Marketplace academy

What is the Best Strategy to Start a Service-Focused Online Marketplace

Identifying and developing your virtual service marketplace game plan.

Bloomberg reports that the service industry is growing at a rapid pace—much more of the economy is based on services. This is a perfect time and climate for service-focused marketplaces to thrive.

A Deloitte survey infographic shows that many startups have already been able to leverage this opportunity.

Uber’s bookings have increased by a whopping 51% since last year, which has led to an increase of over 60% in quarterly sales.

Airbnb made almost $100 million in pure profit, from $2.6 billion in revenue.

These two online ecommerce platforms are different—customers, business model, and a marketplace type. What unites them is that these platforms succeed because they were able to find their marketplace concept, define its benefits and challenges, and establish a strategy accordingly.

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Create a marketplace

1. Service Marketplace Concepts

1.1 Managed Virtual Marketplace

This format is delivering an optimum experience by incorporating value-added services. Specifically, reputation tools such as reviews, grades, and guarantees help to regulate the quality of service.

For example, Opendoor, apart from the main service—to instantly sell your home—provides a free assessment of homes:

how to start an online marketplace


Value-added service creation means operational complexity. Also, most of the processes in a managed web marketplace are vertical-specific, so a shopping mall should either remain in the chosen niche or find out a way to add value in a new way if it wishes to expand into a different vertical.

1.2 Fixed Pricing and Guarantees

“Full commitment marketplaces” are shopping malls that set the price and the offer, and create the whole experience, with suppliers acting as contractors in this case.

Uber is an obvious example of that concept. Despite a large number of suppliers (drivers), it owns the online marketplace offer and defines customer experience:

starting an online marketplace

Fiverr, the freelancers’ marketplace, sets up the pricing for all its suppliers on its own, allowing to sell any service for five dollars:

how to start a marketplace website


Despite the attractive concept for buyers, its main issue is to attract and retain experienced suppliers at such a low rate. This is probably why the multi vendor platform has increased the rates to 500 dollars for services that are moving up the ladder in some categories.

1.3 Goods and Service Mix

This concept is a combination of product and service web marketplaces. Amazon, a physical goods shopping mall, offers its customers services as well, such as home services, so that they can find professionals to help service their home.

how to start an online marketplace website

The service added-value for customers is workers’ background checking, while the multi vendor marketplace enables the following additional benefits for suppliers:

multi vendor shopping malls


This concept is hard to promote, unless the marketplace is a world leader with tremendous traction, which, of course, is the case with Amazon.

1.4 General Service Web Marketplaces

This concept is a part of a shared economy model. Such multi vendor shopping malls are intended to turn underused assets into revenue. This means that the user monetizes their home, bed, car or other assets.

Blablacar, a virtual marketplace which service lets you to “go literally anywhere from anywhere” as a consumer while offering a shared ride as a supplier, and which is built using this concept:

virtual marketplace


This concept should be supported by powerful added-value services. That enables trust between suppliers and customers, since the Internet shopping mall offers not just city rides, but traveling between cities. Obviously, safety is a serious concern.

The online marketplace ensures trust by utilizing various safety features:

internet shopping mall

Besides, it offers other security options:

multi vendor marketplace

1.5 Low-Skilled Tasks Services

These multi vendor marketplaces are intended for people not to rent out their assets, as with the previous concept, but their spare time—for a side or full-time work, whether it involves doing home chores and/or running errands for customers.

The TaskRabbit marketplace is an example of such concept:

online shopping malls


It is hard to build a solid community of scrupulous suppliers for that concept, which is necessary since often a service should be delivered at a customer’s home. To overcome this issue, besides collaborating with an independent workforce in a usual way, like Handy; online shopping malls of this type use a full-time employee strategy to enable a better customer experience—like MyClean.

1.6 Qualified Professionals Services

In this case, people rent out their expertise, professional skills, and experience.

This marketplace concept is tailored for high-quality independent professionals, or freelancers—and is a part of an “on-demand talent” economy model.

There are many different multi vendor marketplaces that work with that concept, from Upwork with many professional categories to niche platforms like Clarify, which helps startups to get advice from experts in any category you can think of, whether it is copywriting, software development, or countless other niches.


It’s hard to scale with this concept, and scalability is crucial to both investors and management, usually.

Since the main value here is the supplier’s vast and quality expertise—most often, all of the suppliers should be selected and evaluated carefully.

Business model elements are also an important part of a service marketplace strategy.

True Experience #1

Brandon Gotlieb, a Cofounder of a peer to peer storage website

Hi, Brandon! Please tell about yourself and your marketplace.

Hi, Yan! My name is Brandon Gotlieb and I’m a co-founder of a peer-to-peer storage website that helps homeowners and business property owners earn extra income by utilizing extra space.

I am also a sophomore at Ohio State University. We started about a year ago after participating in a local pitch competition and earned $1,000. We then did some product validation with international students and earned another several thousand dollars to put towards building a website. We finally launched the website about a month ago and have been adding users/hosts since then. We’ve also been adding features and will soon launch a cobranded moving product to make our website a one-stop-shop with single click shipping from your home to your storage location. Below are the answers to your questions.

What’s the difference between a physical product multi vendor marketplace and a services-oriented one when it comes to website functionality, design, navigation, and checkout process? Are there any differences in workflow and business processes?

The major difference stems from the fact that there needs to be continual conversation. The workflow involves much more in depth research on behalf of the purchaser. We try to streamline the process to tailor to how the purchaser thinks and answer any questions.

— How to resolve conflicts between customers and service providers?

We try to always have the user submit a report so we can track and put the issue into trello for a quick resolution.

How to choose reliable service providers for your virtual shopping center so that they don’t let the customers down?

Ensure they go through a large amount of weed-out steps and are involved in a phone call as well.

Give some tips for entrepreneurs on how to start a successful service-oriented online marketplace.

Always start with the providers. Don’t chase the customer until you have the capacity.

2. Online Mall Business Model—What Works Differently for a Service-Focused Web Marketplace

2.1 A Shopping Mall Conversion Funnel

Start by looking at each stage of your multi vendor marketplace conversion funnel and focus on where user activity drops off. These are clearly the points that should be addressed and polished.

2.2 Urgent / Flexible On-Demand Service Marketplace Format

Another element that is an important part of the virtual service-focused marketplace business model is how urgently a service you provide on your online shopping mall should, and could be delivered. This speaks to how convenient your service is, which will influence your scalability.

Uber is a perfect example of an urgent “on-demand “service marketplace:

internet shopping center

The vast amount of available drivers is the core element of the Internet shopping center success. Otherwise, consumer demand wouldn’t be satisfied on a large scale.

This, however, creates a large barrier for new players to enter the market, since a new competitor needs to launch with many suppliers at the beginning already.

If services can be delivered with more flexible timing, which is the case with cleaning, plumbing, or legal advice, it’s easier to succeed with fewer suppliers.

2.3 Online Service Marketplace Monetization Model

Monetization with many of the virtual service marketplaces presents a unique challenge.

Most service shopping malls cannot make a transaction before the buyer and supplier agree on the terms of the service, and the service is delivered.

Thus, the party that is charged is naturally motivated to abandon the multi vendor platform and conduct the transaction off-platform. To avoid that, the workflow should create additional value for both sides.

For example, Upwork clients and freelancers can speak via built-in tools.

Freelancers can evaluate clients based on the history of job feedback, and how much money a client has spent hiring on the marketplace platform:

multi vendor ecommerce platform

Subscription Fee

Another way to avoid leakage is to play with the monetization model itself.

While most multi vendor shopping malls extract a fee from their sellers, there are several that charge subscription fees to their buyers.

On customers pay a subscription fee to message a caregiver through the multi vendor ecommerce platform.

Until you pay, identities are masked:

multi seller ecommerce platform

Paying for Leads

If your Internet shopping center is operating in the offline services field, paying for leads can be an ideal option. Of course, the quality of the leads is the inevitable variable that can determine whether it is a smart investment for customers or not.

Thumbtack is a multi vendor platform that helps people find photographers, painters, home contractors, movers, etc.

The suppliers on Thumbtack provide services that can be implemented only offline, so it’s hard to track when the service was performed and for how much.

Thumbtack is charging suppliers to contact customers. The online vendors can view all the details for a particular job, and pay to be introduced, and then proceed to compete for the job.

The lead-based model only works with new connections. It is ineffective in those cases where there are a lot of repeat purchases from the same vendor.

True Experience #2

Harm Smits, Lead Developer at PoppedWeb—eCommerce company from the Netherlands that helps to start up, support, and develop online businesses.

It ought to be noted that there is a significant difference between physical and service-oriented marketplaces. This difference is of such magnitude that it can be seen in design, navigation, functionality, and even the checkout.

Firstly, design differs a lot since you are basically selling a person, instead of a product, hence the transaction for the consumer is more personal and will require a different kind of trust. When buying a product one expects the product simply to work correctly, when buying a service one may expect a young, motivated and humorous man. They want to get to know the person who will provide the service, people rarely just look at skill (think about job interviews). Moreover, people expect the mediator (you) to check if they really are as qualified as they say.

Furthermore, the navigation will also be rather different. People are looking for a certain skill set which can not be found with a simple product listing along with a filter. You will have to show a personality that is present within the person, without letting your customers check their profile page. This can be done by providing the profiles with a slight description in the listing or by giving them the opportunity to link finished projects on their listing item.

Lastly, functionality and checkout are expected to be way different as well. The service providers want to be able to assign a variety of payment methods. A few of them could be recur billing, partial billing or after pay (this is mostly done when both parties have a mutual agreement that in case something happens, it should be immediately resolved). Also, what most service providers want to do is to use an API to connect their backend with yours, this definitely brings a lot of advantages since it saves a lot of time.

But what if there is a conflict between the customer and service provider? Since you are the mediator it ultimately is your responsibility. The first step would be to redirect the customer to the service provider and make them sort it out. If they aren’t able to solve their conflict you must step in. You will have to decide who is correct and there is no such thing as difficult as finding a mutual profitable solution, compromises will always have to be made.

You may ask yourself at this point: ‘How do I prevent conflicts all together?’. Sadly, this isn’t possible, however, it is possible to reduce the amount of conflicts by selecting your service providers carefully, this can be done in a variety of ways. A few examples of this would be dummy projects, a project which will be guided by you or an in-house skill test. This has multiple advantages for all parties, the customer can expect a certain quality of your service, your multi vendor platform will receive a certain status and ultimately your service providers will try harder to get into your marketplace platform because of its status.

At last, there are a lot of things to look after in the initial stage of your service-oriented online marketplace, mainly because a first impression if everything and a single negative review may destroy your entire business, hence it is very important to have everything ready before you accept any service providers. We have also prepared a few questions you might want to ask yourself:

  • Who is my audience?
  • What do I want my status to be? Do I want it to be really exclusive or for small entrepreneurs?
  • What do I expect from the service providers? What skill set is a must and what will be the average wages?
  • How large do I want the fee to be? Also, do I want certain plans for large companies to be available?

2.4 Service Web Marketplace Long-Run Thriving—the Elements That are Vitally Important

MobileAccording to Accenture’s Survey, on-demand services are growing significantly:

e-commerce web services

A modern smartphone has been quickly turning into a remote control to access anything you want from a ride, to home cleaning, to almost any service that one can consider.

It is therefore crucial for on-demand service online marketplaces to enable a flawless mobile experience for both suppliers and customers.

Some service-focused multi vendor shopping malls success—like Uber—is completely based on a mobile app flawless experience for all virtual marketplace users.

Thus, while it can be argued that some goods-oriented ecommerce platforms may be able to thrive in a desktop format, It is increasingly obvious that for service online marketplaces, having a mobile app is imperative.

Service Transactions Frequency

Many failed online shopping malls chose to showcase services that have a low transaction frequency, which prevented any real growth in the market.

For example, Beepi was a peer-to-peer marketplace for buying, selling, and leasing used cars. The reason why multi vendor marketplace failed was the lack of transactions that occurred. Integrating car dealer network management solutions can significantly enhance the operational efficiency of automotive marketplaces, providing a seamless connection between dealerships and their customers.

While it was possible to find a person who is selling a used car, finding two people who would like to implement a selling/buying deal with the same car is much harder, and, as a result, it’s almost impossible to scale such a concept. A lot of cars stay unsold, which means that the multi vendor platform remains stagnant.

Another pitfall with transactions frequency is services where customers prefer a monogamous relationship—like with babysitters, for example. It is easy to see that users would prefer not to hire a new babysitter constantly, as there are issues with trust and safety when it comes to one’s own family.

Thus, it’s better to run a multi vendor mall for a service with high purchase frequency and regular usage.

Uber, for example, matches both conditions. The demand and transaction frequency is constant since people require and ride taxis on a daily basis.

Consumers then rely on the web marketplace as an everyday utility and continue using the same service as long as they’re satisfied.

Risk Management

Airbnb is a great example of risk management.

Negative incidents within the virtual marketplace are sporadic. After one of them took place back in 2011, the multi vendor platform introduced Airbnb Social Connections, which leverages a Facebook connection—so guests more often stay with someone through their social circle, like a friend of a friend, for example, rather than complete strangers.

Besides this, Airbnb also created a dedicated Trust and Safety team that is available for the Internet shopping mall customers 24/7.

Later, the multi vendor ecommerce platform established a Host Guarantee program, to be able to compensate the host for damage when it is necessary.

Of course, this necessitates that the shopping mall platform of the service-based marketplace communicate these precautions, and layout a specific protocol and procedure when it comes to these emergency situations.

Outstanding service online shopping malls don’t just aggregate a market; they offer a service and user experience that simply didn’t exist before.

Upwork, currently one of the world’s largest freelance marketplaces, was relaunched in 2015.

They put together customer needs and the multi vendor marketplace service constant development and made it their strategy for success, implemented through the advanced ecommerce platform tools for customers and suppliers.

They focused on shared workspace creation and a better team collaboration experience for both freelancers and clients.

They enabled a flawless messaging experience within mobile and desktop.

Also, they provided freelancers with new effective tools to boost hiring, and customers—with instruments to interview and select workers that match their needs the most.

In 2017, they reported 14 million users in 180 countries with $1B in annual freelancer billings.

It shows that whatever virtual marketplace concept you choose, constant service development together with the customer-centric approach is the winning strategy for a service shopping center.

Head of Content Marketing at CS-Cart | Website

Yan Anderson is the Head of Content Marketing at CS-Cart with over 10 years of experience in the eCommerce industry. He's passionate about explaining complicated things in simple terms. Yan has expertise in building, running and growing eCommerce marketplaces. He loves to educate people about best practices, new technologies, and trends in the global eCommerce industry.