B2B marketplace: requirements, opportunities, and challenges

The B2B eCommerce market is massive. But unlike in B2C, where the marketplace model has spread across fields and industries, B2B is still largely blue ocean for marketplaces. Marketplaces entering the B2B sphere face challenges, but also phenomenal growth opportunities.

Author: Juho Makkonen
Mar 2, 2021
Juho Makkonen
CEO & Co-founder
Chapter 1

Introduction

B2B is an untapped marketplace opportunity.


The success of unicorns like Airbnb, Etsy, and Thumbtack has led to the adoption of the P2P/B2C marketplace model across fields and industries. B2B, however, has so far largely avoided the marketplace revolution.

This is despite the fact that B2B markets are massive. In 2019, the size of the global B2B eCommerce market was valued at US $12.2 trillion. That is over six times the size of the B2C eCommerce market.

One possible explanation for the disparity is that compared to B2C, marketplaces entering B2B face a number of industry-specific challenges and platform requirements. Especially the B2B transaction and order flows (which I’ll get into later in this post) tend to be decidedly more complex than what’s required on a B2C or a P2P marketplace.

Despite the challenges, many investors have brought up B2B as the biggest untapped opportunity for marketplaces (check out our interviews with Josh Breinlinger, Fabrice Grinda, Ben Narasin, James Currier, and Mathias Ockenfels for thought-provoking analyses).

In the following article, I’ll try to analyze the opportunities and challenges of B2B marketplaces and unpack the core requirements for building a successful B2B platform.

Chapter 2

B2B marketplace opportunities

Several factors contribute to the potential B2B has for marketplaces.


The size of the B2B eCommerce market alone makes it an interesting opportunity. But there are several more factors that contribute to its potential, specifically from the viewpoint of a marketplace entrepreneur or a business looking to enrich its offerings with a platform approach.

B2B transactions are high in value and frequency

It’s generally thought that the best opportunities for marketplaces are markets that have either high transaction values or high transaction frequencies. This has been the case for some of the B2C and C2C unicorns like Airbnb (high value) and Uber (high frequency).

Somewhat contrary to this belief, the a16z Marketplace 100 study by the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz found that successful marketplaces can operate with all kinds of combinations. Even in the inauspicious low-value, low-frequency space, a large number of B2C marketplaces have survived and thrived. 

There is one category, however, the authors of the study label “The Holy Grail”: the space with both high purchase frequency and high average order value. 

As the naming of the category suggests, this combination is difficult to find. Yet B2B marketplaces have tremendous potential to fall into the “Holy Grail” category. This is true for all B2B marketplace types: services such as freight, equipment or machinery rentals, or buying producer goods are often high-value transactions that happen on a recurring basis. 

B2B processes could be streamlined

Virtually any demand a private customer has can nowadays be solved at the click of a button. In B2B, much of the high-value, high-frequency transactions still happen through surprisingly antiquated technologies. Pen-and-paper, phone, fax, and Rolodex aren’t things of the past when large corporations transact.

There are good reasons behind why B2B operations happen the way they do. Stakes are high in valuable transactions so trust between parties is of the essence. Prices need to be negotiated, certifications and NDAs to be exchanged, and stages in the value chain may spread across multiple actors and geographic locations.

Despite their apparent necessity, these complicated processes can produce significant inefficiencies a marketplace model could help overcome. If a marketplace is able to solve the underlying requirements – trust, oversight, administrative requirements – while streamlining the steps, it can improve productivity in each step of the process. The possibility to offer efficiency – and convenience to the individuals responsible for these transactions – can make B2B marketplaces remarkably sticky and resistant to disintermediation.

B2B markets are fragmented

Marketplaces are great at aggregating products or services and making them easily accessible. Marketplaces thrive in markets inhabited by lots of small players instead of big, centralized actors. This is very often the case in B2B.

In B2B, it’s not uncommon that a market consists entirely of a big number of small suppliers who operate their business with a pen and paper without a proper online presence. Business is done through individual contacts or with the help of middlemen such as brokers, traders, or agencies.

Building a marketplace to a market with high fragmentation could make finding a B2B provider infinitely easier and bring transparency and efficiency to the transactions. A marketplace can offer a streamlined alternative to the middlemen or work with them to increase efficiency in all three sides of the market.

B2C and C2C marketplaces have paved the way

The result of the B2C marketplace revolution is that as private consumers, we’re getting very accustomed to solving all kinds of problems through eCommerce and platforms. We’re familiar with the typical marketplace UX, we’re used to online payments, we’re confident with common trust-building mechanisms like reviews and identity verification.

The change of habits in B2C spills over to B2B, making it easier for individuals to turn to powerful procurement platforms also when they’re making purchases as representatives of a business. The barrier to adopting new technologies is significantly lower today than it was at the early stages of the marketplace wave.

B2B is still blue ocean

Yet another clear difference between B2C and B2B. New customer-facing marketplaces tend to need to take on existing competitors and innovate on product to compete. B2B still has categories where no dominant marketplace solutions exist.

Finding a blue ocean gives the founding team a chance to focus on solving the chicken-and-egg-problem and achieving liquidity without having to battle an incumbent. As a result, the first mover gains the upper hand in building network effects and defensibility over time.

A marketplace can enrich a business’ offering

For existing companies, a move into marketplaces can present an efficient way to add to their core offering. A multi-sided marketplace platform mitigates many of the risks of traditional business expansion, as third-party suppliers add their own manufacturing or service capability, marketing, and customer acquisition networks to the mix.

A marketplace may also offer businesses a new way of building relationships with their customers and increasing loyalty. An ecosystem of third-party suppliers can serve versatile customer needs in different stages of their journey and quickly adapt to new developments in the market. 

In addition to these benefits, there are several reasons why the 2020s are a great time to build a B2B marketplace. I highly recommend this talk by James Currier at the latest Marketplace Conference, where he discusses these factors and gives away 24 tactics to make B2B marketplaces work.

Chapter 3

B2B marketplace challenges

The two core challenges for marketplaces entering a B2B market are mastering complex transactions and building trust.


Marketplaces – whether B2B, B2C, or P2P – are challenging businesses to build. 

For one, marketplaces are more trust-sensitive than traditional eCommerce. Transaction flows and payment processing on marketplaces are intrinsically more complex. User acquisition, user retention, and liquidity-building strategies are complicated by the fact that, more often than not, marketplace customers and suppliers are two distinct user groups with different needs.

In B2B, many of these challenges are amplified. Let’s look at two core challenges: transactions and trust.

Complex transactions

In the world of B2B, the process of placing an order is typically a lot more complex than in B2C and C2C. 

Sales cycles may be many times longer and involve a lengthy process from an RFP to negotiation, proposal, and contract. Several types of certifications, verifications, and NDA agreements may be needed. B2B suppliers may be used to working with cost estimates rather than exact quotes, so the customer side may want actual costs to be tracked, reported, and billed according to a Purchase Order. Organizations may also have specific requirements when it comes to payment types, billing, and credit terms.

The complexity of B2B transactions creates a two-fold challenge for an early-stage marketplace entrepreneur. First, understanding all the stages in the transaction flow and the reasoning behind them takes empathy and domain expertise. Second, bringing a complex transaction process to a platform and perfecting the UX demands sophisticated technology and exceptional product management.

At Sharetribe, our aim is to help founders solve this challenge. Our API-based marketplace solution offers a powerful, fully customizable transaction engine that lets developers easily build and modify complex transaction flows. You can read more about Sharetribe Flex here.

High-trust markets

B2B transactions can include relatively high risks for the responsible individual and the organization. While the large transaction value in B2B represents a tremendous opportunity for a marketplace, the high average order value also creates a higher need to trust the supplier and the platform. A failure to successfully purchase a critical service or item may delay entire projects, jeopardize stakeholder relationships, and put entire teams into difficult positions.

In B2B, trust between supply partners may have been built over several years, and deals often take place through deep-rooted relationships and invisible networks. To successfully move these relationships to the platform, a B2B marketplace entrepreneur must invest in long-term trust-building strategies. 

Chapter 4

B2B marketplace requirements

How to negotiate the challenges and leverage the potential of B2B with marketplace tech and tactics.


After looking at both the opportunities and challenges in B2B, let’s dive into what it takes from a marketplace to mitigate the risks and leverage the potential in B2B.

Supporting the transaction through each step

Facilitating payments is a core value proposition for a marketplace. Especially so in B2B, where a marketplace can offer a smooth, convenient process to replace countless steps of back-and-forth. Done right, seamless payment processing alone can significantly increase the stickiness of a B2B marketplace.

Owing the transaction is also a common strategy for a marketplace to monetize. Whenever a payment takes place, a marketplace charges a commission from the customers, the providers, or both. The benefit of the commission-based business model is that it creates no additional costs to either party before they’ve struck a deal, decreasing the barrier of entry. For B2B businesses, in particular, subscription-based revenue models are relatively common as well, especially if their offering includes powerful SaaS tools for one side of the marketplace (more on that later). 

The transaction process of a marketplace defines all the possible interactions between a customer and a provider. Do customers search for suppliers, or do providers reach out to the customers? Does a pre-booking take place, or do the parties begin with an RFP and a negotiation? Do verifications take place, are certifications exchanged, do contracts or NDAs get signed? How and when does a payment occur?

Technically, mastering these steps requires seamless interaction between a powerful transaction engine in the backend and an intuitive UX (and possibly a payment service provider). Compliance with regulatory guidelines regarding online payments and data protection need accounted for as well. 

The transaction process has the potential to unlock the biggest opportunities of the marketplace model. At the same time, it represents a marketplace’s biggest technical challenge. That’s why building a flexible, easily customizable transaction engine has been at the core developing Sharetribe Flex to be the most advanced marketplace software solution on the market. You can read more about the features Flex offers here.

Curating the supply & matching it with the demand

High-quality supply is of the essence on a B2B marketplace. Freightos CEO Ruthie Amau talks about this point at length in a recent Two-sided podcast episode, as does Kevin Lustig, founder of Scientist.org.

Typically, ensuring quality supply on a B2B marketplace has a manual element to it. That means vetting the suppliers carefully, providing a thorough onboarding, and, if necessary, weeding out players that don’t match the quality requirements. The stricter the standards of the industry, the more important it is for a marketplace to be confident that every single supplier on the platform delivers impeccable quality.

An important aspect of supply curation is supporting the matching of the supply and the demand. Both sides may need to change some of their habits to be able to use the marketplace successfully, which might not happen organically. Some marketplaces take the white-glove approach, helping the demand to brief their requirements and then introducing them to the best fits from the supply. Creating a set of standard operating procedures and educating both sides of the marketplace on following them may help as well. 

In addition to manual work and relationship-building, curating and matching the supply with the demand is a question of platform technology. How do customers and providers find each other on the platform? How is the search experience? Can the two parties exchange messages before initiating a transaction? What certification is required, and at what stage in the transaction? These fundamental UX choices can make a big difference in how quickly the first users understand the value proposition of a new B2B marketplace and make their first transaction. 

The essential requirements for the user experience of the platform may vary greatly depending on the marketplace type and niche. They’re worth thinking through carefully already in the MVP stage.

Building trust 

To truly replace B2B processes that are founded on individual relationships, a marketplace has to make a strategic commitment to trust-building activities from day one.

Consumer marketplaces have created several tactics for generating and strengthening trust between users, many of which are covered in depth in this article. Some of the best practices translate very well to B2B: informative listings and company profiles, two-sided reviews, reliable payments and insurance options are effective ways to build trust for most types of platforms.

Depending on the market, B2B may require additional steps like building tools for identity verification, collecting certificates, controlling for billable hours, and so on. Our Two-sided podcast episode with Ruthie Amaru touches on many additional trust-boosting tactics specifically with the B2B space in mind. For example, Ruthie talks about the importance of establishing Standard Operating Procedures and guaranteeing successful transactions for the providers.

Adding value through SaaS

Offering a seamless transaction process is a powerful value proposition in itself. But the B2B space, in particular, offers lots of opportunities for adding even more value for the marketplace users. 

In fact, a great strategy for building initial audience for a marketplace is referred to as a “single-player mode”, where a marketplace first focuses on offering one side of the marketplace great tools for managing their business. More often than not, that side is the supply, to whom an early-stage marketplace can create a centralized solution for things like availability management, pricing, billing, shipment, inventory management, taxation, marketing, customer relationship management, or the like. After the initial supply has been built, the demand side can be introduced to the marketplace.

CreXi founder Michael DeGiorgio shares some great insights on this strategy in this episode of our marketplace podcast. As you’ll hear in the interview, a lot of the value-adding functionality they created is very specific to their industry of commercial real estate. Again, it takes expertise in the domain and understanding of the underlying motivations behind the B2B market to identify the biggest pain points.

The SaaS-enabled approach requires more investment on the technical side of the marketplace. The returns take the shape of increased retention, higher customer lifetime value, and decreased platform leakage.

Chapter 5

How Sharetribe can help

Our team at Sharetribe builds marketplace solutions to help founders tackle exactly the kinds of technical challenges B2B marketplaces face.


In this article, I’ve discussed the requirements, opportunities, and challenges of B2B marketplaces. They’re drawn from my experience working with marketplace founders, experts, and investors for over a decade. 

Our team at Sharetribe has built a marketplace solution to tackle exactly the kinds of technical challenges B2B marketplaces face. Here’s a quick intro to why I think Sharetribe Flex is a great alternative for building an advanced B2B marketplace platform.

Why choose Sharetribe Flex to power your B2B marketplace

Sharetribe Flex is a headless, API-based marketplace solution that’s designed to bring the benefits of custom-development to marketplace SaaS. It lets you launch a marketplace platform quickly and cost-efficiently while giving you complete control over your transaction process, user experience, and additional features.

Build the optimal order flow

Flex offers a powerful transaction process editor that allows you to build the optimal ordering flow to meet the demands of your B2B audience. Build complex negotiation flows and pricing logic, support delayed payments or invoicing, require verifications before a transaction, integrate digital signatures, store custom data during the process, and a lot more.

All of these customization are easy to achieve by adjusting the default transaction process. Third-party integrations and custom development opens even more customization opportunities. Leveraging Flex’s transaction engine saves months of development work pre-launch and in the future, when evolving customer needs require you to adjust your marketplace. 

Build custom features and integrate third-party apps

Thanks to Flex’s APIs, it’s architecture is infinitely extensible. Its powerful Integration API, Event architecture and Single Sign-On capability through OpenID enable you to easily connect it to your existing software systems. Custom-develop core features and integrate third-party solutions to solve your clients’ core problems and develop your platform into a SaaS-enabled marketplace. 

Create a unique look & feel

With Flex, you have full control over your marketplace's user experience. You can design and develop your unique user experience in web or mobile, or adjust the Flex Template for Web and launch your unique marketplace even faster. If you prefer, you can also bring Flex marketplace functionality inside your existing software solution or website via the Flex APIs.

Manage through the Admin Console

Flex’s powerful admin functionality keeps every aspect of your marketplace under your strict control. Monitor and manage the quality of your suppliers and listings, ensure transactions flow smoothly, and store user data securely and efficiently.

90% of what you need is already there

Flex’s powerful marketplace back-end gives you all the essential features of a service, rental, or events marketplace. On top of them, you’re free to custom-develop functionality according to the needs of your specific B2B audience. You’ll save months of development time and get to focus your resources on features that make your marketplace the perfect fit for your users’ requirements.

Worry-free, scalable infrastructure

Grow your marketplace without worrying about traffic spikes, data security, or compliance. Sharetribe hosts and maintains your marketplace backend and ensures its performance at any scale. 

The global Flex partner network is here to help you

Sharetribe works with a network of vetted development agencies and freelancers from around the world. We’re happy to connect you with an experienced Flex developer partner to support the implementation of your marketplace project.

Examples of B2B marketplace built with Sharetribe 

Sharetribe powers over 1,000 C2C, B2C, and B2B marketplaces across the world. Here are three examples of B2B marketplaces built with Sharetribe.

Informational Risk – built with Sharetribe Flex  

Informational risk helps companies track different areas of their information security and find specialised security consulting providers.

Check out Informational Risk

SoftwareSupp – built with Sharetribe Flex

A platform for recruiting software support, SoftwareSupp helps companies run the hiring and project process for verified workforce.

Check out SoftwareSupp

Simplelots – built with Sharetribe Go

Simplelots makes buying bulk inventory simple and transparent by allowing retailers to buy wholesale lots with a few taps.

Check out Simplelots

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