Building online marketplaces for dummies?
June 18, 2016 7:53 PM   Subscribe

How does one go about creating a global online marketplace from humble beginnings and with no programming experience whatsoever?

Also, where can one find resources that offer step-by-step advice? Resources that recount detailed stories behind companies like Amazon, Ebay, Etsy, and Alibaba?
posted by omar.a to Computers & Internet (5 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
If you're truly asking how you can build an Amazon-like delivery service by yourself, I don't really know what to tell you other than you can't.

If what you want is a platform for *other* people to sell stuff (more like Etsy), that might be a *bit* more doable, but you'd probably have to buy a lot of off-the-shelf solutions for the various pieces of the service, then hire coders for both a back end system and front end design to put it all together, plus deal with hosting, servers, etc. Even if you learned the necessary code (and it would be several different types of code), building something worthwhile from scratch that would be professional just isn't going to happen. This is not a trivial project, to put it mildly, and will likely be a very expensive proposition to do at all properly. I strongly recommend you don't spend anything on this until you have a very clear sense of what you're trying to do, what that will cost, and what the returns might look like.

If you simply want the ability to sell things online, there are a wide variety of pre-built solutions for that. The term you want to Google is "online shopping cart". Then if you need assistance with integration, you can either get help through the vendor or through a freelance code side like As far as the shipping aspect goes, you'd either need to mail things yourself more or less manually, or use a drop-shipping service.
posted by tau_ceti at 9:49 PM on June 18, 2016 [6 favorites]

A much easier problem is: how do you compose a Beethoven-quality symphony with no musical experience whatsoever. This is an easier problem because individual people actually compose symphonies. The companies you list were founded by people who were highly skilled at software engineering and were able to quickly raise large sums of money to grow their companies. They now dominate their respective areas of e-commerce, and there is very little interest in attempting to compete with them. Tens to hundreds of thousands of the world's best software engineers, project managers, business people of all kind, legal staff and more have contributed to creating the sites that you see today. Composing a Beethoven-quality symphony is child's play by comparison.

As far as resources go, you could start with business biographies of the companies and founders, but business biographies are about 99.99998% propaganda. They aren't necessarily false, but their goal is to further the interests of the companies and founders, not to teach you how to do what they did.

You may be able to find some interesting anecdotes on Quora or similar that give you some insight into the early days, but that will paint a very sparse picture that isn't necessarily relevant to building a competing service today. This is partly due to the lack of information, but also due to the way technology changes. Amazon and eBay were built at a time when a $20k Sun server (or comparable) was a reasonable platform to build a website on. Today, you only need to pay for as many server resources in the cloud as you actually use, dramatically reducing your startup costs. In addition, those $20k Sun servers were probably less powerful than today's $35 Raspberry Pi 3.

If you look into web frameworks like Ruby on Rails, Python + Django, etc. you shouldn't have much trouble finding tutorial examples for e-commerce sites. Those tutorials will give you a feel for how e-commerce sites might be built in the last decade or so, but they leave out critical and difficult topics like credit card processing, information security, and scalability.

But starting with code is like buying a shotgun because you want to eat a hamburger. Do people even shoot cows with a shotgun? And if they do, how do you turn a dead cow into edible food? Wouldn't it be easier to go to the grocery store and buy some ground beef, or just order a burger at the local restaurant? Similarly, you should approach this question from a business perspective: is there really an unmet business need that you can address? If so, do you need to build it from the ground up, or are there existing tools or services that can save you the effort of reinventing the wheel?
posted by b1tr0t at 11:48 PM on June 18, 2016 [5 favorites]

Can you describe this "global online marketplace" in more detail? What would it sell? To whom? Where? Why? Who would be your competitors? What's your value proposition? Who would you be trying to attract funding from? What about supply chain logistics? How do you plan to ID and recruit a great CTO?
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 2:51 AM on June 19, 2016

There's not much to it.

Step 1. Have an idea for something years before anyone else even knows what you're talking about. Amazon was founded in 1994. A lot of people in the US didn't even have dialup until 1996 or later. E-commerce didn't really become a thing until around 1999. Even Etsy, which was founded in 2005, didn't really catch on until 2010 or so.

2. Find investors willing to lose tens of millions of dollars a year (or more) indefinitely until you finally turn a profit. Amazon didn't finish a year in the black until 2001, and even then it's profit was one cent per share. Articles saying "will Amazon ever make money?" appeared until early this decade.

3. Hire a team of the most cutting-edge, talented developers in the world. Amazon's hiring process is legendary (I've gone through it), for the purpose of identifying the best possible people. Etsy doesn't just have people who are good PHP programmers on its staff; they have the guy who created the PHP language itself. eBay, at one point, employed the founders of YouTube, LinkedIn, and Yelp, along with Elon Musk and Peter Thiel, and was still considered a technologically backward company.

3. Create a monopoly by aggressively acquiring competitors, no matter how small. There was a good article in the New Yorker a couple years ago (an excerpt from the book The Everything Store, if I recall) about Amazon's experience with Look at the list of companies acquired by Amazon sometime, if you have a few hours.

4. Continue to develop innovative products and services, even if they don't seem to relate to your core business. This, of course, requires additional investors willing to sustain losses, and additional outstanding programmers.

5. Sit back and enjoy your empire.

That's basically all there is to it.

But be careful not to build or Yahoo! Auctions.

Seriously, Tony Hsieh (founder of Zappos)'s book is the most detailed I've read about something like this.

Zero programming knowledge is the least of your worries at this point. When you first start out, there are numerous things like Magenta or WooCommerce that you can use to build something to get off the ground, and you can refactor later after your concept proves to be successful. You'll probably have to hire a team of programmers anyway.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:08 AM on June 19, 2016 [3 favorites]

Look at smaller online marketplaces as examples of success in different niches. Flippa, 99designs, Themeforest, Breather. the "fun" thing about marketplaces is that you need to build an audience on the supply and demand sides at roughly the same rate (at first).

At least two of the ones I listed above started out as sub-communities within existing sites. Is there a natural need and offering for what you want to create? How can you capitalize on that?
posted by third word on a random page at 8:47 PM on June 19, 2016

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