How eBay Survived While Other Disruptive Markets Disappeared

Photograph courtesy of eBay

“Create a platform.”

That seems to be the answer—in today’s economy, and more importantly, in tomorrow’s—for incumbents faced with rapidly evolving technologies, shifting customer expectations, and a pestilence of new competitors.

But as our research on the patterns of disruption shows, the disruptor can quickly become the disruptee. Despite the advantages that typically benefit early-movers, many first-in platforms are vulnerable to increasing margin pressure, if not displacement, from those who follow with a better platform or better terms. All platforms are not created equal when it comes to creating a sustainable advantage.

And so, the question is how first-movers can secure their advantage: Will the same low barriers to entry that make one entrant a successful disruptor hold the door open for a flood of competitors, each ready to claim the customer?

Right now, many gig workers find work on multiple on-demand service platforms. They move between them depending on time of day, rates, and promotions. Some customers of these services do the same. If using multiple platforms requires little more than carrying multiple apps on a phone, will this practice continue? Similarly, will independent producers continue to spread their business across shops like eBay, Etsy, and Amazon (AMZN), as well as smaller platforms? Or will they migrate onto their own sites, leaving the big aggregators behind once they’ve established a loyal following?

For these reasons and others, simply having a platform may not be sufficient to sustain an advantage any more. Because ease of participation is a basic requirement when seeking to attract many participants, easy onboarding can quickly turn into low commitment and easy off-boarding. And while platform owners could try to lock participants into some type of exclusive and proprietary relationship, that might make the next upstart—the one without restrictive clause—look more appealing.

At the end of the day, the major problem is not making a platform appealing enough to participants. Platforms that connect participants in ways that improve everyone’s performance will create value for the platform owner and make it more “sticky” for its users. And these successful platforms tend to focus more on depth and breadth of learning than on efficiency of transactions.

To understand how this might work, consider today’s platforms. Broadly, a platform is made of layers of capabilities, infrastructure, and standards that players in the market can use to interact more efficiently—to connect, coordinate, and collaborate—and to create value for themselves. It is more than just connecting buyers and sellers and taking a transaction fee for services rendered.

That’s a good place to start. But there may be an opportunity to become even more valuable—and sticky—by creating learning platforms. Unlike the efficiency-focused pure marketplace platforms, these are designed to foster deeper, trust-based relationships and make it easy for participants to share insights and work together to accelerate performance.

Consider eBay (EBAY). As a classic aggregation platform, it brings together choices from multiple suppliers on one side and demand from customers on the other, just like other leading marketplace platforms. But on another part of the platform, eBay connects vendors with each other.

This part of the platform started with discussion forums for sellers who were new to e-commerce or new to business itself. Eventually it encouraged the formation of groups around specific interests or types of products. Vendors learned from each other about listings, marketing, search engine optimization, shipping, and other tactics.

Groups like this can help to foster a sense of community and loyalty. The questions and insights shared in the groups are pertinent and timely for other vendors and can help vendors to improve more rapidly than figuring it out on their own.

Etsy (ETSY) has taken a similar approach, facilitating the creation of “teams” and creating a team fellowship program for additional mentoring and support. Here, too, teams form around shared interests and categories. Teams such as The Old Farmhouse Gathering, a group for primarily whimsical and folk art crafters, have hundreds of members and defined leadership that mobilizes participants around promotion events and causes and policies important to the members.


Robust discussion forums and group management tools, such as those offered on the Etsy and eBay vendor platforms, can be further enhanced for learning by explicitly creating environments to make it easy for users to collaborate around specific challenges. At the same time, platform owners have to manage the tension between empowering vendors to creatively find solutions—which for some vendors means pushing back against the restrictions and policies of the platform—and protecting that other important part of a platform: the customers.

Difficulty inevitably arises when the challenge the participants coalesce around becomes the platform owner itself. Nonetheless, while a learning platform may not be able to overcome an inadequate product or resolve the tension between customers and sellers, the learning platform itself can foster a sense of commitment to make the platform better, not to mention stickier, when others beckon.

How to start? Incrementally. There’s no need to over-engineer a learning platform. In fact, doing so can send the wrong message. The platform should continue to evolve to support and accelerate its participants, to become a structure that facilitates and encourages learning as well as a structure that is itself learning. Consider starting simply with a place to ask questions, then see what types of questions are asked and answered. It should be easy to find answers—and related questions—that have already been addressed.

Over time, it’s important to create structures that enable participants to form communities and interact around the most popular topics. You can use all of this to understand the economics and aspirations of participants on the platform and make the platform better.


John Hagel III, Deloitte Services LLP, is the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge based in Silicon Valley. John Seely Brown is the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge.

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