Multi-sided marketplaces are big business these days. These platforms host a wealth of different services and give consumers the freedom to choose while offering service providers a new way to find clients.
It’s an industry that Bryan Clayton knows very well, as he is the founder of GreenPal, a landscaping marketplace that was built through years of hard work and persistence.
The following guide and video outline Clayton’s journey and detail all of the tips and tricks that he used to get to where he is today.
You’ll find a 60-minute video and more than 5,000 words of content. Here is a quick taster of what’s to come:
- The Chicken and the Egg: When you’re building a multi-sided marketplace, you need service providers before you can get customers, but if you don’t have customers, why would a service provider join? It’s a scenario that has stumped many aspiring founders, but Clayton has the solution. He has been there, done that, and has the platform to prove it. In the guide below, he outlines his strategy for growing a marketplace from scratch and attracting service providers when you don’t have customers.
- How to Grow Your Brand: Once you have created the marketplace, you need to attract customers and grow your brand. One of the tricks used by many marketing experts is to create pieces of pillar content that you turn into smaller guides. For instance, you can create a 60-minute video that you chop into multiple video sections before getting it transcribed and turned into a blog. If you know how to write and film content, you have all that you need. If not, you can hire a writer and/or editor to help you out and ensure your content is polished.
- Do You Need Funding? Many entrepreneurs look for venture capital funding as soon as they create their business plan, but Clayton recommends going your own way. If you bootstrap your own business, you’ll be more committed to making it work and to investing your money wisely. There will be fewer mistakes and your business could benefit as a result.
- Find a Co-Founder: It’s important to find a good co-founder, one who will work as hard as you do and will invest their time and money into your business. You also need someone who will challenge you and won’t just agree to everything that you say. That’s how the best ideas are born.
- How to Build a Marketplace: Bryan Clayton went to great lengths to create his own multi-sided marketplace. He actually programmed it along with his co-founders, which meant going back to basics and learning how to program. If you have the skills already, you can start building the platform. If not, you can swap those skills for money and pay a freelancer to do the work for you.
And that’s just a snippet of what’s to come!
Make sure you read to the end of this guide, where you will find a strategy that could generate over 6-figures in value for your business.
Bryan Clayton built one of the largest landscaping companies in the state of Tennessee, growing from a small side-hustle into something that eventually generated over $10 million in revenue before it was sold.
It was a business born from hard work and persistence, and he took those traits with him into GreenPal, a project he founded with two others and one he lightheartedly describes as an “8-year overnight success.”
I spoke with Clayton during the first This Week With Sabir episode of 2021 and was able to glean some insights from his many years in charge of one of the biggest landscaping online marketplaces in the United States. We discussed the challenges of creating mobile apps and running online marketplaces, and he provided several tips related to the same.
You can watch the full video below. Over the next 5,000 words or so, I will be taking a deeper dive, explaining, elaborating, and providing insights for people looking to start their own mobile apps and/or online marketplaces.
Bryan Clayton On Starting Multi-Sided Marketplaces
I have been involved with e-commerce for several decades. I was there in the early days, and I have built multiple brands, helped countless entrepreneurs, and discovered a lot of secrets over the years.
Despite analyzing hundreds of businesses and encountering thousands of entrepreneurs, I can count on one hand the number of people who have become overnight successes off the back of a good idea.
If you watch my videos or any other e-commerce/financial channels on YouTube, you’re probably going to be served ads from young entrepreneurs who claim to have made millions with “one simple trick.”
They spread the idea that an entrepreneurial spirit and an “amazing secret” is all you need to become a millionaire, and if you work hard enough, you’ll get there before your 21st birthday.
It’s nonsense. It takes a lot of time and effort to reach those heights and Bryan Clayton is a perfect example of this. Even after selling his first business and making a lot of money, he didn’t simply throw 6-figures at his new project and hope for the same.
He understood the importance of building from the ground-up and realized that it would produce a more efficient and more profitable business in the long run.
His attitude persisted even after the first version of the app failed. The founders went back to the drawing board, learned basic coding and frontend software skills, and spent the next few years mastering their craft.
Now, that’s commitment.
Once the business was ready, they went door-to-door to generate interest and to get consumers to test the app.
It failed again, but they learned that people were desperate for it to work. Consumers wanted an app that did what GreenPal’s app promised to do, and that motivated them to continue. After many years, the app was finalized, the job was done, and the business began to grow, but there was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get to that point.
In the sections below, we’ll look at some of the tips that Bryan provided and some of the strategies that he used for his own business. But I wanted to begin with this story to stress the point that creating a business, especially a tech business, is not easy.
Just because the news headlines seem to be filled with tech entrepreneurs making a mint, doesn’t mean you can throw something together overnight and then earn your first million within a few weeks.
As Bryan mentioned several times during our interview, online marketplaces like GreenPal don’t come quickly or easily and if you’re not willing to spend years in research and development, it might not be the right industry for you.
The Chicken And The Egg
It’s often assumed that these multi-sided marketplaces are only built by established, big-budget brands who have the means to go all-out from day one.
After all, how do you attract a sustainable number of customers to your online marketplace, if there are no sellers/providers?
It’s something that Clayton discussed as it’s something that he tackled himself. He wasn’t using existing infrastructure and couldn’t fall back on a massive database of gardeners.
To get around the issue, he spoke with the gardeners directly and essentially made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.
He told them that his platform could potentially help them to acquire new customers and was transparent with regard to its current status. He didn’t label it as something it wasn’t. He didn’t make guarantees. He told them that GreenPal had big plans for the business and if they got in on the ground floor, they might see an uptick in requests from customers in the local area.
If you contact service providers and remind them that they have nothing to lose, most of them will be willing to add their names to the list.
There is a caveat, though.
Clayton’s initial approach was to send them a form that they needed to fill in before being added to the database. He soon learned that regardless of how enthusiastic they seemed initially, they were reluctant to click the link and enter their details. It’s one of those things that just gets added to a half-hearted “to-do list” and eventually slips out of existence.
Imagine that someone calls you and asks you if you’d be willing to complete a survey on behalf of a business you just purchased from. If they are friendly, you may agree, but if they insist on sending the survey by mail or email, that willingness will have disappeared by the time it lands in your inbox.
That’s why Clayton began conducting the process during that initial phone call. If they agreed to be added to the database, he would take their information over the call and add them.
They couldn’t ignore it; it wasn’t taking much of their time, and he got what he wanted.
If you want businesses and service providers on your database, just ask. If you’re genuinely offering them something beneficial, and you’re not charging them for the service, they’ll be willing. Just make sure you treat their willingness like a used car salesman treats a customer—don’t let them go until they sign on the dotted line!
Clayton went one step further by offering free coaching in exchange for being added to the app and making a commitment to stay with the service.
He was established in the local area, people knew who he was and what he could do, and so they were happy to make the deal. As a result, he was able to create a foundation of willing, hard-working landscapers to push the app forward.
Once you get the ball rolling in this manner, word will spread, people will discover just how effective the app is and, eventually, they will come to you.
It’s important to adopt this personal and direct approach as opposed to simply sending out mass emails. It doesn’t matter how unique you are or how great your message is, those emails aren’t being read.
I recently spoke with a small business owner who was looking to hire a couple of staff members and needed some assistance. For the first few months, they had been managing everything themselves, but it was becoming too much for them to handle and so they wanted a little help.
I advised them on the ways they could acquire low-cost and highly efficient part-time staff members (as discussed in my Guide to Launching a Business in 2021) and, as part of this process, we had to break down their existing emails.
They told me that they get around half a dozen daily “where’s my order” emails, a few product-specific requests, 1 or 2 wholesale requests, and some infrequent order problems. Just as I was about to inform them that this modest number could be handled in around 2 hours, they dropped the bombshell:
“We also get 30 to 50 agency emails.”
It’s something that all businesses can relate to, because if you’re not being sold SEO services, web design services, product packaging, and countless other nonsense (I know of a beverage company that gets 20+ emails a week from drone manufacturers) then are you even a business?
Companies and professionals post their details online to drum-up trade, and those details are trawled by spammers, added to databases, and then hassled day and night. If you’re sending emails to attract business, those emails will get lost in the maelstrom and you won’t get the responses you’re anticipating.
Not only will a personal and direct approach greatly improve your results, but it’ll teach you more about your business and the people you’ll be relying upon.
Whether you’re making mistakes that teach you valuable lessons or discovering that you made incorrect assumptions (something that Paul Butler believes is the downfall of many businesses and professionals), this long and grueling process will ultimately improve your approach.
That doesn’t mean you need to literally knock on their doors, but at the very least you should be calling them or going to events and shows where you can speak with them.
How To Get Customers
The other side of multi-sided marketplaces is the customers. Once you have the supply, then you need the demand, and this is something that Clayton initially struggled with when establishing GreenPal.
He admits that he tried everything, from TV commercials to radio adverts. None of these things worked and none of them had the scalability that the business needed.
To understand what would work best, they asked their customers.
It’s a step that many businesses overlook, but one that will ultimately give you the answers you need. If you’re not sure which platform is best suited for your businesses’ needs, simply ask your customers how they usually shop for that particular service.
In GreenPal’s case, they found that customers initially turned to friends and family for their landscaping needs.
It’s a referral-based business, and just like handymen, roofers, and plumbers, when you’re in need of help you ask your nearest and dearest what worked for them.
When this fails, most customers turn to Google.
GreenPal didn’t have an SEO strategy in place at the time and they were worried about going up against the biggest B2C and B2B landscaping services, so they began by focusing on their local market.
As noted by SEO expert Neil Patel, local SEO is not only incredibly powerful, but it’s also relatively easy. You’re not going up against millions of capital-rich businesses and SEO bloggers; at best, you might have a couple of businesses that haven’t really optimized and don’t know what they’re doing.
It still takes time to build effective SEO, but if utilized effectively you should start seeing some results within a few months. Until then, you can always rely on Google Ads to generate a little business.
Once the SEO is up and running and people start using your business, you will acquire a customer base and will then become the one that everyone recommends. After all, if you’re the first result that locals see when they search for “landscaping services” on Google, it’s a matter of time before everyone is using you and recommending you, at which point you can repeat that strategy to extend beyond the local area.
An Example SEO Strategy For Online Marketplaces
You can learn more about SEO strategies by reading my guide to SEO with Neil Patel, but as we’re talking about a very specific niche in a very localized setting, let’s take a quick look at some of the things you can do.
If you’re targeting landscaping services in Small Town, PA, you may begin with the following:
4 Pieces Of Pillar Content
Guides of at least 2,500 words that include images and embedded videos. These guides can cover subjects such as “Tips for Hiring a Landscaper” and “How to Maintain Your Lawn on a Budget”.
The goal is to provide valuable content and not to sell a service, so it doesn’t matter if you’re giving tips on how to perform these services without the need for a landscaper. As long as you’re not referring them to your competitors, it’s not a problem.
One of the guides should also be area-specific, such as “How to Find the Best Landscaping Services in Small Town, PA”.
Your pillar content is important and should be linked to throughout your website.
Publish 1 blog post of 800+ words at least once a week. It can touch on similar topics as your pillar content, but it can afford to be a little more topical and doesn’t need to be linked extensively throughout your site.
The goal of this content is to establish relevancy and to direct links to your main service pages and your guides.
The topics should always be relevant to landscaping, but they don’t need to be hyper-specific. For instance, you could write about the best lawnmowers or gardening tools.
Don’t overlook the power of images. Not only can they help to push you up the rankings, but a lot of writers and editors link to images so that they don’t have to host them.
Image tags are also easy to manipulate. That doesn’t mean that you can stuff them with keywords, but it means you can use phrases that are keyword-heavy. For instance, in a guide titled, “How to Find the Best Landscaping Services in Small Town, PA” you might add the following to an image alt tag:
A guide on how to find the best landscaping, gardening, and lawn care services in Small Town, PA.
Add a title, throw in a caption, and make sure the image is unique, and you have a winning combination!
You’re going to need links from relevant websites. These are not easy to acquire and Google frowns upon websites that purchase links or use spammy tactics. It can also be harder to acquire these links when you’re a service/product website, as opposed to a content site.
The good news is that these links will come in time. Just make sure that you post your guides and blogs on social media and that you push them to the community as much as you can. Eventually, people will start linking to you.
There is a general consensus that all good backlinks need to be purchased, which creates somewhat of a Catch-22 for SEO writers. But it’s nonsense. The goal of a good SEO writer is to provide a valuable article and that often means referencing other useful articles. If your content is well-written, they will link to it and you’ll score points with Google.
Do You Need Venture Capital Backing?
Many entrepreneurs give up at the first hurdle because they can’t get any investors interested in their idea, but GreenPal didn’t use outside investment and if you have a good idea and the drive to make it work, you don’t need it either.
What you lack in capital you can make up for in persistence.
In fact, big investments often have the opposite effect and cause the business to lose millions as they take bigger risks, try to make an immediate impact, and constantly worry about pleasing their investors.
Necessity is the mother of invention. If you bootstrap your business, you’re forced to fine-tune your focus and keep an eye on the bottom line. You can’t take big risks and make potentially costly decisions, and so you work your way to the top and learn valuable lessons on the way.
If you have $5m in the bank, you can afford to be sloppy, hiring a head of PR before you’re ready for launch, hiring a full-time social media marketer even though social media’s not right for you, etc.,
It’s a point that Bryan Clayton stressed during our interview and if you’ve been through the process of launching a business for the first time, you’ll understand where he’s coming from.
The general idea that you have in your head when the business is being pitched, is vastly different from how the business looks when it launches. You make incorrect assumptions, misrepresent the market or your ability, and are ultimately taken down a different path.
If you’re bootstrapping the business, you can do this slowly and cheaply. If you have a big investor behind you, you end up blowing millions before getting there.
As an example, I know of a small business that initially founded with the idea that they would buy both their products and packaging in bulk, with the former coming from Mexico and the latter from China.
They wanted to acquire vast quantities of all their products (about 15 in total) and keep them on the premises because that way they could keep their margins high.
They soon realized that they didn’t have the funds to meet the minimum order quantities, and so they reduced their range to just 6 and only 1 of those products was acquired in bulk, with the rest supplied in small quantities from local providers.
They soon learned that 5 of those products were not a good fit for the company and simply didn’t sell. The stock of just a few hundred perished after a year, and they realized that if they had gone with their original idea, they would have lost $100,000 in unsold stock.
What’s more, they soon encountered storage issues and while they made it work, they would have had to acquire an additional location if they had gone with the original plan.
Imagine paying $1,500 a month to store $100,000 worth of stock, only for it to gather dust, perish, and be written off.
That’s what would have happened if they had the funding, but they didn’t, and so they began slow, learned the market, and pivoted without suffering major losses.
And I’m talking about founders that did their research and had experience in the sector.
The truth is, no matter how knowledgeable you think you are, you will always make mistakes. As a bootstrapped business, you tackle those mistakes with hard-work. As a funded business, you’re more inclined to throw money at them.
That’s not to say that all investment is bad, far from it. The problem is that major tech firms are often given huge sums of money at a very early stage. They don’t really know what to do with it and so they often start throwing it around.
They often give it to Facebook and Google to pepper their target demographic with ads or hire people they don’t need.
As Bryan noted during our interview, venture capitalists often reward this behavior. They want to see an immediate return. They want to see those sales figures climb, and so they encourage big investments in paid advertising when a slower organic approach might be more beneficial.
Choosing The Right Co-Founder
If you can go it alone, then you should, as it can be difficult to find the perfect co-founder and if you make a bad decision in this area, you could pay for it later.
You don’t want a co-founder who isn’t as invested as you. It creates an imbalance and often leads to arguments and resentment. You also don’t want a “yes man” whose only goal is to validate your ideas and wait for the checks to roll in.
You want someone who knows as much, works as hard, and will invest as much time and cash. You need to get along with them, as you will be spending more time with them than your wife/husband, but there also needs to be a certain level of individualism, otherwise, you just end up validating one another.
Who Uses Multi-Sided Marketplaces?
Understanding who will use your platform is key and it’s something I asked Bryan to speak about. I noted that many Uber drivers are students looking to earn some extra cash, but that there has also been an influx of retirees seeking to fill their time.
But it’s a different story with landscaping and this stresses the importance of researching into the demographic and not making assumptions based on other businesses.
Uber drivers come and go because they just need a car and a license, and that’s a demographic that covers 93% of households in the United States. In the landscaping business, you need to have the skills and equipment. You don’t learn the basics in a few hours and you definitely don’t buy the equipment on a whim.
It differs from industry to industry but generally, the service providers on these online marketplaces are either full-time professionals or individuals looking to make some extra cash on a consistent basis. In both cases, they work hard and strive to do a good job.
On the customer side of things, most users are average homeowners who want a quick, effective, trusted, and affordable service.
They don’t want to hire the local landscaping firm that typically deals with businesses and shows up with half a dozen landscapers. They want individuals who work hard, charge less, and display a similar level of commitment.
These services are also used by businesses, but they only account for a very small percentage of the users. B2B is a very different world to B2C and it’s something that you will discover pretty quickly when dealing with businesses.
If we use landscaping as an example, the needs of a business may be similar to the needs of a homeowner. After all, they both have lawns and they don’t want to do the work themselves or rely on a full-time contractor.
However, while a homeowner doesn’t think twice about paying a few bucks here and there to a contractor, it’s a different story for a business.
They have strict invoicing policies and may have other servicing and financial requirements that just aren’t suitable for online marketplaces.
As an example, I know of many entrepreneurs who use freelancing websites to acquire short-term contractors (writers, designers, developers). They assign the work, pay the money, and go on their way. It’s a simple B2C relationship mediated by an online marketplace and a service like PayPal, and it works for sole traders and self-employed individuals.
However, businesses require monthly invoicing and detailed reports, and can’t adopt the sort of sporadic invoicing required by these platforms.
For this reason, it can be very difficult to incorporate B2B and B2C and while you don’t necessarily have to pick a side and stick with it, you do need to understand these challenges and try to accommodate them.
Tips For Starting Your Own Online Marketplace
Toward the end of our discussion, I asked Bryan what advice he would give to someone who runs a service-based business and is looking to start their own mobile app.
The first thing that Bryan said was that you need to really love what you’re doing and have a passion for it. GreenPal required many years of development to reach the point it’s at today, and while your business might not necessarily require the same time or effort, it’s certainly not going to be quick and easy.
If you don’t have a passion for that industry and you don’t have the patience to follow through, then you’re going to give up at the first sign of trouble.
You need to be obsessed about making it work and willing to invest the time.
Once you have that focus and commitment, the first step is to determine whether or not your intended service would work through a mobile app.
An online marketplace might be okay for landscaping, and it might also work for junk removal, pressure washing, laundry, and many other necessary services, but that doesn’t mean it’s suited to every industry and service.
And even if it is, there may already be something out there.
Local services work best because national/global ones are already out there. For instance, you may struggle to find an app for laundry services in your town, but you’ll find multiple apps for writing, designing, developing, and other services that can be conducted remotely.
Once he had the idea, Bryan Clayton’s process was to learn how to code, something that took several years. You could follow in his footsteps, but you could also pay someone else to code the app for you.
You have to relinquish control and it won’t come cheap, but this is one of those areas where capital investment can be put to good use, whether that investment is coming from friends, family members, outside investors, or your own savings.
If you have the money to pay for that service, it makes sense. Just don’t expect it to happen cheaply, because you’re paying for a highly-skilled service and for someone who will invest dozens (if not hundreds) of hours into the job.
It still helps to know something about coding and tech. You don’t necessarily need to be the one doing all of the work, but you should have a fairly good idea of how it operates and how to fix issues.
If you’re sitting in a board meeting and nothing you hear makes sense to you, then something’s wrong. And that’s where tech differs from everything else.
You don’t need to be a web developer to run an e-commerce site, because there are so many other elements going into that equation. But in the tech industry that app and that code is the foundation of your business and if all you think about when you hear “Python” and “Ruby” are snakes and gems, then it’s time to reach for that guide and learn the basics!
It also helps if you can provide the service that you’re selling. Not only does it mean you have an intimate knowledge of the industry and its requirements, but you can step in during the early days and perform that service.
Business founders are very naive when it comes to this. They’ll convince themselves that they have what it takes because they have seen others do it or they have some indirect experience of the industry.
A couple of years ago, a friend of mine wanted to open a restaurant in a very quiet part of town. She didn’t have a lot of money or business experience; she couldn’t cook, had never served, and her proof of concept could be boiled down to one phrase:
“There are two other restaurants in town, and they are doing really well.”
When I pushed her on that, I discovered that “really well” meant they had a lot of customers whenever she visited, and as I dug some more, I found that she only ever went to these restaurants during the weekend.
If she had worked in the industry, she would have known how difficult it is to run a restaurant and would have understood that a full house on Saturday means nothing if you can’t maintain it the rest of the week.
Thankfully, she didn’t invest, and within a year, both of those locations had closed down.
It’s often said that the vast majority of start-ups fail, and this is especially true for the technology sector. But it’s also true that a huge number of founders have the same attitude as my friend. It’s a “well, I’m sure there’s a market out there, so it must work” attitude and it’s massively flawed.
If you don’t have any experience in your chosen sector and know nothing about coding, then you need to rethink your strategy and start looking elsewhere.
Social Media For Online Marketplaces
Bryan stressed the importance of SEO and organic Google traffic, but what about social media?
With multi-sided marketplaces, social media becomes a reflection of your business. It’s social proof, and the goal is not necessarily to drive ads through endless marketing campaigns but to make sure that your social media profiles reflect how you want your business to look.
Send customers there to leave reviews; post about positive experiences. Give your prospective customers the social proof that they seek.
They’re going to stumble across your pages when they search for “COMPANY reviews” and “Does COMPANY work?”, and if all they see is negative comments and bad reviews, then they’re going to look elsewhere. If they see positive experiences, you’ve just secured a new customer.
This is not really something that Facebook Ads can help with, but once you have that reputation, you can start using the platform to drive additional traffic and see if it works for you.
The $100,000 Question
Bryan provided a lot of valuable insights during our 60-minute discussion, but I couldn’t let him go without asking the $100,000 question, the single piece of advice that he would give to others trying to follow in his footsteps.
Bryan’s advice was: think small but be ambitious.
What this means is that you should always aim high while operating within your means. For instance, there’s no harm in setting your sights on running a marathon, but that doesn’t mean that you can go from being a couch potato to an endurance athlete in one leap.
You first need to get off the couch, get your fitness levels up, do a little running, complete a half marathon, and keep going through the motions until you’re able to meet that lofty goal.
Think of it as a video game.
When you begin an epic quest on a new fantasy RPG, you’re very limited with regard to where you can go and what you can do. If you grab your level 1 armor, equip your sword, and go straight for the final-level dragon, you’re going to be annihilated.
But if you work your way through the levels, becoming stronger, faster, and better equipped, when you eventually reach the final level, you’ll be able to slay the dragon with ease.
In the context of an online marketplace, this means beginning with your local area—a street, a village, a town. Once you have established yourself, you can increase your reach.
If you keep ticking off those goals, gaining experience, and growing your business, you’ll eventually be ready for state-wide and even nationwide expansion.
This is essentially what GreenPal has done and it’s a business strategy that has also been utilized by countless other service-based businesses in the past.