How we crack the chicken and the egg problem

Hatching a Design Marketplace from Scratch at Visually

“…for whatever reason, people do not get distribution. They tend to overlook it. It is the single topic whose importance people understand least. Even if you have an incredibly fantastic product, you still have to get it out to people. The engineering bias blinds people to this simple fact. The conventional thinking is that great products sell themselves; if you have great product, it will inevitably reach consumers. But nothing is further from the truth.”— Peter Thiel

Marketplaces, like other network-effects laden businesses like social networks, classically suffer from the so-called ‘Chicken or the egg’ problem.

At Visually, we are constantly striving to be the world’s best marketplace for premium visual content, where our design community creates infographics, motion graphics, interactive visualizations, presentations and now other forms of visual content.

What follows are some key lessons that we learned in the process of starting a design marketplace from scratch and building it up to a thriving marketplace today with thousands of participating designers, hundreds of paying customers and millions of dollars in transactions in less than a year. Your milage may vary.

Offer added value to bootstrap supply

Talk to your community to understand what they are looking for.

Four main factors enabled us to quickly grow the supply side of the marketplace:

Community — before we even had a marketplace, we were focused on building out the community of designers, one by one, who would later become the creative talent that would find work through our marketplace.

Portfolio — we started the site by enabling designers to upload to their Visually profiles all their infographic and data visualization projects, creating easily accessible online portfolios of their work.

Tools — when we first launched our initial product back in 2011, we were focused on building tools aimed at designers. This built up excitement and interest around what we were offering.

Distribution — in the early days, before we could offer much in the way of paying projects to designers, we could offer them eyeballs in the form of views, as well as recognition from posting their work to our site.

Fake it till you make it

Don’t be afraid to hack one-side of the market in the early days.

Initially, when we had projects coming in the door of our marketplace that we knew our supply at the time would not be able to fulfill, we would often call upon our agency partners to pick up the slack and step in to take on the project. These days, agencies that don’t have the in-house talent to fulfill a client’s project actually come to us. They leverage our talent pool, getting ‘on-demand’ access to our designer network and, as a result, can take on projects that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to handle in-house.

In the early days of testing a new vertical, like interactive infographics for example, we managed new projects in-house, as a testing ground for developing a more streamlined and automated process within the marketplace. Doing things that don’t scale initially can really help you build up a scalable model to achieve future growth.

Pick your side

Identify which side the marketplace can absolutely not function without and then focus on that.

At Visually, we started by serving a niche vertical (infographics), so it made a lot of sense to initially focus on harvesting the supply side of the market (designers), rather than focus on stoking demand.

Your experience may differ. Say, for example, that you are in an existing market with a high barrier to customer acquisition. It would certainly make sense to focus on bringing in the demand side to your marketplace platform first, before focusing heavily on supply.

We did things like created a Visually Data Visualization Meetup, reached out to designers through portfolio sites like dribbble and behance and invited selected members of our community to our weekly creative brainstorming sessions.

Focus on a vertical

Don’t Overreach: Move Toward Your Goals One Step at a Time.

Starting off, we decided to focus just on infographics, which were at the core of what our design community came to us for and how customers identified us. This allowed us to build out a scalable process, which now serves as a blueprint for every vertical we decide to enter.

To do that, we often had to weigh the temptation to fulfill new types of demand from customers — and the need to grow the business — against our current supply and operational capacity.

Having effectively streamlined the process of infographics, we only recently ventured into offering motion graphics and interactive ones.

Even though our aspirations for our marketplace go far beyond what we offer today, our primary goal is to build the best platform for designers and customers to collaborate in the creation of all forms of visual content.

We will reach that goal one vertical at a time.

So what are you waiting for? It’s time to go out and break some eggs!

Adam Breckler is a Co-Founder and VP Product at Visually

You can follow him at @adambreckler on twitter

Adam Breckler

Adam Breckler

Currently Founder/CEO Prism Labs. Previously, Co-Founder & Head of Product at Visual.ly. Sometimes investor and advisor to early-stage startups.