No business, no culture, no initiative in this world is free from the grips of capitalism. Often, startup culture can be more about turning lucrative than about solving a problem. Think about it, why should startups exist? Shouldn’t the world be worried about solving problems and not about growing 10x in revenue? Some startups are more worried about turning unicorns than about solving piled-up customer queries on unsupervised forums. When you sit and think about it sometimes, the world seems completely off-balance in terms of everything, which needs to change. Perhaps you must be wondering - this is a rather odd way to start an article, but these values were what shaped the emergence of Sharetribe.
Juho Makkonen and Antti Virolainen, two Finnish college graduates, friends first and later business partners, started Sharetribe as a platform to help students sell old textbooks, find tutors, or book a moving service. Now, one thing becomes apparent since the beginning: building a marketplace was always the foundational idea for them regardless of how differently it started. Over the course of the next 11 years, Sharetribe aged like fine wine, and the story that follows will prove so.
For starters - what exactly was the purpose of Sharetribe?
Democratize platform ownership by making it easy for anyone to build and run their own marketplace. We don’t want a future where a large part of the value created in the collaborative economy is extracted by the one percent. The marketplace platforms should take only what they need to survive, and distribute the rest to the providers doing the actual work. - Juho Makkonenn (source)
The founders believed that marketplaces were (and still are) the future, and they wanted to be the stepping stones in the process of getting there. One of their defining ideas was to make marketplaces available for everyone and not just money-thirsty organizations that only care about emptying consumer pockets. They wanted to make building marketplaces so easy and accessible, that people could go from an idea to a fully-functional custom marketplace within a day. Sharetribe was to become an all-in-one platform for hosting your business without having to look for anything elsewhere.
With a social mission in mind, the founders realized that to offer a truly democratized platform on a shared economy, the best possible solution is to make it open source. And that’s exactly what they did, but things are easier said than done. It wasn’t viable in a grand scheme of things to build an open-source platform and inherently survive for the foreseeable future. They realized that in order to fulfill their purpose, they needed Sharetribe to become sustainable and have the necessary resources to improve over time. This meant that they needed to make money in order to do so.
You can be open-source and still make money right? Exactly. In fact, the line that separates the two blurs when you think of it this way - an open-source platform can help your company grow essentially just by increasing in usability. Juho cites WordPress as an example they looked upto when building Sharetribe. WordPress, like how Sharetribe wanted to be, also democratized online content publishing by combining an open-source product with a SaaS platform that was built on top of it. This simple yet effective mechanism allowed them to become the largest Content Management System (CMS) in the world.
What Sharetribe did was use the same idea but for online marketplaces. As mentioned earlier, their primary goal was to get people to start using Sharetibe, earning money was just so they could keep doing what they were doing. The value proposition becomes even more so impressive considering the fact that even if they don’t wish to be paying customers anymore, they can install the open-source code on their server along with their exported data from the SaaS platform. Hop on and off anytime you want. Sharetribe really put their money where their mouth is in terms of building a future that celebrates a shared economy.
Sharetribe today has two pricing models. Sharetribe Go is a built-in marketplace hosting option with everything ready to go. You can customize the script and make it how you want it on top of the existing ‘template’. Another standout feature is that Sharetribe doesn’t charge any fee from transactions but instead has a fixed pricing model. The second one is Sharetribe Flex using which you can develop a custom marketplace with everything from scratch on Flex. This is a more technical option so the platform also gives you the option to hire Flex developers to build your project for you.
In the fall of 2019, Sharetribe announced that they will become source-available after staying open-source for over 8 years. First question - obviously, what is source-available? This implies that the code pertaining to any software will be available online freely but with minor restrictions which refrains it from being completely open-source. This decision comes after the people working at the company came across another company that was selling basically a replica of what Sharetribe was. This stir up considerations for a possible change and they decided to go ahead with a source-available license which, according to Juho, guaranteed that 99.99% of Sharetribe Go users wouldn’t be impacted and only a few Flex users would be, which they had to make peace with.
Sharetribe did raise a seed round in their earlier years for $2.4 million but stopped since then after they realized that their social mission was way bigger than raising capital and having investors steer the future of the company. They realized that startups function these days on a ‘do-or-die’ principle which is forcing founders to eventually push towards raising more money, which raises valuation, and eventually means a bigger slice for the investors and that’s all there’s left of a company that started with a pure, unadulterated idea.
How do you build a company that wholeheartedly does something good for society? Juho discusses this concept in-depth and exemplifies some of the biggest names, game-changers, in the marketplace business. The mere willingness to do something good with a positive mission statement is not enough to create a positive impact. He talks about certain ‘externalities’ that can pop up uninvited even for companies that set out with a seemingly good idea.
Juho argues that in order to remain a company with good virtues, the solution is to remove the incentive to maximize profits. Sharetribe went for something which is known as steward-ownership. This change, in a nutshell, ensures that all money that goes to investors will be capped to a certain limit and all the profit a company makes is just a way to achieve the social mission. The power to make decisions remains in the hands of the people who work at the company simply to ensure that a company works to serve the people and not the other way around. With this, a company will make just enough money to get by and invest in resources that improve the product, nothing more, nothing less.
Sharetribe exemplifies what a company is capable of achieving when they don’t let anything come in the way of catalyzing a social impact. It has enabled hundreds of successful marketplaces that are thriving on a platform built specifically to enable exactly that. Studiotime is one such marketplace that was built in, believe it or not, one evening. Mike Williams, the owner of Studiotime decided to build a fully-functional prototype of a marketplace which he called ‘Airbnb for music studios’. The idea was to allow musicians to rent out studios for some time. Within hours, 1000s of users signed up for this.
You can also check out all the marketplaces powered by Sharetribe and filter it as per platform, type, and Location.
If you’ve been really paying attention, you would’ve realized that Sharetribe does so much for communities even from afar. Building marketplaces and managing them becomes tenfold easier with Sharetribe which means you can spend your time taking care of your community. Sharetribe offers every tool you would need to work an end-to-end functional marketplace, without having to look elsewhere.
Sharetribe offers a community with almost 1500 Flex developers who discuss building custom marketplaces and help each other get better at it. All new releases, updates, and development processes are shared with the community.
Sharetribe offers its guide to building a marketplace. It’s a well-detailed guide spanning the expertise of decades of experience and practical implementations. Check out interviews, success stories, and helpful anecdotes from the people who’ve done it all when it comes to building marketplaces.
The guide takes you through the fundamentals of building marketplaces from starting, to establishing a business model, marketing & growth, and even technologies to use in order to build a minimum viable product.
Fun fact: Juho Makkonen is a published author and has written the book ‘The Lean Marketplace: A Practical Guide to Building a Successful Online Marketplace Business’ which also went on to become the New York times bestseller. The book has been inspired by the success of platforms like Airbnb, Etsy, and Uber. You can get it on Amazon too!
The Backstage is a video series where Sharetribe interviews the top marketplace experts, leaders, founders, and investors.
In their latest interview, they talk to Josh Breinlinger, who is an investor and a partner at Jackson square ventures. He talks about how B2B marketplaces are turning heads and there’s a massive opportunity to make tremendous revenue from these marketplaces that have fairly been overlooked in this era. Check out the whole interview 👇
Two-sided is a marketplace podcast where you get to hear stories from people who kickstarted their marketplace journey, the lessons they learned along the way, and how they grew it to success over time.
The first season features brilliant entrepreneurs who now have thriving businesses built on Sharetribe. One such example is Bryan Clayton, who went from mowing lawns to starting Greenpal which is a marketplace for lawn care services. In the podcast, he talks about some of his ideologies that made him successful and why you should use the ‘nail it before you scale it’ metric in scaling a business.
For Sharetribe Flex, there is a public roadmap that details all the features they’ve recently worked on, things they’re working on, and the plans they have for the foreseeable future. With a public eye on their roadmap, Sharetribe enables a people-driven approach to make their platform better.
Sharetribe offers detailed documentation for people to work with Sharetribe Flex and build a custom marketplace from scratch. Tutorials, templates, API documentation - everything you need to build a marketplace with Flex, all systematically orchestrated in one place. For free.
Not everyone who builds a marketplace with Sharetribe Flex knows how to do it, so thousands of founders and marketplace builders come to the platform looking for experienced developers who can build them a business that is uniquely theirs. Sharetribe offers you a platform to connect to either reliable agencies around the world or individual developers along with the pricing for you to pick the one that best suits your business needs.
Just like how Sharetribe has a platform for people to find the right talent, there’s also a way for you to be one of those talents. Sign up to become a Flex partner at Sharetribe and help budding business owners and founders build a marketplace with Sharetribe Flex.
Building a marketplace yourself? Facing small speed bumps along the way? No problem. Sharetribe has a Help Center where you can get advice and answers from the Sharetribe team. There are hundreds of articles with questions and answers along with video tutorials to point you in the right direction. Just search and you shall receive.
There is one thing that Sharetribe does better than most people out there - understanding social responsibility and not letting success cloud your judgment. It’s rare to find organizations that are still going strong with the mission statement they set out to achieve and not only that but have further perfected their existence over the years. Sharetribe is the epitome of how technology can be leveraged to solve social issues and the steward-ownership initiative speaks for itself.
As far as the community is concerned, Sharetribe goes above and beyond to give their community the right nudge in the right direction. In their attempt to be a significant part of the marketplace revolution, they are bearing the torch that gives entrepreneurs not just hope, but the light that guides the road.
Created with coffee and tea in Helsinki
Putting their money where their mouth is
Be the change you want to see
Helping people build better marketplaces
The art of being a company
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