This approach demonstrated a strong commitment to the success of the marketplace and showcased the team's dedication to bridging the supply gap.

Using Single-Player Mode:

A tactic that proved successful for certain marketplaces was offering a tool or service that suppliers found useful on its own. This approach, known as "single-player mode," allowed marketplaces to bootstrap one side of the marketplace by providing value to suppliers independently. Examples of marketplaces that employed this tactic include OpenTable, Eventbrite, and Patreon.

Harnessing Performance Marketing:

Marketplaces also found success in driving initial supply growth through performance marketing. By strategically targeting and acquiring suppliers through various online marketing channels, marketplaces were able to scale their supply base rapidly. This approach required a deep understanding of the target audience and effective marketing strategies.

Creating Loops and Virality:

Some marketplaces, such as Eventbrite and Airbnb, discovered powerful supply-oriented loops that drove early supply growth. These loops, also known as flywheels or virality, relied on the interconnectedness of suppliers and customers. By creating a positive feedback loop, these marketplaces were able to attract new suppliers through existing suppliers and accelerate their growth.

Organizing Events and Meetups:

A few marketplaces, including Airbnb and Lyft, successfully organized events and meetups to build early supply. These gatherings provided an opportunity for potential suppliers to learn more about the marketplace, ask questions, and connect with like-minded individuals. By fostering a sense of community and belonging, these events helped attract and onboard new suppliers.

The Role of SEO and Content Marketing:

Interestingly, SEO and content marketing were not as impactful in driving early supply growth for most marketplaces. Only Eventbrite found SEO to be a key lever in their supply acquisition strategy. This highlights the importance of understanding the unique dynamics of each marketplace and tailoring the growth strategy accordingly.

Leveraging Community:

Marketplaces that leveraged their community experienced significant growth in initial supply. By actively engaging with their community, marketplaces were able to tap into the expertise and resources of their users. This approach not only generated valuable insights but also created a sense of ownership and loyalty among suppliers.


Cracking the chicken-and-egg problem requires a strategic and focused approach. By leveraging direct sales, referrals, existing networks, word of mouth, subsidies, employee involvement, single-player mode, performance marketing, loops, events, and community, marketplaces can drive initial supply growth and scale successfully. The key is to understand the unique dynamics of each marketplace and identify the most effective levers for growth. Remember to continuously refine your interpretation and understanding of the marketplace ecosystem, just like the hermeneutic circle, to ensure sustainable growth.

Actionable Advice:

  • 1. Focus on direct sales and personally reach out to potential suppliers to remove obstacles and incentivize them to join the marketplace.
  • 2. Implement a referral program to tap into the power of word-of-mouth marketing and leverage the network of existing suppliers.
  • 3. Organize events and meetups to create a sense of community and attract like-minded individuals to join the marketplace as suppliers.

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