beyond the tip of the iceberg

Typically only one-tenth of the volume of an iceberg is above water. The shape of the underwater portion can be difficult to judge by looking at the portion above the surface. This has led to the expression "tip of the iceberg", for a problem or difficulty that is only a small manifestation of a larger problem.

One of my colleagues at Redpoint, Mahesh Vellanki, recently posted a great article on key elements of good consumer marketplaces. In addition to these things, I think great marketplace companies build great products that solve the problems below the surface.

The consumers of on-demand startups usually use only the consumer-facing app. Unless they are part of the supply chain or work at the company, people aren't aware of the products that serve the supply side or the ones that employees use to manage the company. However, these products are equally, if not more important, because they connect all the actors in the marketplace and drive all the vectors of the company. 

Building great supply side and marketplace products face a number of challenges, including:

  • lack of good product and design patterns
    • Unlike consumer apps, these products aren't easily downloadable. You might need paid accounts to sign up, and people generally aren't posting screenshots of these products on the internet. Also, if these are internal products for employees, they contain sensitive information and would need to be thoroughly scrubbed before someone could even consider posting them. Fundamentally though, these products are a competitive advantage for the business so sharing them broadly isn't what companies are likely to encourage. 
  • lack of user knowledge
    • A key part of being a good PM is walking a mile in the user's shoes. It's hard to be a true test user of these products and their flows without immersing yourself in the role for some period of time. Given the demands and constraints of a PM's time, making the time to do this, critical as it is, often gets pushed to the wayside. As a result, the people developing these products don't always have the strongest understanding of how these products can be most effectively used.
  • catering to all levels of expertise
    • These products have users who are just starting out and must quickly get up to speed (first day on the supply side, first day as a new employee) as well as extremely experienced users who have been on the system for years. Intelligent products will understand the level of experience of the user and adapt themselves appropriately, using wizard interfaces and quick templates or advanced controls depending on the person. In creating these products, the PMs and designers need to have a deep understanding of what tasks need to be accomplished and how much guidance needs to be provided by the product to finish those tasks quickly and accurately.

Despite these challenges, great marketplace companies have built great products behind the scenes. So, when looking at marketplace companies that aim to scale big, it's critical to look at the products beyond the tip of the iceberg. Because even the sexiest consumer mobile app in the world can't make up for a disorganized supply chain and chaotic operations.