As an investor I'm constantly asked where I am spending my time and what new sectors are alluring to me. One adage that I have followed with respect to consumer marketplaces has been the following: "consumers want the answer". I believe that this is an investment theme that I can follow for the next 10-15 years. Let's take a quick look at the evolution of consumer marketplaces and try to predict where things are headed:
1.0 - Offline Listings
Enter YellowPages. Before there were any websites or mobile apps to get things done, we had fat, local directories printed out and left at our doorstep. Consumers were just given the names of businesses and then had to do the rest of the work themselves. This was also the first concept of "SEO" in that local listings were alphabetized, which is why many local businesses opted to name their businesses starting with an "A".
2.0 - Online Listings
Enter Craigslist. All of the offline local listings from the YellowPages were put online. The listings often had images, were fresher, more descriptive and had some basic categorization. Still, the consumer had to do all the leg work of finding a local service, figuring out if it was reputable, calling them, scheduling, paying, etc. Liquidity was the game here and consumers were happy to go to a bare bones site like Craigslist since it was guaranteed to have the most listings. In fact, many people today still search for apartment rentals on Craigslist!
3.0 - Listings + Reviews
Enter vertical marketplaces. Businesses like Zillow, OpenTable and GrubHub starting picking off particular verticals from Craigslist and making them far superior in almost every way. Take the listings that you had on Craigslist, wrap a far better user interface around it, and then add reviews. Consumers were then able to not only see the full catalog of listings, but they could also get some indication of trust and reliability. Still, it was up to the consumer to consummate the transaction, e.g. contact the business, schedule the service and figure out payment. These marketplaces can simply sit back and collect a fee on any services rendered or charge advertising fees to local businesses on the platform. These weren't necessarily "magical" consumer experiences but they were valuable services that were highly profitable for the market makers involved.
4.0 - On-demand Economy
Uber for X. Taking things one step further, on-demand businesses started handling every aspect of a service end-to-end. Uber is the most obvious example of this, offering a "wow" experience for consumers who simply tap a button on their phone and a quality, trusted service is rendered. Rather than having to wade through a sea of listings and reviews, companies like Uber hide everything on the back-end and just provide "the answer" for consumers. This means handling sourcing of providers, background checks, pricing, availability/scheduling, delivering service, and handling payment. The positive is that these companies can control the entire consumer experience from end-to-end, and if done right, can grow quite virally. The downside is that they are operationally complex and less profitable than the 3.0 businesses.
This brings us to present day. Let's take a look towards the future and see if we can make some predictions about how consumer services will continue to evolve:
5.0 - Services on top of Services
Concierge services. We're already seeing the emergence of this with services like Magic, Operator and Alfred. The premise is that consumers no longer even have to take the time to figure out what they want or which app to use. Its essentially an expert concierge at your fingertips, similar to chatting with a knowledgeable in-store employee. It's semantic messaging + commerce. This is not just relegated to just start-ups, Facebook recently announced a big initiative to expand tie-ins with local businesses, making "commerce more conversational". Tencent's WeChat has also seen a ton of success integrating all sorts of local services directly into their messaging app.
6.0 - Internet of Things + Subscription
Automate everything. We may eventually move away from transactional marketplaces and move to a sensor-based subscription model (I need to credit my colleague Tomasz Tunguz who I initially heard about this from). Imagine a device attached to your car's OBD port that automatically sends someone to pump fuel when your tank gets low, or a Roomba that knows when your house needs to be cleaned based on the accumulation of dust. Further still, imagine sensors in your kitchen that detect when certain groceries need to be replenished (Amazon is already starting to move into this direction with their Dash product). As more and more sensors are integrated into our daily lives, there will be more opportunities to streamline consumer services behind the scenes.
7.0 - ?
Now we're really entering the realm of sci-fi. Will we see local services tied into artifical intelligence, robotics or virtual reality? Will the sharing economy become so fluid that no one actually owns anything permanently? Readers, what do you think?