I love digital marketplace businesses! If you track my career in my two plus decades in Silicon Valley, you’ll see a lot of them. I’ve been an operator and/or investor in the A to Z of marketplace companies across time and place — from Airbnb, Belong, and Cadre to eBay, Incredible Health, Instacart, Neighbor, OpenTable, Rappi, Wonderschool, and others — so I have had a lot of time to think about what I love (and don’t!) about this category.
Here are a few of the reasons I like marketplace business:
- They can create magical value propositions for their users, be they two-sided (e.g., eBay connecting buyers to sellers) or three-sided networks (e.g., Instacart connecting shoppers to grocery stores and picking/delivery gig workers). If you’re looking for a hard-to-find item like a Playstation 5, check eBay (the seller will appreciate it). If you want groceries delivered to your home on demand in a very cost efficient manner, open the Instacart app (both the grocery store and the gig worker will appreciate it).
- They can provide economic empowerment at massive scale. eBay currently has annualized GMV of $100B globally, and AirBnB has annualized gross bookings of $41B globally. The strong majority of both figures end up being paid out to their community of sellers and hosts, respectively, helping millions of individuals around the world earn a better living.
- If they work, they tend to develop network effects. The more restaurants OpenTable added, the more valuable they became to consumers. And the more consumers used OpenTable, the easier it was to attract restaurants. These network effects drive increasing returns to scale and create defensibility barriers for the business.
Another theme that has echoed throughout my career is food. I put myself through school by cooking in restaurants, and I ended up getting pretty good at it — I am an “award-winning chef” (I was brunch chef at the “Best Brunch in Philadelphia” as voted by Philadelphia magazine). And the resulting detailed understanding of the dynamics in the restaurant business is one of the key reasons OpenTable was interested in me leading the company.
Marketplace meets food
A few months back, Shef, which aspires to be a marketplace for authentic meals from local ‘shefs’, knocked on our (now virtual) doors. They enable cooks who are fluent in any of a broad selection of different cuisines to earn money doing the cooking they love. And consumers get authentic ‘home-cooked’ meals from experts in their respective cuisine. It was love at first sight (or more fittingly, “bite”).
It also intrigued us from a business perspective:
- Shef creates a magical value prop for consumers. It enables individuals to order from shefs who specialize in a very wide variety of cuisines and get it delivered to your front door. It’s like traveling the world on a food tour without needing to leave your home.
- Shef generates meaningful income for the cooks on their platform. Many of these shefs are immigrants, and many are women. Shef offers them meaningful economic empowerment doing the thing that they love.
- Shef should become more valuable as more people use it, the definition of a network effect. Diners will value having more shefs on the platform, as it affords them more choice on cuisine types and dishes within each cuisine. Shefs will value having more diners on the platform, as it increases their potential earnings.
At the time we invested, Shef was operating only in San Francisco and New York. They continue to expand their service in these cities, but have also started expanding into new markets including Seattle, Chicago, Houston, and Boston. Every market is showing a robust appetite for Shef!
The Shef team has the perfect background to chase this opportunity. Cofounder Joey Grassia founded two different food-related companies prior to Shef — KUTOA Health and Steamm. And cofounder Alvin Salehi is an attorney who worked as a White House technology advisor in the Obama administration and founded Code.gov. The combination of food operations and legal/regulatory expertises strikes us as exactly the right combination to chase this opportunity.
So, if you’re fortunate enough to reside in a city that Shef currently serves, give it a try. In addition to receiving high quality, authentic and affordable meals, you’ll be helping to economically empower members of your community who are exercising their unique craft!
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